What do figures as wide-ranging as Billy Graham, Rick and Kay Warren, Fred Rogers, and Donald Trump have in common?
All have been awarded honorary doctorates by Christian colleges.
Each spring, another batch of distinguished guests receives these symbolic degrees. Among others this year, outgoing World Vision president Rich Stearns was granted an honorary doctorate of divinity from Gordon College; Tim Keller, an honorary doctorate from Westminster Theological Seminary; and comedian Jamie Foxx, an honorary doctorate from Jarvis Christian College. Eastern Mennonite University awarded its first-ever honorary doctorate this May to Liberian peace activist Leymah Roberta Gbowee, a Nobel laureate and alumna.
By granting such awards, “we’re honoring an action, a commitment to a principle, or an action that serves the community,” said Ben Gutierrez, co-provost and vice president for academic affairs at Liberty University, which conferred an honorary doctor of laws degree to President Trump when he spoke at the school’s commencement in 2017, and an honorary doctor of humanities degree to President Jimmy Carter, the 2018 speaker. “We’re acknowledging an example of someone who personifies excellence within their discipline, within their passion, or within their field.”
Honorary degrees have a centuries-long history in higher education. But many institutions—including evangelical colleges—have begun to issue them more routinely in the past two decades. The influx of honorary doctorates has led some in academia to call for more clarity in the process; others are ready to do away with the prize altogether.
It’s taboo for honorary doctorate recipients to adopt the title of doctor (unless they also have an earned degree at that level). Apologist Ravi Zacharias was widely criticized late last year for, among other allegations, his ministry’s use of “Dr. Zacharias” in his bio and other materials. The honorary title has since been taken down.
“It’s simply not an accurate title,” said Phil Cooke, who has blogged about how “fake doctorates” have taken off as pastors with big ministries compete for credibility. “Although honorary doctorates are called ‘doctorates,’ they’re really recognition of life achievement—which is great—but not the same as a PhD.”
In earlier days, universities used honorary doctorates to acknowledge and build relationships with patrons. While recipients often speak at commencement ceremonies, colleges now tend to see them as a way to highlight community values. For Christian institutions, honorary degrees offer a chance to reflect core convictions as lived out in a particular leader’s career.
“The significance is to honor them with a degree that recognizes their lifetime achievement because they’re the kind of person who’s been so busy serving the world that they haven’t had the time to go out and earn their own doctorate,” said Deborah Taylor, provost and senior vice president at Biola University.
“We always want to look for someone who’s had some achievements that relate to the mission of Biola,” she said. “We can inspire students by saying, ‘Here’s an example of someone who has lived their life doing the thing that we’re challenging you to do.’ ”
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Source: Christianity Today