As graduation season approaches, now is the time universities announce who will receive honorary doctorates at convocation ceremonies.
Unlike actual degrees which require lots of hard work, honorary degrees are bestowed upon people the university believes will make it look good. In many cases, mere celebrity will suffice. This year, Concordia is giving degrees to Air Farce veterans Don Ferguson and Roger Abbott, who graduated from Loyola College, as well as Canadiens legend Jean Béliveau.
Other awards are handed out to people who excel in their industries and set an example for students.
And then there are those whose titles include the words “CEO”, whose honours have more to do with how much money they’ve given to the university than how much they’ve contributed to society, as I wrote last year.
Richard J. Renaud
This year, two names fall under that category: Richard J. Renaud and Mel Hoppenheim. It’s no coincidence that the former has a building named after him and the latter an entire program.
Concordia doesn’t hide the fact that contributions to the university are a factor when deciding who to hand degrees to. In fact, it’s listed right there as one of the criteria (PDF). But the university tempers it by adding other categories of contribution – supposedly volunteer or creative work would also help, though I don’t recall any volunteers for the People’s Potato getting honorary degrees recently.
The big reason Renaud is getting his degree now instead of years ago is that he just retired from the Board of Governors last year (a seat on the board is another perk you get when you give the university millions of dollars). The board decides who gets degrees, and has a policy against awarding them to sitting members.
This isn’t to imply that Renaud has ulterior motives for his contributions to the university. The value of an honorary degree hardly justifies the price. But it’s sad that this supposed academic honour is bestowed upon the rich far more often than the poor.
It’s a sad reality that university recognition of members of the community – and especially the grand-daddy of them all, the honourary degree – have just as much to do with how generous someone is to the university than how generous someone is to society. Though there are no rules – give a certain amount and you’ll get a certain honour – and the amount of money involved would make buying such things outright prohibitively expensive to all but the most ego-maniacal of it’s almost expected that a university’s most prestigious donors will be thanked publicly in some way. A seat on its board, a building or program named after them, an honourary degree, or a combination of these.
I explored this issue in an article I wrote for a journalism class in 2005 and had published in The Link, Concordia’s student newspaper. I’ve included it below.
I bring this all up because Concordia has just released the names of its honorary degree recipients for this year, and a familiar name is on it: Frederick H. Lowy. Lowy served as Rector/President of Concordia University from 1995 to 2005, a time when doing so was hardly an easy job.
The community’s respect for Lowy only grew after his departure, when his replacement turned out to be a disaster. People started wishing or the good old days, when the warring factions – students vs. administrators, part-time faculty vs. full-time faculty, Senate vs. Board, were kept at a warm simmer by Lowy’s diplomacy.
In other words, they could have done worse.
And fortunately, there are no obvious conflicts with the other three honorees, one in the business management area (former CP CEO Robert Richie), one in the education field (former École Polytechnique head Robert Louis Papineau), and one in the arts (professor Laura Mulvey). That might be enough to help us forget the fact that three of these four are here for their skills managing a large organization and not, say, fighting malaria in Sudan.