By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
At the end of their 27th conference at the Nassarawa State University in Keffi last month, the Association of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian Universities took some far-reaching decisions on the award of honorary doctorates that gladdened my heart beyond measure.
In what they called the “Keffi Declaration… on the award of honorary degrees,” the vice chancellors resolved, among other things, that no serving government official (whether appointed or elected) shall henceforth be awarded an honorary doctoral degree. Honorary doctorates, they said, should be awarded only in recognition of people’s substantive contribution to knowledge and to the uplift of the society, not on the basis of their material prosperity and/or connection to the power structure.
The declaration also forbids universities that don’t offer PhD programs from granting honorary doctoral degrees. Similarly, it limits the number of honorary degrees a university can award in a year to just 3. And, in what is perhaps their most controversial declaration, the vice chancellors also resolved that the award of an honorary doctorate does not entitle the awardees to prefix “Dr.” to their names.
These are crucially important steps toward reversing the damage that academic culture has suffered in Nigerian universities for years. Honorary doctoral degrees were routinely given out like candies to anybody who could afford to pay. That’s why government officials with access to illegitimate wealth (or, to quote Chinua Achebe in his controversial new book There was a Country, “politicians with plenty of money but very low IQs”) are all “doctors” now. It’s impressive that Nigerian vice chancellors have not only stipulated clear guidelines on the kinds of people that should be honored with honorary doctorates; they have also excluded serving government officials from consideration for the award of doctorates.
It’s also important that the vice chancellors have forbidden universities that don’t offer PhD programs from awarding honorary doctoral degrees. Until relatively recently, emerging universities in Nigeria with no postgraduate schools never awarded honorary doctorates because it was generally accepted that you couldn’t give what you didn’t have. For me, the absurd extreme of the abuse of honorary doctoral degree awards was when the Nigerian Defence Academy started to award honorary doctorates to politicians and business people. That must have been what alarmed Nigerian university vice chancellors into making this groundbreaking Keffi declaration. I may be wrong. But it bespoke the absolute atrophy of basic academic integrity for a military defense academy to be awarding honorary doctoral degrees.
To be fair, though, there are many four-year universities even in the United States that award honorary doctorates. A notable example is Knox College in the state of Illinois that famously awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts to American comedian Stephen Colbert. Amherst College in the state of Massachusetts is another example. Both schools only offer bachelor’s degrees but award honorary doctorates during their commencements (as Americans call convocations). However, given our predilection for immoderation in Nigeria, it is appropriate that universities that don’t award PhDs during their convocations be disallowed from awarding honorary doctorates.
Perhaps the hardest to enforce of the vice chancellors' declaration is the resolution that people who are awarded honorary doctorates should not prefix the title “Dr.” to their names. This is the practice in most parts of the world. Only people who have earned a PhD, a medical degree, an S.J.D. or J.S.D. (i.e., the Doctor of the Science of Law), etc. can legitimately prefix “Dr.” to their names. The tradition in many universities worldwide is to insist that recipients of honorary doctoral degrees bear their titles post-nominally, that is, after their names. Example: Muhammad Abdullah, LLD h.c. (“h.c." stands for honoris causa) but NOT “Dr. Muhammad Abdullah” and certainly not “Dr. Muhammad Abdullah, LLD h.c.”
Although in the United States people generally don’t prefix “Dr.” to their names if they have only an honorary doctorate, there are many notable exceptions. For instance, I recall reading about a community college president in California who sent out a mass email to the academic and non-academic staff of his school demanding that he henceforth be addressed as a “Dr.” because some non-descript university in the middle of nowhere awarded him an honorary doctorate. The response of the staff was as sarcastic as it was hilarious. Staff of the community college, most of whom don’t have PhDs, decided to also prefix “Dr.” to their names; they said they too had been awarded doctoral degrees by some no-name university. The president got the message and dropped his title.
But there are also many famous doctors who weren’t/aren’t actually doctors. For instance, Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s Founding Fathers who is known to most of us as that man whose face graces the American 100 dollar bill, insisted on being called “Dr. Franklin” even though he only had honorary doctoral degrees. Maya Angelou, the prolific and well-regarded African-American poet, is another well-known personage that insists on being addressed as “Dr. Angelou” on account of the honorary doctorates many universities awarded her. But Angelou doesn’t even have a bachelor’s degree.
Back home, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first ceremonial president, was and is still addressed as a doctor even though he never earned a PhD. Same with Tai Solarin. Both had honorary doctorates from several universities.
So good luck to Nigerian vice chancellors and the Nigerian Universities Commission enforcing the “don’t-call-your-self-a-doctor” declaration to honorary doctoral degree recipients!
Whatever it is, it’s heartening that Nigerian university vice chancellors are waking up to the issues that have been at the heart of the rot of academic culture on our campuses. They deserve the commendation of every person who spares a thought for the future of Nigerian universities.