Revoking an honorary degree is a very serious and highly unusual occurrence but that is exactly what Middlebury College, an elite private school in Vermont, did in January.
Rudy Giuliani, the college’s commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient in 2005 was presented the honor for his leadership as mayor of New York City after the September 11 World Trade Center attack. He was stripped of this recognition by the school’s trustees as a result of his role in the January 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol (http://middleburycampus.com).
Things like that are never supposed to happen, but humans being human, sometimes they do. When a recipient’s behavior reflects poorly on the school and becomes a public relations liability, revoking a recognition can become necessary. This is especially true in the case of honorary degrees, academia’s highest honor, one of the purposes of which is to enable the school to voluntarily affiliate with a prominent person and thereby bask in the reflected glory of his or her achievements.
Human behavior can also cause problems with a variety of other prestigious recognitions. One school is currently dealing with how to disassociate from a well-known alumnus who was recently arrested for running a child pornography ring, being involved in human trafficking, and dealing drugs. As a prominent businessman, frequent and generous major donor, and former alumni president, his name is on plaques, pavers, and the rolls of distinguished award recipients across campus.
Another school faced the embarrassing removal of the name of an alumnus who was a beloved high-profile sports celebrity from its new alumni center after the man reneged on a multi-million-dollar pledge. His bravado had ignited and led the campaign to design and build the center, a project that while needed, was far beyond the reach of institutional budgets. The school saluted his enthusiasm by prematurely naming the building in his honor. Turns out he never had the money and the university was stuck trying to pay for a building it could not afford.
While the vetting process for honorary degrees is usually careful, and selection committees deliberate thoughtfully before choosing recipients of annual awards, past performance doesn’t necessarily guarantee that today’s honorees will be the enduring positive examples that trustees and committees hope for.
Give Yourself an Out
Just like well-crafted emergency plans for use in case of disaster, every set of award criteria should include a written mention about if, why, and how recognitions could be rescinded. This practice can also be extended to job descriptions for members elected to campus governing bodies and advisory boards. Craft such statements in the hope that they will never be needed and set a high bar for implementation. Having a way out should never be so easy that the process could be overused for reasons of politics or petty disagreements.
With spring commencement only a few months away, now is a good time to review honorary degree, award, and board member criteria and consult with campus counsel to be certain you are covered in the unlikely event that yesteryear’s hero becomes today’s disgrace.
For more information about honorary degrees, see my blog post “Alexander Hamilton to Get Honorary Degree,” or order my book, Academic Ceremonies A Handbook of Traditions and Protocol available from the online bookstore at http://case.org.