What Are Honorary Doctorate Degrees?

Many schools, public and private, recognize individuals who make notable contributions to society by awarding them honorary doctorate degrees. Distinguished philanthropists, musicians, politicians, authors and scientists often receive acknowledgment for their exemplary accomplishments and achievements that serve a greater good.

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Honorary Doctorate Degrees Overview

Recipients of honorary doctorate degrees do not earn the degree through academic achievements, rather with generous and altruistic actions or lifetime accomplishments that benefit a community, nation or humanity in general. Some schools allow candidates to apply for consideration for the degree, while others require nomination by a third party. Each university that confers honorary degrees establishes its own criteria for acceptance.

Recipients may receive more than one honorary degree, but never from the same school twice. A candidate does not necessarily have to be an alumnus of the awarding school, a resident of the state or even a citizen of the country, though many schools prefer to recognize their own graduates. Beneficiaries of the prized degree may use the title of 'Doctor' that the degree confers, although they have not completed a doctoral program.

Degree Criteria

While many colleges and universities provide their own strict criteria for honorary candidates, typically an honorary degree may only be given to an individual with a sustained lifetime achievement, rather than a group or for a single contribution. Public universities do not allow faculty members or employees of the school to be nominated for the degree, though private universities may not carry the same restriction. Candidacy for the degree often represents a school's prominent vocation or pursuit. However, many institutions put more emphasis on the prolonged bearing of an individual's accomplishment.

A few schools have age restrictions or require the honoree to be present at the time the degree is conferred. Some schools allow honorary doctorate degrees to be awarded posthumously, and the degree may be accepted by the honoree's family or colleagues.

Types of Honorary Doctorate Degrees

Depending on the achievement, schools may present different types of honorary doctorate degrees. Some schools may offer only a Doctor of Philosophy degree, while others bestow a degree based on the accomplishment of the recipient. A few examples include:

  • Doctor of Humane Letters - acknowledging academic distinction
  • Doctor of Laws - awarded to professionals in the field of law
  • Doctor of Literature - honoring extraordinary authors and journalists
  • Doctor of Science - recognizing revolutionary scientific research and discovery
  • Doctor of Fine Arts - conferred primarily to musicians, actors, architects and artists
  • Doctor of Humanities - signifying exemplary public service
  • Doctor of Divinity - bestowed upon exceptional religious figures

Honorary Doctorate Degree Selection Process

Based on the type of honorary doctorate degree being awarded, the school's provost, chancellor or honorary committee forms a selection panel to review nominations. Candidates or nominating parties typically must submit a minimum of a nomination form and biography by a specified deadline.

The selection panel reviews all documentation and presents their recommendations to the governing faculty, board of trustees or university president. The school notifies accepted honorees and confers the degrees during regular commencement ceremonies. Many universities also expect a sizable donation from honorary degree recipients.

Honorary Doctorate Degree Recipients

Many U.S. and world leaders have received honorary doctorate degrees from colleges and universities in many countries for a myriad of achievements, contributions and public service actions. A few recent recipients include:

  • Jane Pauley - Bates College, 2010
  • Judy Blume - Rutgers University, 2010
  • Dolly Parton - University of Tennessee, 2010
  • David Cohen - Rider University, 2010
  • Clint Eastwood - Berklee College of Music, 2007
  • Glen Beck - Liberty University, 2010
  • Liam Neeson - Queen's University, Belfast, 2009
  • Vice President Al Gore - University of Tennessee, 2010
  • Vice President Dick Cheney - Brigham Young University, 2007
  • Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger - Emory University, 2010
  • Senator Edward Kennedy - Harvard University, 2008
  • President Nelson Mandela - Brown University, 2010
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    Areas of study you may find at Stanford University include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
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    Areas of study you may find at Harvard University include:
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