Why an Emory Honorary Degree, Reconsidered

Some Further Thoughts on the University’s Practice

Gary S. Hauk, PhD
Vice President and Deputy to the President

The awarding of an honorary degree traditionally honors not only the individual receiving the degree but also the institution conferring it. So in addition to the question of an individual’s merit, an equally compelling question is what the degree signifies or implies about Emory University. Typically such recognition is reserved for those who are top leaders in their fields and who reflect the university’s mission or vision through their lives or careers. Specific areas of consideration might include transformational achievement in the arts, dedication to improving the human condition, the fostering of sustainability, enlarging the frontier of science or medicine, exploration of the human spirit, and creative philanthropy. Awarding an Emory honorary degree to such individuals is honorific and inspirational for both the recipients and the university, and since honorary degrees are nearly always awarded at Commencement, honor and inspiration are important themes of the day.

Although the procedures for the Committee on Honorary Degrees are not spelled out formally, a number of considerations govern the committee’s deliberations. The committee strives to reach consensus in arriving at a recommendation, methodically reviewing all nominees through extensive deliberation. In recent years the number of recommendations submitted to the Board of Trustees for approval has ranged from four to six. Balance within a given slate is important, and the committee generally strives for a representation that reflects Emory’s demography in terms of race, gender, and discipline. Other factors include a candidate’s ability physically to attend the Commencement ceremony, since honorees must be present to receive the degree. Clearly, a slate of around half-a-dozen names cannot be fully balanced, so the committee pays some attention to previous years’ honorees by asking, for instance, not only whether a particular candidate in a discipline is worthy but also how recently someone in that discipline has been honored.

The committee has long had an unwritten policy of trying to avoid either awarding a degree to someone running for public office, though this is not a hard and fast rule. Emory has in fact given a few honorary degrees to elected public servants while they were in office, including Governor Zell Miller (1998), Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (2010), and, most recently, Congressman John Lewis (2014).

It is worth noting the relation of honorary degrees to selection of a Commencement speaker. The choice of the Commencement speaker is the president’s. Normally the speaker is of sufficient stature that the Honorary Degrees Committee considers him or her for a degree, and almost without exception the speaker is awarded a degree (in recent years the exceptions have been speakers who had received honorary degrees from Emory earlier). In 2013, 2014, and 2015 the president invited already-approved candidates for honorary degrees to be the Commencement speaker, thus simplifying the process.

The honorary degree is only one of the honors granted at Emory University; the other is the President’s Medal. Commissioned in 1995 by President William M. Chace, the President’s Medal has been conferred upon individuals whose impact on the world has enhanced world peace or has enlarged cultural achievement. Presented first in September 1995 to His Holiness, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the President’s Medal has also been awarded to His Excellency Carlos Menem, president of Argentina (1996); His All Holiness Bartholomew, ecumenical patriarch of the Orthodox Christian Church (1997); US Representative John Lewis, Georgia Congressman and civil rights activist (2000); Dave Brubeck, world-renowned jazz composer and musician (2002); Rosa Parks, civil rights leader (2005); Ruth J. Simmons, president emerita of Brown University (2006); Phillip Glass, artist and composer (2009); G. Wayne Clough, former secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and president emeritus of Georgia Tech (2014); and former US President Jimmy Carter, University Distinguished Professor (2015). The President’s Medal recognizes far-reaching and significant achievements in the arts, conflict resolution, public service, moral courage, and philanthropy. The president alone determines who receives the President’s Medal and the occasions for its presentation.

The honorary degree and the President’s Medal, while different in purpose, process, and presentation, stand with equal prestige as Emory’s two highest awards. It should be noted that receipt of one of these awards does not preclude candidacy for the other—indeed, the Dalai Lama, John Lewis, and Jimmy Carter all have received both.