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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Honourary Degree




   Of late, 'honorary doctorates' have become the flavour of discussions in the higher education circuit, especially after the recent conferring of this degree by Madras University to Prime Minister (PM) Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. Now, almost every dialogue with the academic fraternity is interspersed with at least some fleeting mention of honorary doctorates. 
   Needless to say even outside the academic circle people are curious to know more about honorary doctorates or honorary degrees (as they are referred to in many cases). For people who have an elementary grounding of the concept, the question essentially is — 'who merits this degree?' Is it the social crusader, the business tycoon, the visionary, the political diplomat, the philanthropist, the quintessential scholar or the flamboyant actor? 


"An honorary degree is an acknowledgement of an individual's exemplary contribution to society over a considerable period of time," says S Ramachandran, vice-chancellor, University of Madras. "At every stage of civilisation there have been a section of people who have strived relentlessly to bring about changes, which have alleviated the status of their respective societies. Many among them have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of knowledge and are responsible for the achievements, which have proved to be veritable milestones in human progress. The interesting aspect is that a considerable chunk of these people are outside the confines of the regular system of education," elaborates Ramachandran. 
   Ramachandran believes that one of the fundamental objectives of higher education is to enhance the quality of society. "Hence, universities have embarked on the tradition of conferring honorary degrees as a pronouncement of their support for activities (outside the ambit of academics) which improve the tenor of society," says Ramachandran. 
   But, then, how is an honorary degree different from a regular PhD? "The difference lies in the fact that unlike a PhD degree the recipient (of an honorary degree) does not have to prove a hypothesis. Instead, it is conferred to an individual whose work has created a qualitative difference in the context of the real world," says Ramachandran. He adds that the citation, which explains the rationale behind bestowing this honour upon the PM, very aptly explain the same. The citation, he says, clearly states that the PM has been conferred this award for his staunch belief in ideals to make India a global force to contend with and for his unrelenting pursuit of economic development by following the principles of secularism and social justice. 


The first honorary degree was conferred in the late 1470s by the University of Oxford to Lionel Woodville, who later went on to become a Bishop of Salisbury. On the other hand, Indian universities have an approximately 150-year-old legacy of conferring such degrees. And though unchanged in its fundamental essence, the concept of honorary degrees has evolved with the changing times. 
   "For one, more and more countries are awarding honorary degrees to people outside their countries," says Pankaj Jain, director (South Asia), University of Leeds. Jain affirms that this is a ripple effect of globalisation. However, according to Jain, globalisation is just a broad attribute and a close examination of the phenomenon reveals several other interesting facets. "Every university abroad that has conferred an honorary degree to an Indian has some affiliation or link with India. This could vary from academic partnerships, trade agreements and industrial or cultural ties. An honorary degree is also a medium, which reiterates the appreciation of this association." 
   According to Jain the practise of awarding honorary degrees by universities to individuals of foreign origin is a healthy trend and reflects the fact that in today's knowledge economy recognition of talent is not marred by petty considerations. He adds: "What is most heartening, perhaps, is that there is equal respect for all nations." Jain also points out that Western countries, through these awards, are felicitating a burgeoning number of Indians and Chinese. 


Another striking feature is that while such degrees were initially conferred primarily to exponents of art and literature, scientists, economists and social workers, today the recipients represent far more diverse backgrounds. They can be entrepreneurs, actors, politicians, musicians and even youth icons. This diversity is even more pronounced in Western countries. 
   "Indian universities have more conservative parameters for conferring these degrees," says Vijay Khole, vice-chancellor, Mumbai University. "Over the last 150 years we have conferred honorary doctorates to almost 113 people. We have ratified each of these people through a stringent set of guidelines," says Khole. In fact, most academicians agree that an honorary degree should not be restricted to highbrow intellectuals. "The selection criterion is indeed the individual discretion of each university. In the future, it is likely that this award will be conferred to individuals from unconventional backgrounds, even in India," says Khole. 
   However, broad basing the selection criteria has its own challenges. One such challenge is people questioning the relevance of an individual being honoured by such an award — a challenge that has led universities in the West to invite criticism and rebuke from various social quarters on many occasions. Commenting on the same, Khole says, "It is quite unfortunate that some universities were rebuked for their choice, especially because the recipient becomes a victim for practically no fault of his/hers. The recipient can never influence the decisions of the university and are completely unaware until the honour is bestowed." 
   Ashok Mishra, director, IIT Mumbai, echoes similar views. He says: "It is important to understand that the recipients are selected from a large pool of nominations. Further, there is a committee within the university that is responsible for taking decisions pertaining to the conferring of these awards and each nomination has to go through various levels of approval. This procedure ensures that every nomination goes through some quality check and there are more nominations that are rejected than approved." What, then, are the precautions Indian universities need to adopt to avoid these pitfalls? 


"People have to realise that we are living in a market-driven economy today and that there are ready consumers for many more things than there were previously," says Kumar Mahapatra, head, sociology department, Venkateswara College, Delhi University. "Moreover, the social environment is increasingly heterogeneous and people subscribe to different ideologies. So, it is only natural that today's heroes hail from various subsets of the social system," he explains. 
   Hence, Mahapatra believes conferring this degree to people from diverse backgrounds is justified. But, at the same time he cautions that in such a case universities have to be conscientious in their selection so that the sanctity of the degree is not compromised. "While it is important to gauge the relevance of the domain (from which the recipient hails) it is equally critical that the credentials of the recipient are above any kind of reproach," sums up Mahapatra. 
   And regardless of the critics, honorary degrees continue to harbour meaningful connotations for the recipient and the university. For the recipients, an honorary degree translates into an alleviation of status and recognition of worth. "It also encourages us to continue doing what we are doing," says M G K Menon, advisor, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and president, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. He was awarded an honorary degree by the institute for his outstanding contribution to scientific research. Similarly, for universities, conferring such degrees is a matter of pride in itself.






   Sunil Sharma


Dil Se Desi Group


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