FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Curse of the Honorary Doctorate: the John Howard Case

by

The honorary degree system at universities tends to be a rotten business, though Stephen Edward Epler, in his Honorary Degrees: A Survey of Their Use and Abuse (1943), regarded them as “perhaps the most important honorific in the nation.”

Left to lauding the achievements of the exceptional, notably those who might not have spent much time in the direct line of research or squirrel scholarship, such awards have their place. But the modern honorary awards system reflects the modern university funding environment. Awards follow the money – and the donor.

Corruption often gets a helping hand; officials long past their use as researchers or teachers find themselves in the trough of gratitude. Then comes the largesse given former political figures, be it in terms of professorial appointments or degrees that say more about the institution awarding it than them.

Universities have also shown themselves susceptible to bestowing honorary doctorates to the celebrity figure, a fairly nonsensical and utterly needless exercise that has done wonders to diminish institutional value.

Comedian Bill Cosby, to take a notable, flawed example, has received a whole stash over the years, though that number has declined of late. Accusations of drugging and molestation led such universities as Marquette, Fordham and Brown to withdraw their ill-considered awards.

Brown’s president, Christina Paxson, said in a campus-wide email that the withdrawal was necessary, given that the award had been based on good university values: “honesty, fair play, love of family, and respect for humanity.”

Such statements seem spectacularly disingenuous when you consider that universities have even gone so far as to regard entities not deemed Homo sapiens eligible. A moronic Kanye West might well qualify for the wooden spoon, but even that would be stretching it.

Ever wanting to surprise, the officialdoms of universities have engaged in a form of one upmanship, finding ever stranger recipients. That Kermit the Frog somehow qualifies shows how the celebrity figure, notably fictionalised, trumps academic sobriety. On May 19, 1996, the long-time figure of children’s program Sesame Street received an Honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters from Southampton College, New York.

This was hardly even daringly amusing but when the Oxford Union permits the puppet figure to give voice to the idea before 1,000 students that, “The responsibility of representing an entire species rests on my shoulders, ”the world has truly been turned on its injudicious head.

Former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, was never as popular as Kermit, and the decision of Sydney University to award him an honorary doctorate was initially going to be one of those dull affairs. Other Australian prime ministers who had graduated from the institution had been similarly rewarded.

Last Wenesday, the institution stated that Howard’s doctorate acknowledged his achievements in instigating “world-leading gun law reform” while also providing leadership in East Timor and contributing to “economic reform”. How any of these categories would have merited a honorific is hard to say, but such institutions have form.

Protestors thought otherwise of the decision. On Friday morning, some 150 gathered outside the Great Hall lead by academic of English and linguistics Nick Riemer. There were also 50 agitated students who, according to The Guardian, “splintered off to lead chants of ‘Racist, sexist, and anti-queer – Howard is not welcome here’ and ‘John Howard, blood on our hands’.”[1]

Riemer’s points were cogent enough in describing a view alien to genuine academic practice. Howard famously avoided the painstaking world of evidence and verifying the case for many of his policies. His Australia became a surlier, more mean spirited place, one suspicious of phantom threats of terror or refugees. The economy boomed, but reasoning fell sharply.

As a letter with more than 100 signatures of Sydney University staff and PhD students opined, “To confer a doctorate on him is an insult to Indigenous people, refugees, and anyone committed to multiculturalism, peace and social progress in this country and the world.”

Importantly, it was also an Australia that went to war in the Middle East in the absence of any credible evidence that a sovereign country posed a threat to its security interests, or for that matter the interests of any of its allies. As his predecessor, Paul Keating, explained, “there was never any evidence that such weapons [in Iraq] existed and that fact was established following the exhaustive UN investigation led by Hans Blix”.[2] Not one for evidence, old Howard.

In truth, there is something to be said about awarding the corrupt, the questionable, and the non-human with degrees that speak volumes about modern research and teaching institutions. Howard’s abuses in office were exceptional by Australian standards, but university management has proven to be an indifferent beast to such achievement.

 

Notes.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/sep/30/150-protest-against-sydney-university-honouring-john-howard

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/jul/08/paul-keating-says-john-howard-should-hang-his-head-in-shame-over-iraq-war

More articles by:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

February 21, 2018
Cecil Bothwell
Billy Graham and the Gospel of Fear
Ajamu Baraka
Venezuela: Revenge of the Mad-Dog Empire
Edward Hunt
Treating North Korea Rough
Binoy Kampmark
Meddling for Empire: the CIA Comes Clean
Ron Jacobs
Stamping Out Hunger
Ammar Kourany – Martha Myers
So, You Think You Are My Partner? International NGOs and National NGOs, Costs of Asymmetrical Relationships
Michael Welton
1980s: From Star Wars to the End of the Cold War
Judith Deutsch
Finkelstein on Gaza: Who or What Has a Right to Exist? 
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
War Preparations on Venezuela as Election Nears
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Military Realities
Steve Early
Refinery Safety Campaign Frays Blue-Green Alliance
Ali Mohsin
Muslims Face Increasing Discrimination, State Surveillance Under Trump
Julian Vigo
UK Mass Digital Surveillance Regime Ruled Illegal
Peter Crowley
Revisiting ‘Make America Great Again’
Andrew Stewart
Black Panther: Afrofuturism Gets a Superb Film, Marvel Grows Up and I Don’t Know How to Review It
CounterPunch News Service
A Call to Celebrate 2018 as the Year of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois by the Saturday Free School
February 20, 2018
Nick Pemberton
The Gun Violence the Media Shows Us and the State Violence They Don’t
John Eskow
Sympathy for the Drivel: On the Vocabulary of President Nitwit
John Steppling
Trump, Putin, and Nikolas Cruz Walk Into a Bar…
John W. Whitehead
America’s Cult of Violence Turns Deadly
Ishmael Reed
Charles F. Harris: He Popularized Black History
Will Podmore
Paying the Price: the TUC and Brexit
George Burchett
Plumpes Denken: Crude thinking
Binoy Kampmark
The Caring Profession: Peacekeeping, Blue Helmets and Sexual Abuse
Lawrence Wittner
The Trump Administration’s War on Workers
David Swanson
The Question of Sanctions: South Africa and Palestine
Walter Clemens
Murderers in High Places
Dean Baker
How Does the Washington Post Know that Trump’s Plan Really “Aims” to Pump $1.5 Trillion Into Infrastructure Projects?
February 19, 2018
Rob Urie
Mueller, Russia and Oil Politics
Richard Moser
Mueller the Politician
Robert Hunziker
There Is No Time Left
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela Decides to Hold Presidential Elections, the Opposition Chooses to Boycott Democracy
Daniel Warner
Parkland Florida: Revisiting Michael Fields
Sheldon Richman
‘Peace Through Strength’ is a Racket
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Taking on the Pentagon
Patrick Cockburn
People Care More About the OXFAM Scandal Than the Cholera Epidemic
Ted Rall
On Gun Violence and Control, a Political Gordian Knot
Binoy Kampmark
Making Mugs of Voters: Mueller’s Russia Indictments
Dave Lindorff
Mass Killers Abetted by Nutjobs
Myles Hoenig
A Response to David Axelrod
Colin Todhunter
The Royal Society and the GMO-Agrochemical Sector
Cesar Chelala
A Student’s Message to Politicians about the Florida Massacre
Weekend Edition
February 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
American Carnage
Paul Street
Michael Wolff, Class Rule, and the Madness of King Don
Andrew Levine
Had Hillary Won: What Now?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail