Honourees get degrees

Want to bypass university but still get a doctorate? Here's a behind-the-scenes look at how local post-secondary institutions choose who's given an honorary degree.

Bestowing an honourary degree may only take a few moments during convocation, but the selection process isn’t as easy.

“It’s a fairly complex system,” says University of King’s College vice-president Peter O’Brien.

These degrees, often in the form of a doctorate, are used to recognize individuals who have made a significant societal or educational impact. Last spring, King’s handed out three honorary degrees to American scientist and feminist scholar Evelyn Fox Keller, evolutionary scientist and Dalhousie professor emeritus Ford Doolittle and CBC Radio One journalist and host Duncan McCue.

Within the municipality’s five universities, there are several different kinds of honorary degrees. They can relate to the university’s speciality, like a doctor of fine arts that’s given out by NSCAD University, or something more general like a doctor of canon or civil laws and doctor of letters. Some universities, like NSCAD and King’s, also give out university fellowships, like the one handed out last spring to longtime dean of students and now St. George’s Round Church rector Nicholas Hatt.

“It’s a way of projecting a university’s mission out in the world, by singling out someone who is prominent and well-known and linking them to the university’s mission,” says O’Brien. “It’s also, in some cases, an opportunity to make somebody more prominent, [somebody] whose contribution has not been well-recognized as we might have hoped. That’s part of the calculus in putting together a slate of honorary degree recipients every year.”

While certain aspects vary from school to school, they start out the same. The nomination process begins with a call for nominees within the school’s community. However, not everyone who meets the degree mandate is eligible.

Generally, nominees can’t be current staff or faculty, their immediate family or current students. They must be living and can’t be active politicians. Those nominated have usually helped improve society in some way—contributed to educational, humanitarian or social causes or are considered leaders in their field. Recipients can also be past staff members or employees who have contributed to the university’s success.

Some school’s also have criteria related to their history, like Mount Saint Vincent
University, which was originally a women’s college.

“I think our characteristics are really concurrent with our mission,” says MSVU vice-president academic and provost Elizabeth Church. “So what might be unusual for the Mount, compared to other universities, is [nominees who’ve contributed to] the advancement of the status of women.”

Universities welcome nominations from all backgrounds and fields, but O’Brien says education-related nominations should be connected to degrees offered at that institution.

“It would be odd if we gave a degree to someone in agricultural science,” says O’Brien.

Once a slate of candidates is chosen, they’re put before a degree committee, who hear each nomination package. The committee can then discuss each candidate and ask questions. Though specifics vary according to the school, each committee is usually made up of school representatives like faculty members, chancellors and vice-chancellors, recent alumni and current students.

Then, a blind vote is conducted, with a majority rule on who receives a degree.
If a school offers more than one type of degree, this can also impact the selection process.

“A slate entirely composed of doctor of divinity would be odd, for example,” says O’Brien. “We do want to try to mix things up.”

The amount of degrees given out is, again, dependent on the university. The number relates to the amount of nominees and ceremonies a school has. Unlike other degrees, which are awarded upon completion of coursework even if a person isn’t at convocation, honorary degrees are only given out if the candidate can attend. Those selected can also refuse the degree. In either situation, this means a school could have fewer recipients for that year. Other times, it means that committee must reconvene, if policy allows.

“The convocation committee can be reconvened within a period of two weeks, if no degrees are forthcoming,” says O’Brien. “I don’t remember that happening, but it could, as people refuse all the time. That would be an odd situation and I think it would be in convocation’s interest to reconvene just so we have someone to honour.”

Some schools also reserve the right not to honour anyone during a ceremony or graduation year. At others, like Dalhousie, nominees can remain on the nominee list for three years before having to be resubmitted.

While these degrees help raise the university’s profile and connect with those who embody a school’s mission statement, they also act as a source of inspiration.

“Because they’re given at convocation [honourees] give an address, so it’s a way for students to see what’s possible in their lives when they go out in the world,” says Church.

Which, in turn, can give students one more lesson before moving on.

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