The All Blacks do not give out honorary test caps to the chief financial officer of insurance sponsor AIG. Politicians no longer give seats in a House of Lords to their almsgivers and patrons. Perhaps it is time to question why our most prestigious universities give away honorary doctorates to significant benefactors.
A couple of weeks ago Victoria University of Wellington announced it would confer an honorary degree on long-time donor and business leader Paul Baines. The university lists Mr Baines in its annual report as a member of its Benefactors’ Circle, which comprises its “most significant donors and sponsors”. To qualify as a member of the Benefactors’ Circle, Mr Baines has to have donated at least $10,000 to the university.
Now, I have nothing against Mr Baines. I do not know who he is. The university’s media release on his award lists his many significant contributions to the university and to New Zealand’s business community, not all of them financial. He may be as worthy as any other honorary degree recipient.
However, most of the people who cross the Michael Fowler Centre stage and graduate with a doctorate next month will have studied at the highest level for many years to earn their qualification. Their degrees recognise hard work and academic excellence. When universities give them away to people who have not studied it undermines the honour they bestow upon their true students. All too often, universities give away honorary degrees in circumstances that appear be either about rewarding the university rather than the recipient, or rewarding the recipient for nothing more than making a financial donation – in other words, buying a doctorate.
Two common forms of this practice are universities awarding degrees to celebrities to bring prestige and publicity to that university, and universities awarding degrees to major financial donors in circumstances that outsiders may view either as rewards for the donations or an encouragement for keep the money flowing. Neither of these practices exhibits the academic integrity and respect for their students that one might expect of highly regarded institutions of learning.
Last year the New Zealand Herald revealed New Zealand universities spent more than $250,000 awarding honorary degrees to celebrities and visiting dignitaries. It listed celebrity recipients such as the Topp Twins, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Richie McCaw, Peter Jackson, Neil and Tim Finn, and former prime ministers Jim Bolger and Helen Clark.
Owen Glenn got an honorary degree from the University of Auckland after donating $7.5 million to its business school. Singaporean businessman Lee Seng Tee, funded a lecture series in Antarctic studies at Victoria University, and then received a doctorate. And Sir Eion Edgar funded the University of Otago Edgar Centre for Diabetes and Obesity Research in 2003, the same year he received an honorary doctorate there.
Among academics, there is no worse allegation than that one did not earn their degree, but instead bought it with either cash or favours. Perhaps it is time that New Zealand universities removed the perception of corruption that will continue to persist when they hand out degrees to major financial donors.
Some of the world’s most prestigious universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell, UCLA and Stanford, do not confer honorary degrees. Each has alternative awards they confer upon worthy members of the public instead.
New Zealand universities should follow these examples. We should let the world know there is only one way to receive a doctorate in New Zealand and that is by studying and working hard to earn the qualification. Certainly, we must honour members of the public for their achievements and their contributions but do not honour them with a degree they have not earned.
Alternatively, our universities may inadvertently end up in the company of institutions such as this.