One of them is in charge of the University Grants Commission (UGC), which monitors standards in teaching, examination and research in universities. Another heads the executive committee of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), which grants accreditation to institutions of higher education. Then there are Union ministers heading the Human Resource Development ministry.
All of them are on the honour list — hundreds of politicians and bureaucrats who were awarded honorary doctorate degrees by public universities in India over the last 20 years when they were in charge of monitoring these very institutions, an investigation by The Indian Express has found.
The Indian Express filed Right To Information (RTI) Act applications to 470 public universities seeking data for the last 20 years from 1997 to 2017. An analysis of responses received showed that 160 public universities and institutions conferred nearly 2,000 honorary doctorates to around 1,400 people; 126 did not give any honorary degree during this period; and, 184 did not respond.
Honorary doctorates do not come with monetary benefits but they carry enormous cache in an educational system that values degrees as markers of credibility and influence — many recipients add the prefix “Dr” to their names.
Records show that those who received these degrees included two serving Presidents at the time, Pratibha Patil and Pranab Mukherjee, who were Visitors occupying the apex position at central universities.
A more telling case is that of former IISc director and scientist Goverdhan Mehta who was chairman of the NAAC’s executive committee from 2006 to 2012. During these six years, RTI records show, Mehta — who has an academic PhD from Pune University — received 18 honorary doctorates from public universities across the country, from Karnataka to Kashmir.
The NAAC is an autonomous body established by the UGC to “assess and accredit institutions of higher education in the country”.
Close behind Mehta is economist Sukhdeo Thorat — a PhD from JNU— who received seven honorary doctorates between 2006 and 2011, when he was chairman of the UGC.
Other UGC chairpersons who received such honorary degrees during their tenures include Hari Gautam (four honorary doctorates from 1999-2002); Arun Nigavekar (two honorary doctorates from 2002-2005); and, Ved Prakash (three honorary doctorates from 2013-2017).
RTI records also show that when Ketan Desai headed the Medical Council of India, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Tamilnadu Dr MGR Medical University in 2009. A year later, Desai was arrested by CBI on corruption charges.
Records establish a similar pattern when it comes to public agricultural universities granting honorary degrees to those in charge of monitoring their activities.
Topping the list is S Ayyappan, when he was secretary of the Department of Agricultural Research and Education (DARE), Ministry of Agriculture, between 2010 and 2016. During these six years, Ayyappan received five honorary doctorates from various agriculture and veterinary science universities.
Next on this list is Ayyappan’s predecessor at DARE, Mangla Rai, who received two honorary doctorates during her tenure. Rai had earlier received an honorary degree during her previous assignment as deputy director-general, crop sciences, from 1997 to 2003.
Before Rai, R S Paroda, who was DARE secretary from 1992 to 2001 received two honorary doctorates during his tenure.
The website of DARE states that it “provides the necessary government linkages for the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the premier research organisation, for co-ordinating, guiding and managing research and education in agriculture including horticulture, fisheries and animal sciences in the entire country”.
These honorary degrees broadly come under three categories: Degree of Doctor of Letters (D.Litt) for literature, philosophy, art and music, and for services rendered to the cause of education; Degree of Doctor of Science (D.Sc) for science and technology or for planning, organising or developing scientific and technological institutions; Degree of Doctor of Laws (LL.D) for lawyers, judges or jurists and statesmen, and for contributions to public good.
RTI records also show that five honorary doctorates were conferred on technocrat Sam Pitroda, who served from 2005 to 2009 as chairman of the National Knowledge Commission, advising then prime minister Manmohan Singh on policies for educational institutions and research. In 2010, Pitroda founded the National Innovation Council and served as advisor to the prime minister with Cabinet-rank.
During these stints, Pitroda was conferred honorary degrees by Visvesvaraya Technological University, Belgaum (2014); University of Mysore (2014); Shivaji University, Kolhapur (2013); Rajiv Gandhi Proudyogiki Vishwavidyalaya, Bhopal (2013); and, IIT-Kharagpur (2011).
Among the serving HRD ministers who have received such honorary doctorates include Murli Manohar Joshi (two, 1998-2004) and the late Arjun Singh (one, 2004-2009). D Purandareswari, HRD Minister of State in the UPA government, received two honorary doctorates during her tenure from 2006 to 2011 — she is now a BJP leader.
Universities have the power to confer honorary degrees for which proposals have to be approved by their academic and executive councils before final approval is granted by Chancellors and Visitors.
RTI records show that as Visitor to central universities when he was the President, Pranab Mukherjee received three degrees — from Goa University (2017), Assam University, Silchar (2012) and Calcutta University (2014). Mukherjee declined an honorary doctorate from IIT-Kharagpur in 2012.
Pratibha Patil received three degrees as President — from Padmavathi Medical College (University), Tirupathi (2008), North Maharashtra University, Jalgaon (2012) and Goa University (2009).
A university should have the right to decide who to give an honorary doctorate to but the institution — or the honorary degree — should not be reduced to an exercise of power politics, said a senior official of a leading public university who did not want to be named.
“What kind of a signal are you sending to today’s young graduates at a convocation when the highest degree of the university is given to someone not because of what they have done but because of who they are and what they can get done,” said the official.
Speaking to The Indian Express on the findings of the investigation, Prof Durg Singh Chauhan, former vice-chancellor of UP Technical University, was clear that those “occupying top positions and those who control higher education must not accept such degrees”.
“Sometimes, vice-chancellors offer doctorates to persons occupying high positions and those who can offer some benefit in return,” said Chauhan.
“Honorary doctorates must not be flaunted as a symbol of achievement and credibility. Many of those who receive such degrees may not have done anything in academics or research for which such degrees are meant. They may have got it due to the position of power they held at the time,” said Prof Makhan Lal, founder director, Delhi Institute of Heritage Research and Management.
‘There is misuse, can’t stop it’
When contacted by The Indian Express seeking comment, former NAAC chief Goverdhan Mehta said there was no conflict of interest involved in the honorary degrees he has accepted.
“I received many honorary doctorates before and after NAAC. I did receive some honorary doctorates while I was with NAAC, but I never received a doctorate from a university where the evaluation was done by me. I don’t think there is any conflict of interest,” he said.
Asked about accepting such degrees while heading the UGC, Sukhdeo Thorat said: “It depends on both, the institution awarding the degree and the individual accepting it. Both one must take care of basic principles. I have declined some degrees from deemed-to-be universities.”
Former DARE secretary Ayyappan said: “These degrees are conferred for some achievements. But I would not like to comment anymore on this issue now.”
However, Mangla Rai, another former DARE secretary, admitted that there were instances of “misuse” of powers granted to universities to award such degrees.
“Sometimes, there is misuse, but we can’t stop it. If you can’t stop the UGC chairman or D-G ICAR or persons in some other positions, how can you stop others, like ministers, occupying prominent positions? This should be left to the inner voice of the individual being conferred,” said Rai.