Sunday, August 23, 2015

Are Ivy League Institutions Playing Politics With Honorary Degrees?

LL.D. The University of Pennsylvania 

LL.D. The College of William and Mary in Virginia 

In a post on the Library of Law and Liberty blog, Professor John McGinnis calls out seven universities in the Ivy League for ideological discrimination in the distribution of honorary degrees. (One Ivy League institution, Cornell, does not award such degrees.)  Professor McGinnis points out that: "of the fourteen honorary degrees bestowed by Ivy League institutions to living Supreme Court justices, twelve went to those on the left of the Court."   Justice Ginsburg, he continues, "is the champ," having received "an honorary degree from every Ivy League university except Cornell[.]" In addition to the twelve degrees conferred on those on the left, he says, Brown and Yale have each conferred honorary degrees on retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, whom Professor McGinnis characterizes as "a moderate conservative."

According to Professor McGinnis, no Ivy League university has conferred an honorary degree on any of the sitting Justices that he characterizes as "on the right of the Court."  Presumably Professor McGinnis is referring to Chief Justice Roberts and Associate Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito. 

Professor McGinnis has certainly identified a curious pattern. Additional research reveals that these schools have had ample opportunity to honor Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito.  (Justice Scalia joined the Court in 1986, Justice Kennedy in 1988, and Justice Thomas in 1991.)  These jurists have served on the Supreme Court for a combined 90 years and performed over 125 years of public service in various positions with the national government. Over the past 25 years, Yale has awarded 241 such degrees, the University of Pennsylvania  has awarded 170, Harvard has awarded 234 (see here and here), and Princeton has awarded 156.  Penn, it should be noted, has awarded the "Doctor of Laws" (LL.D.) degree to such noted jurists as Bono (pictured above), Billie Jean King, Candice Bergen, and Ted Koppel.  Harvard has awarded the LL.D. degree to Bill Russell and Oprah Winfrey, and Princeton to Harry Belafonte.  Moreover, the published criteria for the award of such degrees seem tailor-made for these five justices. Yale, for instance, awards such degrees "to signal pioneering achievement in a field or conspicuous and exemplary contribution to the common weal." Penn states that "candidates should exemplify the highest ideals of the University, which seeks to educate those who will change the world through innovative scholarship, scientific discovery, artistic creativity, and/or societal leadership."  Nonetheless, these seven institutions, which purport to value public service and inclusion, have excluded each of these distinguished public servants from the highest honors they confer.

Fortunately, some colleges and universities are more inclusive when it comes to awarding such degrees, perhaps on the theory that individuals perceived as "conservative" sometimes make positive contributions to the common weal.   Way back in 1991, for instance, the College of William and Mary in Virginia, conferred an honorary LL.D. upon Justice Scalia.  Previously the College had conferred such degrees on Chief Justice Warren Burger (1973) and (then) Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist (1977). (For a list of past recipients of such degrees, go here.)  William and Mary is not the only institution with such good judgment.  Justice Scalia has also received honorary degrees from the University of Notre Dame, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Marymount University.  He received the Marshall-Wythe Medallion from the nation's first Law School in 2013, and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law from the University of Virginia, which does not confer honorary degrees, in 2008.   Moreover, one or more of the remaining four jurists that Professor McGinnis characterizes as "on the right" have received honorary degrees from New York University, the College of the Holy Cross, the University of the Pacific, and St, Mary's College.  (See here).

Perhaps the seven Ivy League institutions will catch up with institutions such as William and Mary and correct the oversights that Professor McGinnis has identified.  If so, these five jurists will proudly join the ranks of Bono, Oprah, Ted Koppel, Billie Jean King and other recipients of Ivy League LL.D. degrees.