You wouldn't think honorary degrees would raise much of a controversy at Harvard.
But this year, just like years past, they have.
Several students and professors have complained this year that the 10 honorary degrees Harvard will hand out today are chosen in an aristocratic and imperious manner.
The decision on who gets a free doctorate is made by a group of about 12 alumni, professors and members of the governing boards who are hand-picked by the seven-man governing Corporation. Many of the 12 have no comment on the selection process; others don't see what all the fuss is about.
Year in and year out, professors get upset not only about who gets or doesn't get the coveted sets of initials, but about who gets to choose and why. One of the most outspoken critics is Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz, who accuses the Corporation of "false advertising." He says the Corporation promotes the erroneous notion that the degrees come from Harvard as a whole.
Dershowitz charges that receiving an honorary is "like buying a Harvard T-shirt," because the awards are made by "an unrepresentative, unelected group of outsiders who spend no time here."
Each year, as members of the Advisory Committee on Honorary Degrees willing to talk hasten to point out, the University solicits nominations for degrees from all members of the Harvard community. Yet Dershowitz and others maintain the resulting list is largely irrelevant when the committee sits down to pick about 10 recipients from all walks of life. Those critics cite past unpopular recipients as evidence of the arbitrary nature of the system--a favorite example is the Shah of Iran, who got a degree in 1968. The critics also charge that deserving minorities and Jews--like Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis--were denied degrees specifically because of their race or creed.
Current and recent committee members generally respond to such accusations in terms of the specific case and find no evidence of a system at fault. As they put it, they weren't there.
Overseer Saul G. Cohen '37, a chemistry professor at Brandeis University in Waltham who sits on the Advisory Committee, says he "puts in a great deal of time" and has no qualms about helping select the degree recipients. The Overseers and the Corporation have final say over the choices, according to Cohen and Anne M. Morgan, another member of the Board.
Morgan and others involved describe the committee as broadly representative, with members from most of the University's various schools. Morgan says she hasn't heard any complaints or proposals for improving the system, which she says she feels "works quite well." She declined to comment on Dershowitz's proposal that at least some degrees be awarded by faculty and student ballot, a plan Dershowitz says would ensure that at least some honorary choices reflect the will of the University as a whole.
Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Jules Brody, who recently served two years on the committee, says the current method is democratic and broadly based. "Nobody can tell the committee what to do," Brody says. While he concedes student representatives would be desirable, he ridicules Dershowitz' contentions against the process. "He doesn't know shit about it," Brody says.
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