Honorary degrees are a way for universities to recognise excellence. More in the nature of an acknowledgement than an academic qualification, doctorates are awarded to individuals for their achievements in various fields, academic or otherwise. A series of RTI applications by this paper has, however, revealed that proximity to power, not excellence or merit, seems to be the qualification for public universities to award degrees, honoris causa. Between 1997 and 2017, 160 public universities awarded about 2,000 doctorates to 1,400 people. In an academic and social milieu where education is at a premium and the prefix “Dr” carries more than a little weight, this is not a minor issue.
Thanks to the generosity of universities, politicians and bureaucrats of every hue have shared academic honours with Nobel laureates and corporate leaders. Both former presidents Pranab Mukherjee and Pratibha Patil received multiple PhDs while they were ex-officio Visitors of Central universities. Mulayam Singh Yadav received a doctorate from Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Law University during his son Akhilesh Yadav’s tenure as UP chief minister and chairperson of the university’s general council. Chief ministers, governors and Union HRD ministers have all been honoured while in office, as have chairpersons of the University Grants Commission — by the very institutions they are meant to oversee.
The manner in which honorary degrees are handed out is symptomatic of at least three problems. First, in cases where degrees were awarded by universities to officials and politicians meant to regulate them, there is a case to be made for a conflict of interest. While honorary doctorates carry no financial remuneration, they can be viewed as carrying non-pecuniary benefits. Second, higher education in India is at a crossroads and to meet the evolving demands of a global economy, innovation and excellence are necessary. Premier universities across the world use honorary degrees as a way of attracting talent and inputs from outside. By diluting that principle so thoroughly, Indian institutions are sending out a disturbing signal. Finally, who a university chooses to recognise must not be beholden to the logic of power and patronage. Political office in India flows from the will of the majority, as it should. But recognition in the intellectual space must not become a way of appeasing the powers that be.