Top 15 Controversial Honorary Doctorates

The tradition of awarding honorary degrees stems from Oxford University. These degrees were first awarded here in the 14th century and were given mostly to academic scholars. Nowadays the recipients range from academics to politicians to artists. Lately there has been quite some controversy about a few universities that had awarded Robert Mugabe an honorary degree. To my knowledge our most popular honorary degree recipients must be dr.dr.dr.dr. Václav Havel and dr.dr.dr. Nelson Mandela. Mandela has at least 30 honorary degrees – next to a long list of other awards. Václav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, collected at least 46 honorary degrees. Every single one of them well deserved. In the following 15 cases that wasn’t so sure…


Let’s start in Canada. On June 16, 2005 the University of Western Ontario conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws degree upon Morgentaler, a longtime abortion activist. This decision by UWO’s senate honorary degrees committee generated opposition from Canadian pro-life organizations. Over 12,000 signatures were acquired asking the UWO to reverse its decision to honour Dr. Morgentaler.


Yusuf Islam (formerly known as singer Cat Stevens) was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Gloucestershire. The year before that he was questioned about his alleged links with terrorists. He endorsed the fatwa on writer Salman Rushdie and refuses to shake the hand of a woman.



My former employer, Twente University decided to award an honorary doctorate to Abdurrahman Wahid (better known as Gus Dur). This was just after he became the first (indirectly) democratically elected president of the Republic of Indonesia. If they had only known that a year later Gus Dur became involved in a corruption scandal (known as the Bulog-gate), a scandal in which Wahid’s masseur and business partner allegedly stole $3.6 million from the state food agency, Bulog. Obviously questions arose within the university whether they should still award him the degree or not. I think they went on with it because Wahid would receive the doctorate for his lifetime work as leader of Indonesia’s largest (moderate) Muslim group Nahdlatul Ulama and also because he was not personally involved in the scandal. Whether he ever received the doctorate, I don’t know. I hope he did!! Things became rather quiet after a while….


Another one from Canada. Controversy erupted when Ryerson University conferred an honorary degree on medical ethicist Margaret Somerville. A number of faculty from Ryerson and other universities and students vocally protested Somerville views that children’s rights are violated when they are adopted by same-sex couples.


Arnold Schwarzenegger, Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin Superior. The award recognized Schwarzenegger’s contributions to health and fitness, speaking out against prejudice, and creating positive opportunities for inner-city children.


Mike Tyson- Boxer and High School dropout received a Doctorate in Humane Letters in 1989 from Central Ohio State University. Another boxer, George Foreman received an honorary doctorate from the Houston Graduate School of Theology on Saturday for his charity work with children.


Bill Gates – the chairman of Microsoft will get an honorary degree from Harvard on June 7 this year. Maybe not really controversial, but funny considering that Gates once studied mathematics at Harvard but then dropped out after 2 years. But he did fine without the degree…


The University of Queensland in Australia awarded a doctorate to its longest serving State Prime Minister. Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen however was not exactly impeccable …he turned out to be a corrupt populist.


Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori‘s honorary doctorate was received in 1992 and revoked in 2001! He received it from his Alma Mater “National Agrarian University” in Peru, where he studied, taught and served as rector. They stripped him of an honorary doctorate for ‘ethical reasons’.


Recent controversy in the Australian National University. They awarded Lee Kuan Yew an honorary doctorate, and – to say it mildly – the faculty weren’t all too happy about that. He is Singapore’s founding father, Prime Minister from 1959-1990 and current ‘Minister Mentor’ under his son Lee Hsien Loong. Well….basically he is Singapore. He brought Singapore a lot of economic prosperity and was a little less concerned with individual liberties, press freedom and academic freedom. On top of all that he stated in the 1980s that Australians were destined to become the “poor white trash of Asia”. The Australians didn’t really appreciate that.


Number 6 is for my own Alma Mater, the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. As a University close to the German border they decided to award an honorary doctorate to Helmut Kohl, the former Chancellor of Germany. But – just as the other Dutch case at nr.13 – their Doctor to be became involved in a corruption scandal (Das System Kohl)in the Christian Democratic Party CDU. In the end he did receive his honorary doctorate in October 2000.


In 2002, the University of Wolverhampton awarded honorary degrees to glam rockers Slade, whose creative approach to spelling was displayed on 1970s hits such as Mama Weer All Crazee Now and Gudbuy t’Jane.


This one actually shouldn’t be here, since they never got to awarding the honorary degree. The most famous rejection was of Margaret Thatcher, who was snubbed by Oxford academics while she was prime minister. She was the first Oxford graduate turned PM that did not receive the honorary degree…


Then there is of course Robert Mugabe or Dr Dictator. He was awarded honorary degrees by Edinburgh University (1984), the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (1986) and Michigan State University (1990). The President of Zimbabwe, was showered with praise when he helped establish the independence of his country, formerly Rhodesia, in 1979 and end white rule when he won the first open elections as prime minister. But a lot can change in 30 years


And the indisputable number 1. In 1996 Southampton College at Long Island University awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters to Muppet Kermit the Frog. Although some students objected to awarding a degree to a puppet, Kermit delivered an enjoyable commencement address and the small college received considerable press coverage.

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