By Becks Fleet
A few weeks ago, Taylor Swift’s name was in the news once again. Usually, this would be because she’s releasing new music, or has been dragged into some tedious celebrity drama, but not this time. Instead, she was seen donning a graduation cap and gown as she was awarded a doctorate by New York University.
“Wow!”, you think, “It must’ve been so difficult for Dr. Swift to sustain a successful music career while pursuing a doctorate,” and you’re right that, if that was the case, it would be an impressive feat. However, this was no ordinary degree, it was an honorary degree.
Essentially, honorary degrees are intended as an award, like a Grammy or an Oscar; it’s an acknowledgement of her achievements, not the completion of an actual doctoral degree. In reality, she did no studying, submitted no last-minute summatives and panicked over no exams; instead, she was awarded the degree based on her achievements in entertainment.
Honorary degrees are a common sight at universities; many celebrities and public figures, from Benjamin Franklin and Paul McCartney to Pitbull and Kermit the Frog (yes, really), have been awarded honorary degrees, sometimes even multiple from different universities. For example, Durham University has awarded a number of honorary degrees to accomplished people associated with the University, such as Olympic gold medallist Jonathan Edwards.
Honorary degrees generally come with a catch: they aren’t considered equal to a standard degree. It would be frowned upon for Taylor Swift to start insisting people refer to her as ‘Dr. Swift’, or for Paul McCartney to put “Doctor of Music, awarded by Yale University” on his CV. However, this is not enshrined into law, and some honorary degree recipients – such as Maya Angelou – adopted the ‘Dr.’ prefix anyway.
Does the existence of these degrees – which are technically equal to actual, non-honorary degrees (although they’re inferior in practice) – devalue the idea of a university education? It’s hard to say. The idea of a rich-and-famous public figure – in many cases, a public figure who never attended university at all – being awarded a degree they didn’t work for on the same stage as hard-working students, who spent years of their lives working towards the degree, could come across as slightly insulting. Why bother going through years of education and accumulating thousands of pounds worth of debt when the rich and privileged are offered that same degree as an award, without any of the hard work?
At the same time, it’s clear how universities could benefit by awarding such degrees, especially to well-known figures in fields such as music. It is certainly possible that some Taylor Swift fans, who may be considering attending university, but haven’t decided on where to attend, may now decide to apply to NYU thanks to Taylor Swift giving it publicity it may not have otherwise received.
However, if those potential students believe that Swift actually studied at NYU (which is not the case), and are applying to the university on that basis, is this really fair to their rivals? Some news coverage seems to blur the line between a standard degree and an honorary one, and you’d be forgiven for not realising the difference.
Broadly speaking, the idea of awarding honorary degrees seems, from an outsider’s perspective, mostly unnecessary. Yes, many of the recipients of these degrees are very accomplished people who deserve recognition, but there are better ways to do this. Surely a Grammy award is more appropriate to honour a musician, or an Oscar more appropriate for an actor, than an honorary degree from a university they never attended? And beyond the slight possibility of more students applying at a certain university, why would these institutions offer such degrees and risk the devaluation of them? There are some rumours and theories online that universities offer honorary degrees in exchange for financial donations, but I couldn’t find any actual evidence of this.
In reality, the awarding of honorary degrees seems to have little effect on the value of a degree. Degrees from universities such as Yale, Oxford and Harvard are still considered some of the most prestigious and valuable in the world, despite the fact that those universities have awarded thousands of honorary degrees to people who never actually studied there.
At the end of the day, to some of those NYU students graduating alongside Taylor Swift, the opportunity to see her might have been one of their Wildest Dreams. Just save the ‘Dr.’ for the actual graduates!
Image: Joshua Hoehne via Unsplash