Choosing honorary degree recipient an often-painstaking process

Kermit the Frog brought one home.

So have U.S. presidents and assorted royalty, community do-gooders most have never heard of and celebrities they surely have -- from comedian Stephen Colbert to ex-Steeler Charlie Batch, who will receive one from La Roche College on Saturday.

The honorary degrees doled out by colleges and universities during commencement season are one of the highest forms of flattery an institution of higher learning can bestow, and they sometimes move even the most accomplished recipients to tears.

But they carry less value than a cup of coffee. And the selections sometimes are met with puzzlement or worse. Every year, one or more campuses find themselves mired in controversy over a selection it made -- or in extreme cases, changes its mind after handing one out.

Two years ago, Tufts University rescinded the honorary doctorate of humane letters it awarded in 2006 to now-disgraced cycling champion Lance Armstrong, stripped of his Tour de France victories over a doping scandal.

Early this month, Brandeis University announced that Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born women's rights advocate and fierce opponent of Islam, would receive an honorary degree in May. In the face of criticism from Muslim groups and from faculty and students at the university, Brandeis rescinded the offer a week later.

"She is a compelling public figure and advocate for women's rights," a Brandeis statement read. "That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University's core values."

Those words quelled some critics, but others complained that Brandeis, which was founded in 1948 as a Jewish institution, had caved in to political correctness.

Acrimony aside, those who award honorary degrees say they are important to the graduation ritual -- and not just because Meryl Streep or Oprah Winfrey have star power that can rub off on a university, or because a recipient might one day become a big campus donor. It's also because those receiving the degrees have life stories that can inspire graduating students on the cusp of their own careers.

That's why choosing a recipient can be a painstaking process, often made by a selection committee of faculty, administrators and others who pore over nominations from campus and beyond.

Juniata College, for one, tends to honor its own graduates. "We work really hard to make sure the person we choose is aspirational, somebody students might see as a role model, somebody whose achievements -- as amazing as they are -- started on the same campus," said Gabriel Welsch, vice president of advancement and marketing and a member of the school's selection committee.

In 2010, Juniata awarded an honorary degree of humane letters to Harriet Richardson Michel, who shortly before graduating in 1965 traveled with other Juniata students to Alabama for a civil rights march that suddenly turned violent. She was transformed from anonymous protester to lasting symbol of the civil rights era when a Life magazine photographer snapped a galvanizing image -- that of Ms. Michel, an African American, gently dabbing the wound of a white man clubbed in the face by police in Montgomery as he marched for black rights.

In her speech, Ms. Michel told the Class of 2010 about her own aspirations when she was their age: "My wish was to be recognized as someone who faced life head on, who challenged assumptions, who felt that there could be no change without confrontation and who definitely was not willing to 'go gentle into that good night.' "

Mr. Welsch said Juniata prefers alumni, in part because of their ties to campus and willingness to speak for free, rather than top-name celebrities who can charge $30,000 to $40,000 for an appearance. "With that kind of money, you could send a kid to college," he said.

Juniata has awarded degrees to donors who previously have made gifts of $1 million, said Mr. Welsch, but it does not do so to encourage future donations.

"There are places that do it. Juniata is not one," he said. "We do not use the honorary degree as a cultivation tool."

This year's assortment of local honorees stretches from the board room to the gridiron.

La Roche says Mr. Batch is being honored both as a pro football quarterback and "as a community advocate and volunteer."

The same day, Point Park University will honor two recipients, including James Rohr, executive chairman and former CEO of The PNC Financial Services Group. The school calls him a "civic champion for the City of Pittsburgh."

At this afternoon's University of Pittsburgh commencement, chancellor Mark Nordenberg will receive an honorary degree -- his fifth from local schools -- as he nears the end of a successful run as the school's chief executive.

Wheeling Jesuit University picked two honorary degree recipients, including Patti Quigley, activist and 9/11 widow who is executive director of an organization that works to educate Afghan children as a means to quell the cycle of poverty, despair and terrorism. Her brother is the university's president, James J. Fleming.

Grove City College will award former Florida governor Jeb Bush a doctor of humane letters at its May 17 commencement. Campus president Richard Jewell said the recipient "has made a significant contribution in his field," noting civility in Mr. Bush's work on such issues as education change and health care reform.

Many times degree recipients are asked to deliver the commencement speech, so along with an impressive resume, a delivery that won't put an audience to sleep often is a consideration.

In some cases, having adequate wall space doesn't hurt either. At age 96, the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, has collected 150 honorary degrees. The school's website calls it the most ever awarded to one person. "They've got a lot of them in storage. It will be part of some archival display when he passes on for sure," said spokesman Dennis Brown. Others are in the president emeritus' office.

The late children's TV host Fred Rogers collected more than 40 and often gave keynote speeches. Sometimes, graduates irked by his invitation would question what the man behind "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" could possibly say of relevance to young adults, only to discover the answer once he took the microphone.

In spring 2002, with the sting of 9/11 still fresh, Mr. Rogers told Dartmouth College graduates of his interest in choices.

"What choices lead to ethnic cleansing? What choices lead to healing? What choices lead to the destruction of the environment, the erosion of the sabbath, suicide bombings or teenagers shooting teachers?" he asked. "What choices encourage heroism in the midst of chaos?"

In May 1996, Muppet Kermit the Frog took the stage at what was then the Long Island University's Southampton College for an odd commencement scene. The green puppet wearing cap and gown did not ignore the obvious as he accepted his honorary doctorate of amphibious letters and began his speech by saying:

"When I was a tadpole growing up back in the swamps ... ."

University officials said they no longer have archival records explaining the selection. But at the time, The Associated Press quoted then-chancellor Robert F. X. Sillerman as introducing the frog's societal contributions this way:

"For 40 years, you have taught by giggles the serious impact of environmental issues and shown us a green-print for humanity," he said. "From monarchs to toddlers, you have brought joy and laughter into a world that desperately needs both."

Some say acrimony over honoree choices may be unavoidable, be it complaints this spring about Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers by Iraq War opponents, criticism of Barack Obama at Notre Dame several years back over his abortion stance, or displeasure with Howard University's plan to give an honorary doctorate to entertainment mogul Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs next month.

He attended Howard in the 1980s but left without a degree.

"In higher education, we value public debate," said Donald Heller, dean of the college of education at Michigan State University. "Invariably, there is going to be some group that is going to find something wrong."

Degree or not, Mr. Combs "sat in classrooms where our students sit, walked 'The Yard,' and like many students, his entrepreneurial spirit was sparked at Howard. We know he will inspire ... ," said Howard's interim president Wayne A.I. Frederick, a physician.

Many colleges publish criteria for awarding degrees. On its website, Carnegie Mellon University says honorary degree nominees should, among other things, be "distinguished individuals who have reached pre-eminent levels of distinction in their fields and made extraordinary contributions to society."

In 2007, the choice was Bill Cosby, given his stature in the arts and support of education. The iconic comedian, actor and author did not disappoint, showing up with gray sweatpants under his commencement robe to give a speech at no charge and receive an honorary degree.

He began his remarks by addressing graduates of the science-heavy campus as "Uhhhh ... nerds," and wrapped things up in a way that would dumbfound even the most astute of minds.

"So in closing ... I close."

Bill Schackner:, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.

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