The logic behind Honorary Doctorates

When the university is funded by the government, the dictum, “he who pays calls the tune” operates

Published - September 09, 2010 01:50 am IST

PRAISEWORTHY: Both Anand and the University of Hyderabad have displayed admirable grace over the situation. File photo

PRAISEWORTHY: Both Anand and the University of Hyderabad have displayed admirable grace over the situation. File photo

The recent fiasco amid the non-award of the Doctoral Degree ( honoris causa ) to the chess master Vishwanathan Anand has brought forth several issues regarding the procedures that have been imposed on universities. A university is an academic citadel that promotes and recognizes intellect. Yet, when the university is supported and funded by the government, the rather unpleasant situation of “he who pays calls the tune” appears to operate. Academic freedom and autonomy are confronted by officialdom and control.

The recognition of outstanding persons by honouring them with doctorate degrees has been practiced by universities the world over. Recognition of this kind is simply through the ceremony where the “diploma” is offered to the honouree. No money is offered as honorarium, nor any job offer. It is just an academic recognition. The honouree can belong to any part of the world.

Alas, here was the first rub. An official from the Ministry of Human Resource Development in Delhi asked whether Anand is an Indian or a Spaniard. How does the citizenship or nationality matter in academic recognition? After all, the Indira Gandhi prize or the Padma Awards are open to all. It would appear that the question raised was irrelevant to the issue, but it delayed the matter.

One might raise the bogey of ‘security' and hence the name needs “vetting” by the government. But is this a defensible argument? The award need not mean that the university agrees with all that the honouree says or practises. If my memory is not wrong, I recall years ago an Indian state University honouring the Late Mr. Yasser Arafat. Vetting and ‘clearance' of this type might also dampen the initiative of an Indian Central or State University to honour, say, an outstanding poet or writer from say, Pakistan.

The second issue is about the clearance from the President of India, who happens to be the ‘Visitor' of the University of Hyderabad, which wished to honour Anand. One needs to ask: Why should the President of India be involved at all as the visitor? What academic value does it bring? Likewise, why should the Governor of the state be the equivalent in state universities? Is this not simply an ‘ administrative' arrangement, which needs no academic value?

Does this arrangement also not mean that as the university people-faculty or officers need to think twice (or more) before criticizing them? Other countries, notably the U.S., have many state universities with state funding and the head of state has no official connection – yet they thrive academically and administratively. We need to revisit the practices of Visitorship and Chancellorships of central and state-supported universities in India. The third point is: who should be given such honorary doctorates? The business of a university is to enhance and recognize scholarship and intellect. Universities and colleges cater more to the brain than brawn. Hence perhaps the justification to honour Anand – the master of a game where brain and only brain matters. Note that this is different from honouring, say Tendulkar. But then one may ask: “if brain work is the sole factor, why not honour masters of the cards game Contract Bridge?”

Of course, on this score, very few politicians would be eligible for the honour. Yet we note that many of them are so honoured; some even like to have the triple prefix Dr. Dr. Dr. before their names. One suspects an element of sycophancy and “quid pro quo” in the university that does so.

Now, for the fourth point. The business of a university is to promote knowledge, spur creativity and to recognize and honour those who have brought new perspectives, values and thus enhanced humanity through their thoughts.

Thus, in honouring an individual with a D. Litt or D Sc (honouris causa), the university honours itself. It expects nothing from the honouree, perhaps except to hope that he/she appreciates and is proud of the honour so conferred on him/her. I believe the latter is as important as the former. Further, while it is not necessary or demanded, it would be nice to have the honouree come and interact with the students and faculty of the university.

Now that “official” clearance has come through, and both Mr Anand and the University of Hyderabad have displayed such admirable grace over the situation, we hope he would come and receive the honorary doctorate and spend a few days at the University of Hyderabad.

It would also be nice if an analysis is undertaken at that time, by the university researchers on how he does what he does. In the process, it would be nice too if they invite then the brilliant youngster Srikar Varadaraj, the school boy from Bangalore, who not only presented a paper at the recent International Mathematics Congress at Hyderabad, but also hade the opportunity to play against Anand and drew with him last month.

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