The Honorary Degree


Honorary Degrees, higher education’s most prestigious recognition, are reserved for eminent individuals with national or international reputations. Recipients are typically leading scholars, discoverers, inventors, authors, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, social activists, and leaders in politics or government. Occasionally, honorary degrees are awarded to people who have rendered lifelong service to the university through board membership, volunteerism, or major financial contributions.

Honorary degree recipients are selected through a nomination process established by a school’s governing body, either its own trustees or, in the case of public universities that belong to a state system of schools, the system’s board of regents. Recipients are not necessarily graduates of the awarding institution; rather, the school often views the degree as an opportunity to establish ties with a prominent person.

Traditionally, and for a variety of reasons, American institutions hold the names of candidates for honorary degrees in strict confidence. Naturally, not all nominees will be approved. Sometimes a candidate who has been approved but has not yet received the degree can be withdrawn from the list. It is not unusual for an approved nominee to wait on a list for a number of years before receiving the degree. Rarely, a candidate might decline the honor, a possible source of embarrassment if the university had already made the name public.

At some schools, honorary degree recipients deliver the commencement address, but this is not a requirement.

What To Call An Honorary Degree

Honorary degrees are conferred honoris causa, a Latin term meaning “for the sake of honor.” Honorary degrees are not Ph.D.s, nor do they entitle the recipient to the same professional privileges as individuals who have earned degrees. Appellations vary from school to school. Here is a sampling of common honorary degrees and their abbreviations:

Doctor of Arts (D.A.)
Doctor of Commerce (Com.D.)
Doctor of Divinity (D.D.)
Doctor of Education (D.Ed.)
Doctor of Fine Arts (D.F.A)
Doctor of Humane Letters (L.H.D)
Doctor of Laws (L.L.D)
Doctor of Letters (Litt.D.)
Doctor of Music (Mus.D.)
Doctor of Pedagogy (P.E.D.)
Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.)
Doctor of Public Administration (D.P.A.)
Doctor of Public Service (D.P.S.)
Doctor of Science (Sc. D.)
Doctor of Technology (D. Tech.)

Addressing An Honorary Degree Recipient

Honorary degree recipients are properly addressed as “doctor” in correspondence from the university that awarded the honorary degree and in conversation on that campus. But honorary degree recipients should not refer to themselves as “doctor”, nor should they use the title on business cards or in correspondence. However, the recipient is entitled to use the appropriate honorary abbreviation behind his or her name, for example, [full name], Litt.D. On a resume or in a biographical sketch, they may indicate an honorary degree by writing out the degree followed by the words “honoris causa” to signify that the degree is honorary, not earned.

When addressing a person who has received an honorary degree from another university, it is not correct to use the term “doctor” nor should the title be used in correspondence, biographical sketches, introductions, or on place cards.

Presenting the Degree

Because honorary degrees are so prestigious, it is imperative to award them with solemnity. Honorary degrees are often presented at commencement to take advantage of the pomp and circumstance already in place and to accommodate the largest possible audience. It is also acceptable to make the presentation at convocations or in private ceremonies.

In any event, candidates are hooded and receive a diploma and a citation. At commencements and convocations, the candidate is part of the platform party and processes escorted by an eminent faculty member or dean from the honoree’s discipline. The candidate wears a black doctoral gown or the school’s custom doctoral regalia. Appropriate headgear is a tarn with a tassel of gold. If the candidate has an earned Ph.D., the hood of his or her own regalia is left behind as the candidate processes in an unadorned gown in preparation for receiving the honorary degree hood. It is acceptable for a candidate who already owns Ph.D. regalia to wear his or her own robe; otherwise, a doctoral robe with black- not Ph.D. blue- velvet trim should be provided at the institution’s expense.

Although some schools reverse the order, honorary degrees are traditionally presented after all others in deference to the fact that they are institution’s highest honor. The candidate is called to the podium and stands to be hooded by hood marshals as the president reads a citation and awards the degree. At small schools that lack marshals, a pair of distinguished persons selected in advance does the hooding. After hooding, the honoree is handed a diploma and a copy of the citation, either framed or in a leather portfolio. The honoree shakes hands with the president and returns to his or her seat.

Honorary Degrees in Absentia

Although it is sometimes impossible for an honorary degree recipient to attend commencement, honorary degrees should not be presented in absentia because doing so diminishes the prestige of the honor and robs the university of the opportunity to host a prominent person. Furthermore, an honorary degree awarded in absentia squanders the valuable public relations benefits that can derive from media coverage of the occasion.

When the honoree is out of the country or otherwise occupied on a particular date, defer the presentation to another time when the honoree can be present. Do not permit surrogates to accept your school’s most prestigious award.

Presenting Honorary Degrees in Private Ceremonies

Under very special circumstances, perhaps when a recipient is infirm due to advanced age or illness and thus cannot attend a commencement or convocation, the president may travel with a party of distinguished delegates to the recipient’s residence for a private ceremony. In such cases it is appropriate for the delegates to don their academic regalia.

Presenting An Honorary Degree Posthumously

If a recipient has died before receiving an honorary degree, have a surrogate accept the degree at commencement or convocation. The substitute marches in the procession wearing his or her own regalia or, if he or she has no regalia, a doctoral robe provided by the school. The surrogate is presented a diploma, citation, and hood as customary, except that the hood is not placed over the surrogate’s head. Instead, it is draped over his or her left arm to be carried.