Continuing a debate that goes back more than a century, the Faculty Senate has recommended against the granting of honorary degrees by the University. The May 14 vote—47 against the degrees and 4 in favor, with 6 abstentions—came in response to a request from Medical College Executive Vice Provost David Hajjar that Weill Cornell be allowed to grant them.
In a memo, Hajjar and two colleagues wrote: “Such a honoris causa ad gradum would enable us to recognize outstanding intellectual achievements, creative accomplishments, and leadership in education, public service, medical ethics, or other appropriate sectors of society, both nationally and internationally. We view this goal as consonant with the fundamental mission of the University.”
But many Ithaca faculty disagreed, arguing that the criteria for selection were too broad and the process potentially open to abuse; they also noted that Cornell’s refusal to grant honorary degrees is a longstanding tradition beloved by some alumni. In the past, some faculty have expressed suspicion that the driving force behind the change is the desire for a fundraising tool. Says neurobiology and behavior professor Howard Howland: “The tradition of not awarding honorary degrees is an old and venerable one, but as useful as ever in insuring that honorary degrees should not devalue the University’s earned degrees.”
Cornell has conferred only two honorary degrees in its history, both doctorates of law awarded in 1886—to founding President Andrew Dickson White and to Stanford University President David Starr Jordan, MS 1872. In April 1901, the Alumni News contemplated the issue, noting that the degrees had been awarded by President Charles Kendall Adams shortly after his arrival—and that the recipients themselves had gone on record in favor of the University ban. “Now when President Adams came to Cornell from Michigan, where honorary degrees were granted—as at every other American institution except Cornell—he was ignorant of Cornell’s peculiar pride in its own stand,” the News said, adding, “The alumni did not appreciate the new benevolence of their Alma Mater. Within a few months a majority of them had signed a petition enumerating nine more or less cogent reasons for Cornell’s continuing to grant no honorary degrees. The petition was printed and widely circulated, and applauded by the whole world of American scholarship.”
Adams didn’t come off as well. As Cornell notes in its official biography on the website of the Office of the President, Adams was forced to resign in 1892, “as a result of major conflicts over honorary degrees and control of faculty appointments.” In its 1901 editorial, the Alumni News went on to note that “the strong feeling against honorary degrees has partially subsided.” One hundred and seven years later, at least among the faculty, it seems to be alive and well.