An honorary degree or a degree honoris causa (Latin: “for the sake of the honor”) is an academic degree for which a university (or other degree-awarding institution) has waived the usual requirements, such as matriculation, residence, study and the passing of examinations. The degree is typically a doctorate or, less commonly, a master’s degree, and may be awarded to someone who has no prior connection with the academic institution.
The degree is often conferred as a way of honouring a distinguished visitor’s contributions to a specific field or to society in general. It is often given to graduation speakers at a university or college, and the university may derive benefits by association with the person in question. The degree is not recognized by employers as having the same stature as a corresponding earned doctorate degree and should not be represented as such. It is sometimes recommended that such degrees be listed in one’s CV as an award and not in their education section, and some institutions of higher education have policies on the use of the title “Dr” in formal correspondence.
The practice dates back to the Middle Ages, when for various reasons a university might be persuaded, or otherwise see fit, to grant exemption from some or all of the usual statutory requirements for the awarding of a degree. The earliest honorary degree on record was awarded to Lionel Woodville in the late 1470s by the University of Oxford. He later became Bishop of Salisbury.
In the latter part of the 16th century, the granting of honorary degrees became quite common, especially on the occasion of royal visits to Oxford or Cambridge. On the visit of James I to Oxford in 1605, for example, forty-three members of his retinue (fifteen of whom were earls or barons) received the degree of Master of Arts, and the Register of Convocation explicitly states that these were full degrees, carrying the usual privileges (such as voting rights in Convocation and Congregation).
Honorary degrees are usually awarded at regular graduation ceremonies, at which the recipients are often invited to make a speech of acceptance before the assembled faculty and graduates – an event which often forms the highlight of the ceremony. Generally universities nominate several persons each year for honorary degrees; these nominees usually go through several committees before receiving approval. Those who are nominated are generally not told until a formal approval and invitation are made; often it is perceived that the system is shrouded in secrecy, and occasionally seen as political and controversial.
The term honorary degree is a slight misnomer: honoris causa degrees, being awarded by a university under the terms of its charter, may be considered to have technically the same standing, and to grant the same privileges and style of address as their substantive counterparts, except where explicitly stated to the contrary. In practice, however, such degrees are not considered of the same standing as substantive degrees earned by the standard academic processes of courses and original research, except perhaps where the recipient has demonstrated an appropriate level of academic scholarship that would ordinarily qualify him or her for the award of a substantive degree.
An ad eundem or jure dignitatis degree is sometimes considered honorary, although they are only conferred on an individual who has already achieved a comparable qualification at another university or by attaining an office requiring the appropriate level of scholarship. Under certain circumstances a degree may be conferred on an individual for both the nature of the office they hold and the completion of a dissertation. The “dissertation et jure dignitatis” is considered to be a full academic degree.
Although higher doctorates such as DSc, DLitt, etc., are often awarded honoris causa, in many countries (notably England and Scotland, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand) it is possible formally to earn such a degree. This typically involves the submission of a portfolio of peer-refereed research, usually undertaken over a number of years, which has made a substantial contribution to the academic field in question. The university will appoint a panel of examiners who will consider the case and prepare a report recommending whether or not the degree be awarded. Usually, the applicant must have some strong formal connection with the university in question, for example full-time academic staff, or graduates of several years’ standing.
Some universities, seeking to differentiate between substantive and honorary doctorates, have a degree (often DUniv, or Doctor of the University) which is used for these purposes, with the other higher doctorates reserved for formally examined academic scholarship.
Between the two extremes of honoring celebrities and formally assessing a portfolio of research, some universities use honorary degrees to recognize achievements of intellectual rigor comparable to an earned degree. Some learned societies award honorary fellowships in the same way as honorary degrees are awarded by universities, for similar reasons.
In some countries, recipients of an honorary doctorate may, if they wish, adopt the title of “Doctor”. Many universities, however, request that an honorary graduate refrain from such practice. A typical example of university regulations is, “Honorary graduates may use the approved post-nominal letters. It is not customary, however, for recipients of an honorary doctorate to adopt the prefix ‘Dr.’ “In some universities, it is however a matter of personal preference for an honorary doctor to use the formal title of “Doctor”, regardless of the background circumstances for the award. Written communications where an honorary doctorate has been awarded may include the letters “h.c.” after the award to indicate that status.
The recipient of an honorary degree may add the degree title post nominally, but it should always be made clear that the degree is honorary by adding “honorary” or “honoris causa” or “h.c.” in parenthesis after the degree title. In some countries, a person who holds an honorary doctorate may use the title “Doctor” pronominally, abbreviated “Dr.h.c.” or “Dr.(h.c.)”. Sometimes, they use “Hon” before the degree letters, for example, “Hon DMus”.