Honorary Degree: What Is It Good For?

May 11, 2012

At graduation ceremonies across the Northwest this spring, a handful of people will receive what are known as “honorary degrees.” Typically, they’re awarded to distinguished humanitarians, writers and entrepreneurs. But what, if anything, can you actually do with an honorary degree?

There are some examples of people using their honorary doctorates for more than a line in their bio. That’s how Benjamin Franklin became known as Dr. Franklin. More recently, there’s comedian Stephen Colbert.  “Knox College awarded me with a doctorate of fine arts. Which means that now, I’m a doctor,” he quipped on the Colbert Report.

But the universities we spoke to say that’s not exactly how an honorary degree works.  “It doesn’t let them do anything, other than have this formal recognition of a high honor,” explains Julia Pomerenk. She is the registrar at Washington State University.  “My sense is that most people that receive honorary degrees are already so distinguished in their careers that they don’t have any need to use the honorary degree.”  This year, WSU gave an honorary doctorate to Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Dennis Flannigan is getting one from the University of Puget Sound. The school kicked him out for his activism in the 1960s. Now it’s honoring him in part for his career in the legislature.  “It’s an honorary doctorate in laws," Flannigan exclaims. "I’m not sure what that means. I used to break ‘em. And then for awhile I made them.”

He says he knows what he’s going to do with his doctorate.  “And that is to be extraordinarily warmed that my university gave me an affirmation that I did not expect.”  Flannigan says the only question is where to hang it.

On May 12, Boise State University gives alumnus and business owner Allen D. Dykman an honorary doctorate

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network