Degree of difficulty: really almost nil

It’s graduation season, which means a host of notables becoming ‘doctors’

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / May 15, 2011

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For more than five years, Erika Reynoso toiled nights and weekends in a lab, her life dictated by the breeding cycle of mice. This month, having successfully defended her dissertation on autoimmunity, she will finally collect the Harvard doctorate that she worked so hard for.

But her single cherished PhD can’t hold a candle to the 30 doctorates — including one from Harvard — trumpeted on the website of jazz great Wynton Marsalis. And then there’s poet-screenwriter-muse to presidents Maya Angelou, who has racked up more than 70 and proudly refers to herself as “Dr. Angelou.’’

Their degrees are of the honorary ilk, conferred upon them after months of secret deliberations by college officials often hoping to bask in their recipients’ star power.

The awarding of honorary doctorates is a familiar seasonal ritual, the ultimate quid pro quo that grants universities access to luminaries and allows athletes, movie stars, and deep-pocketed philanthropists to claim degrees without any academic sweat.

Each spring, about 200 degrees “honoris causae’’ are awarded in Massachusetts alone. This year the recipients include Conan O’Brien (late-night jokester), Scott Brown (US senator), Katie Couric (soon to be former nightly anchor), and Angela Menino (mayoral spouse). But it’s not all about glitter — other recipients are hailed for their work healing the sick (Arthur Pappas, orthopedic surgeon) or forging peace (Mary Robinson, former UN high commissioner for human rights), to name just two.

A couple of weeks ago, Reynoso and her mother were watching television when a newscast mentioned a celebrity being honored with a degree. “My mom asked me, ‘What do these people getting honorary doctorates have to do?’ I said, ‘Well, they don’t have to do what we do.’ ’’

The tradition of awarding honorary degrees originated at European institutions during the late Middle Ages. Harvard, the oldest university in the United States, awarded George Washington an honorary doctorate in 1776.

But one of the nation’s most prestigious temples of higher learning has steadfastly refused to grant them: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Our reasoning is very simple,’’ MIT chancellor Eric Grimson said. “Our students work really hard to earn their degrees. We’re not about to give one away.’’

Angelou doesn’t buy that reasoning, and she’s not about to give up her title.

“A person has a right to be called anything she or he wants to be called,’’ Angelou said in an interview. “I’ve earned it.’’

The 83-year-old said she treasures each of her pieces of parchment, including more than a dozen from New England schools and two from Northeastern alone, given a decade apart.

Angelou has written more than 30 books, six plays, and two screenplays. She has composed lyrics with Quincy Jones and B.B. King, and won three Grammy awards.

“I’m a worker,’’ Angelou said. “Some people who have gotten their PhDs have sat right back down on their — I’m stumbling on the anatomy — and given nothing.’’

Universities typically generate a top-secret list of nominees by committee, with input from faculty, trustees, and the college president. Then, lengthy negotiations begin, often a year in advance, to pin down the schedules of sought-after names — because the degrees are not awarded unless the recipients show up.

College presidents say they award the honors to recognize a life’s endeavors and inspire their graduates. But often, the degrees also double as bait for high-profile commencement speakers, particularly by lesser-known schools.

Lasell College in Newton today is expected to present an honorary doctorate to Brown, though it does not award real doctorates. The junior senator from Massachusetts, who will deliver the commencement speech at Lasell, also got one last year, from Nichols College in Dudley, another tiny school.

“I don’t want to downplay everything Senator Brown has accomplished, but he does bring star power,’’ said Michael Alexander, president of Lasell.

Even if the honorees never utter a word, the mere presence of celebrity can enhance an institution’s prestige. Two years ago, Celtics great Larry Bird and legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg picked up Boston University degrees, shaking hands and returning to their seats without addressing the crowd gathered at Nickerson Field.

But there can be good reason for these institutions to proceed with caution in choosing honorees, as some universities have discovered. Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, who received an honorary doctorate from Central State University in Ohio in 1989, subsequently bit off another boxer’s ear and was convicted of rape. Northwestern University in 2008 rescinded an offer of an honorary doctorate of sacred theology to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, President Obama’s former pastor whose incendiary comments about race threatened to derail the campaign.

That same year, the University of Massachusetts revoked an honorary degree given more than 20 years earlier to Robert Mugabe, the president-turned-dictator of Zimbabwe. And when UMass awarded Andrew Card, former chief of staff to President George W. Bush, an honorary doctorate in public service in 2007, banners billowed from dorm windows calling him a war criminal and boos and catcalls marred his moment on stage.

Some recipients are true scholars with real doctorates. And then there are those — like Bill Gates, honored by Harvard with a Doctor of Laws in 2007 — who could have earned the real thing but dropped out.

So what exactly are the privileges that come with holding an honorary degree, other than donning a shapeless polyester gown and colorful velvet-trimmed hood for a day?

Not much, it turns out.

“Not even lifetime library privileges,’’ said Robert Brown, president of BU. “If they were actual alumni, we would ask them for money.’’

Lest there be any confusion, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education requires that honorary degrees — be they from public or private schools — clearly state their honorary nature to distinguish them from earned academic degrees.

But nothing prohibits the honorees from adopting the title of doctor.

“I’m a little bitter about that,’’ said Halvar Trodahl, a Harvard doctoral candidate in physics. “Somehow struggling through the torturous hours in the lab, or writing 400 pages of an English lit dissertation — that to me is what defines a doctorate.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at