The politics of fake doctorate degrees

Practical Politics

David L. Horne, Ph.D ow oped | 8/29/2019, 9:48 a.m.

Last weekend, as I enjoyed a little “me” time at a buddy’s birthday celebration, the fellows and I started choppin’ it up about many of the famous and near-famous within our community who had started loosely throwing around (or increasing the prominence of) their academic credentials, particularly their doctoral degrees from noted institutions like UCLA, Howard, etc., especially in order to increase traffic to their podcasts, YouTube videos, tours and other public personas. With the kind of POTUS we now have, such behavior was (is) considered by many to be legitimate rather than nefarious.

For over 500 years, institutions of higher education in the Western world have doled out degrees called honorary doctorates, mainly to reward people the university leaders have recognized as distinguished contributors to society outside of those institutions.

The University of Oxford in England first granted such degrees in about the year 1470. In the United States, Harvard University thought it was not only the first American institution of higher education, it was the first to grant honorary doctorate degrees, starting in the year, 1672.

The degrees have most usually been awarded to members of the community who either made a major donation to the college or university, or with whose name and renown the institution wanted to be associated. But it was generally understood, especially by colleges and universities, that the honorary degrees were not the same as earned degrees based on years of scholarship, reading and writing.

Though the granting of such honorary degrees in modern times has become a very regular feature at many college/university graduation ceremonies every May and June, one of the major problems with them is the increased attempt of honorees to use the honorary degrees as actual doctoral degrees that they have earned.

Major poet Maya Angelou (Marguerite Johnson) used to regularly brag about the 55 doctorate degrees she had been granted from various institutions, and would regularly demand that people address her as Dr. Angelou. In fact, she never earned a real doctorate, or any other college degree we can find any record of, as significant a writer within American letters as she was.

My buddies and I spent a large part of the rest of the afternoon calling out many, many others who, though definitely accomplished, had tried to fool people by using their honorary degrees as real doctorates earned at major universities.

Some people knew better, though. Central State University in Ohio had granted Mike Tyson and Don King honorary doctorates in the 1980s, but both had been smart enough not to try and pass themselves off as Ph.Ds. The ridicule would have been severe.

Both Oprah and Aretha were given several honorary doctorates, but none of us have ever heard them claim to be Ph.Ds.

The honorary doctorates are really Honoris Causa in Latin and should be written as Dr. Honoris Causa, or Dr. (h.c.) “such-and-such” to distinguish them from the real thing. My pen aches to “out” a list of “fake doctorates” who never seemed to (or not wanted to) cite this distinction. However, this newspaper is not interested in taking on a silly fight it can avoid. Many of these so-called scholars have already been pressed at lectures and speeches they’ve presented to answer the question, “And your degree is from what school, professor (or reverend)?”

As an old commercial once said, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” Too much trouble usually follows, and those fronting themselves off as legitimate Ph.Ds most often lose a lot of face and prestige (sometimes careers) once the deception is found out.

And virtually everyone now can use Google.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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