The news that our Prime Minister’s wife was awarded an honorary doctorate made most of us want to both cry and laugh at the same time. The Malaysian public failed to comprehend the reason she received the award, let alone her so-called breakthrough achievement in early childhood education. On this side of the world, our Datin Rosmah deserves an honorary award in extravagant spending!
But putting the “deservability” factor aside, the tradition of giving away honorary degrees has always receives mixed response from the academic world. Looking at the list of celebrities and public icons who received honorary doctorates, one wonders what academic institutions stand for these days, or whether such a practice undermines the credibility of doctorate recipients who earned their qualification through years of hard work.
The fear is not without basis. Before the public uproar over Curtin’s decision to honour Datin Rosmah, there had already been public outrages over other “undeserving” honorary recipients as well such as Gadaffi, Kagamem or Mugabe, whose leadership is an affront to human rights, democracy and justice. Honouring these dictators with doctorates not just catapulted their notoriety to celebrity status but also raised questions over the meaning and weight of such an honour. There are indeed deserving recipients such as Nelson Mandela, Professor Stephen Hawking, Brian May (oh wait, he did earn his PhD in Astrophysics?) or amusing ones like Kermit, the iconic frog from Sesame Street whose contribution to environmentalism was recognized through his educational song, “It Is Not Easy Being Green” by Southampton College, Long Island.
But who actually sets the hard rules on who deserves the accolade?
Honorary degrees are conferred honoris causa or “for the sake of honour”. In other words, honorary degrees honor both the grantee and the spirit of institution. I researched online and learned that not all universities award honorary doctorates. Unsurprisingly, the universities that do not give out honorary doctorates belong to a prestigious company of schools such as Stanford, MIT, Cornell and UCLA, amongst others. Based on the position that the degree earned at the institute must be based on meritocracy and academic labour, William Barton Rogers, the founder of MIT, equated the practice of awarding honorary degrees with “literary almsgiving” and “noisy popularity”. Such well-established academic foundations based on integrity and meritocracy as founded in MIT and some of the other renowned universities is apparently a sentiment not shared by the others, obviously for “practical reasons”.
The practice of giving honorary doctorates clearly benefits the institutions awarding it; some universities offer honorary doctorates in return for donations, while others through association with high profiled figures. University ranking and quality aside, Oxford, for example, automatically gives an honorary degree to the U.K Prime Minister, with the exception of Mrs Thatcher, who was snubbed by the university in protest at government cuts in education spending during her reign. Hollywood celebrities like Orlando Bloom and Kim Cattrall received theirs because they grew up in the university’s “neighbourhood”.
An honorary doctorate is becoming yet another powerful positioning tool and publicity stunt for universities.
Having said that, can we conclude by saying that our anger towards Rosmah is unfounded? Not really.
We would like to take the awards given lightly and gave it a hearty laugh (especially since Kermit the Frog is on the list) but I am afraid I can’t. Imagine the disgust that the citizens of Libya or Zimbabwe felt when the leader who oppressed them received the highest recognition from the academic community. But perhaps to make our public protest against Rosmah much more constructive and meaningful — sorry let me rephrase that — in order to protest against the award given to Rosmah, we need to address the matter at two different levels.
Firstly, the protest against Rosmah receiving the honorary doctorate should be a continuous advocacy to ensure that the academic community and institution’s credibility and dignity will not be smeared by their high-profiled association with dictators, human rights violators or entertainment celebrities merely in return for financial favour or popularity.
Secondly, Rosmah’s supposedly immense contribution to early childhood needs to be refuted not because we are annoyed with her shopping habits (well, maybe slightly so) but because PERMATA is not taking off as is claimed. PERMATA’s state of the art facilities and syllabus are definitely winning the hearts of international early childhood experts, but little do they know that these facilities, with such overwhelming cost, do not really reach out to all deserving children. As evidenced in some past by-elections, they are even used to blackmail constituents into voting for BN candidates.
That way, we could hold the university involved as well as future recipients accountable for any disservice done to the quality and integrity of academic traditions.
At the moment, bearing in mind that the recipients of honorary doctorates range from Benjamin Franklin to Arnold Schwarzenegger, you do the “math” on which end of the spectrum Rosmah belongs.