University students and alumni know that, no matter your field of study, getting your degree is a challenge that involves a rigorous workload, a lot of cash, and constant GPA calculations to see if you qualify for a scholarship or even your graduation.
Honorary degrees are pretty self-explanatory. An individual is given an honorary degree when they have made considerable contributions to the betterment of society, so much so that they are being formally recognized by an academic institution.
But what exactly have certain celebrities accomplished in order to be deemed as worthy candidates for these types of rewards?
There is no doubt that some famous people have gone out of their way to help others. A prime example would be Oprah Winfrey, a world-renowned talk-show host and candidate for three honorary doctorates, whose charitable works include opening up a boarding school called the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa for women living there to have access to an education.
However, as a whole, I find that the increase in celebrities receiving these degrees undermines the hard work of people who actually attend or have attended a university; namely, being properly registered, going to class, and completing the required work to earn the credential.
What baffles me is that there are many other awards out there honouring work that celebrities have done, including the People’s Choice Favorite Humanitarian Award, the BET Humanitarian Award, the Critics’ Choice Joel Siegel Humanitarian Award, etc., yet many academic institutions find it necessary to formally acknowledge them as well.
This raises the question: why is it necessary for celebrities to be awarded honorary degrees when they have already won other awards for essentially the same reasons? Frankly, this is why we should be keeping academic honours and honours of the entertainment industry separate.
Recording artist Kanye West was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2015 from the Art Institute of Chicago. He has had a very successful career as well as a significant impact on the entertainment industry. But, in my personal opinion, he is in no way deserving of such a prestigious honour. He himself actually did previously attend Chicago State University as an English major — but did not complete his degree.
There were some displeased past students regarding West’s achievement, with alumna Corinna Kirsch saying she is “offended that the school’s exorbitant tuition and fees will help fund this nonsense.” To say the least, I am in complete agreement with Kirsch.
The reasoning behind the award was not even about West having any direct effect on society’s welfare, and hardly resembled anything philanthropic. Rather, he was honoured because he “produced work which is imaginatively rich, and sometimes also provocative, and controversial, shifting the cultural landscape.”
I’ve heard similar reasoning on award shows and ceremonies solely meant for celebrities. Furthermore, West has won a total of 21 Grammys and also, in 2015, was presented with the Video Vanguard Award for his achievements to MTV culture through performing arts, which seems very similar as to why he was awarded the honorary doctorate from the Art Institute of Chicago.
At best, honorary degrees are arbitrary and redundant. At worst, they conflate fame and financial success with academia in a way that inaccurately presents what a degree is meant to celebrate. When people do cool things, famous or not, we have plenty of methods of recognition specific to them — let’s stick to those without getting superfluous.