University’s choice of honorary degree recipients is questionable
Last week, Brandeis University announced the 2019 commencement speaker and six honorary degree recipients. The six honorary degree recipients are as follows: Rivka Carmi, John Landau, Cixin Liu, Barbara Mandel, Perry Traquina and Susan Windham-Bannister. Rivka Carmi has contributed a vast amount of research to the field of medical genetics. Jon Landau is a music critic and Bruce Springsteen’s manager. Cixin Liu is a science fiction writer and the first Asian to receive the revered Hugo Award for best novel. I believe the achievements, professional and academic, of these individuals are wholly deserving of an honorary degree from Brandeis University. I take issue with the philosophy used to select latter three; Barbara Mandel, Perry Traquina and Susan Windham-Bannister.
Universities can set policies regarding honorary degrees at their own discretion and confer said degrees to reach their own ends. That said, Brandeis University specifically touts an ambiguous philosophy toward honorary degrees and, in so doing, deviates from generally accepted practices applied robustly around the nation. Brandeis’ “policies” show a lack of respect toward the student body by seeking to satisfy the goals, financial or otherwise, of the administration while spurning the achievements and values of potential recipients and the educational goals of the school to which graduating students wish to be identified.
This year’s honorary degree recipients are unsurprising given that the University has a history of making ill-advised choices regarding this honor. Brandeis awarded Ayaan Hirsi Ali in 2015, who, after the discovery of publicly made Islamophobic statements, had her degree rescinded. The University claimed to be unaware of these statements and faced backlash for selecting Hirsi Ali. Not only does this reflect the lack of scrutiny the University has when vetting potential honorary degree recipients, it demonstrates that the University is out of touch with the student body and who they want to represent their graduating class.
In the wake of this blunder, the University sought to reevaluate its honorary degree policies. So began the problems. Both Perry Traquina and Barbara Mandel were members of the Board of Trustees when the body considered these changes. Not only was Mr. Traquina a member of the Board, he was its chair and therefore could guide the discussion on honorary degree policies.
As written on the Brandeis University webpage, honorary degree recipients are judged on “the singular accomplishments or contributions of individuals in any of a number of fields of human endeavor.” This statement is ambiguous and allows for essentially anyone to be nominated for a degree. Many institutions of higher education do not confer honorary degrees in order to maintain the integrity of their undergraduate and graduate programs. Colleges and universities such as MIT and Cornell have upheld their commitment to educating students. The University of Michigan’s policies in this regard are well articulated: the primary criteria for consideration are “achievements [that] are closely identified with the University’s central purposes: those of teaching, research, and scholarship.” Secondary are accomplishments made in “professional life.” Professional life is a much broader term and still requires the accomplishments to impact society at large.
Awarding honorary degrees is a political decision. It is generally acknowledged that universities use honorary degrees as a means to tie themselves to persons of power, celebrity, and wealth. That said, it is the responsibility of the University to maintain the prestige of their degrees. As an institution of higher education, the goals of the University should be to foster intellectual diversity and develop the education of its students. Traditionally honorary degrees reinforced this end. Deviations from the tradition, while common, violate this goal and lend credence to the opinion that the University is suffering financially, that it must safeguard its sources of revenue rather than the education of the student body.
It is clear, though, that Brandeis is comfortable wielding the power of honorary degrees to recognize the influence that wealthy donors have over the University. Barbara Mandel was elected to the Board of Trustees in 2005 and is the vice-chair of the Board. The name will sound familiar to anyone who has set foot in the humanities quad; the Mandel Center for the Humanities is named after her and Morton Mandel. If it is not already obvious that Barbara Mandel has outsized financial influence on the Brandeis campus, the auditorium in the Mandel Center is dedicated (prominently) in her honor. Perry Traquina, meanwhile, has been donating to the University for over 10 years.
Academic achievement and its recognition by the University have fallen by the wayside. Rivka Carmi and Cixin Liu are the only recipients to have contributed to their field of study or practice. All other recipients are career businesspeople or philanthropists. That raises the question: for a University that professes its commitment to social justice, is philanthropy socially just? Is this a value that is consistent with the virtues the University claims it supports? No. Philanthropy is not socially just. At its heart, it is a method of redistribution of wealth. But to accumulate that wealth in the first place is to benefit from an unequal economic system. The actions of philanthropists only perpetuate said system. Honoring the “benevolent” redistribution of the wealth from affable donors to the University is contrary to the values espoused by the administration. Conferring these degrees to wealthy philanthropists reveals the hypocrisy of the University’s foundational goals.
The relative value of Brandeis degrees at both the undergraduate and graduate level is diluted by awarding honorary degrees to individuals who do not satisfy the requirements a student would need to meet for the same degree. The achievements of Rivka Carmi and Cixin Liu in the academic realm demonstrate a proficiency in their field of study. Conferring an honorary degree unto them is consistent with the goal of educating students at varying levels of skill. Mandel, Traquina and Windham-Bannister, however, have not academically contributed to their field of study and, therefore, do not satisfy the aforementioned goal. A double standard exists that equates philanthropic donations with academic achievement. This violates the core principles of Brandeis University. Past recipients, additionally, have not been Brandeis alumni. This year, two of the recipients received undergraduate degrees from Brandeis and one received a doctorate from the Heller School. The goal of honorary degrees is to tie individuals of distinction to the University; these people are already tied by their status of alumni. Conferring advanced degrees on people who already hold Brandeis degrees doubly devalues the degrees of current and future students. It sends a signal that advanced degrees and honors from Brandeis can be acquired through patronage to the University rather than aspiring to receive an advanced education on one’s own merit.
Every May, Brandeis has an opportunity to recognize the diverse intellectual achievements of deserving academics and professionals. This year, the University strayed from this standard and awarded honorary degrees to alumni who have made monetary donations to the University in the past. These individuals do not represent Brandeis University’s core values. The University is blatantly pandering to wealthy financiers and donors. In the process, it disrespects the graduating classes, devalues already-earned degrees, and perpetuates a socially unjust system. Far more deserving individuals now go without recognition.