On May 18, pop star Taylor Swift received an honorary doctorate of fine arts from New York University. The university said it awarded Swift the degree because she is “one of the most prolific and celebrated artists of her generation.” Past recipients of honorary doctorates from NYU include the likes of Aretha Franklin, former president Bill Clinton, and civil rights leader John Lewis.
Swift’s acceptance came with a speech at Yankee Field during NYU’s commencement ceremony, where she said, “I’d like to thank NYU for making me technically, on paper at least, a doctor.”
The announcement of Swift’s degree and her comment spurred questions about honorary degrees and their history across social media. Several people asked what the difference is from a traditional academic doctorate degree and what the purpose of an honorary doctorate is.
Do honorary doctorates hold the same academic weight as traditional doctorates?
No, honorary doctorates don’t hold the same academic weight as traditional doctorates. Honorary doctorates are used instead to honor someone’s life’s work or significant contributions in a topic or industry.
Honorary doctorates can be given to anybody, and those chosen aren’t required to make a speech or to have attended the school from which the award is given.
WHAT WE FOUND
Honorary doctorates are honorary degrees given by an institution or university to bring recognition to a person’s contributions in a particular field or industry. The earliest record of an honorary doctorate dates back at least 540 years, when the University of Oxford awarded Lionel Woodville, the Dean of Exeter, an honorary doctorate in 1478.
Today, they’re used to signify extensive accomplishments and outstanding contributions for someone's life’s work, and come in various forms depending on the school and the scope of the recipient’s profession. Honorees’ commencement speeches can also be an incentive for a university to draw national publicity and favorable marketing. Tickets to see Taylor Swift’s speech at NYU were trending on Twitter and Reddit, with fans willing to purchase them despite NYU prohibiting students from selling them.
Artists and musicians like Taylor Swift are typically awarded a Doctorate of Fine Arts (D.F.A.) while someone who has made contributions to the field of chemistry may receive a Doctorate of Science (D.S.). There are also other types of doctorates, such as a Doctorate of Humanitarian Services (D.H.S.).
But no matter what type of honorary doctorate is awarded, Dr. Julie Wollman, president of Widener University in Pennsylvania, says the awards are just that: honorary.
“It's something that is given to somebody who has significant accomplishments in their life that align in some way with the values or the mission of the college or university that's granting the honorary degree, and it's entirely honorary,” Wollman said. “It has no meaning or value beyond that, but it's a huge honor to receive one because it means that the university recognizes the body of your life's work as meriting recognition.”
People who receive honorary doctorates are not supposed to use the title of “doctor” outside of the award ceremony or in formal introductions unless used by the university who gave out the award, according to the University of British Columbia.
Many recipients will list the degree as honoris causa, or h.c. in parenthesis after the degree title to distinguish the difference on resumes and publications.
“It is not appropriate for the recipient or others outside of the university to use this title," according to the University of British Columbia’s honorary degree reference page.
Besides being based on “outstanding contributions or leadership,” the page also lists restrictions – for example, the degrees can’t be given to a university trustee or faculty or staff member employed on a full-time basis at the university.
People can’t simply be awarded an honorary doctorate, no matter their status. You can’t nominate yourself or purchase one, and approval processes have checks and balances. Generally, universities and colleges have nomination systems and boards in place to help validate who is awarded, meaning no one person is in charge of deciding who gets an honorary doctorate.
“Occasionally, there are people who submit nominations like that, but there is a committee that reviews it, and then it would typically go to the university president for a final decision,” Wollman told VERIFY. “That final decision then goes to the Board of Trustees and must be approved there. So they have the final final decision on honorary degree recipients.”
“There's no application process, you have to be nominated by people internally,” Wollman continued. “So it might come from the faculty or staff, it could come from the Board of Trustees, but it's not something you apply for or even for. It's something that you are offered because you were recognized by that college or university as having an outstanding record of accomplishments.”
In rare instances, honorary degree recipients can work with the university that awarded them to meet with a class or give a presentation, but they don’t hold teaching credentials, says Wollman.
“We've had honorary degree recipients at Widener University who've come back to meet with a class of general students only because of their expertise in an area that that class is focused on,” she said. “But there's no teaching responsibility linked to it. And it's rare for an honorary degree recipient to do anything more on that campus than to offer in some cases the commencement speech.”
Not every university awards honorary degrees. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and University of Virginia are two schools that don’t give out honorary degrees. When asked why, William Barton Rogers, the founder of MIT, said the concept of honorary degrees was “literary almsgiving… of spurious merit and noisy popularity.”
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