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Honorary senselessness

Isn't it time for colleges and universities to stop awarding honorary degrees?

The problem is not the inevitable ideological objections to recipients that arise on campus. Protests, after all, are part of the pageantry of Commencement Day, an affirmation that if graduates learned nothing else in college, they absorbed the essence of the First Amendment. Dissent is a fundamental American value.

It is the honorary degrees themselves that make so little sense.

What was designed to acknowledge intellectual achievement has devolved into a publicity grab with universities competing for celebrity honorees. (Michael Douglas and his lovely wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, will be picking up his honorary doctorate at St. Andrews University in Scotland this year.)

Maybe Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is too bellicose to warrant an honorary doctorate from a Jesuit university; maybe not. Notre Dame gave her one in 1995, after all. But she has a real doctorate in international affairs from the University of Denver; she does not need the bogus one from Boston College that is causing so much consternation among the faculty on the Heights this spring.

Playwright Tony Kushner apparently is insufficiently Zionist for some protesters at Brandeis University, who are objecting to his honorary degree this spring. But the author of ''Angels in America," ''Homebody/Kabul," and ''Caroline, or Change," will be hard-pressed to find room in his trophy case for yet another make-believe doctorate alongside his Pulitzer Prize, Tony Awards, and Drama Desk Awards.

What is the point of honorary degrees, really? What knits together a practice that has seen American universities confer degrees honoris causa on everyone from Gloria Estefan to Mike Tyson, from Tom Selleck to Billy Joel? It does not detract from the considerable achievements of entertainers to ask, what does any of it have to do with the academy? Doesn't all the extraneous fuss detract from a day that ought to be focused on the graduates and the faculty members who guided them into those caps and gowns?

Like most things in modern America, it is as much about money and status as anything. The famous bring wanted attention to the school and additional polish to the recipient -- maybe he even leaves a check on the way off the reviewing stand, or endows a chair for the study of rock 'n' roll. Honorary degrees are also a way to toast notable alumni whose achievements might better be acknowledged by the university with an invitation to share their expertise with students during the academic year as visiting lecturers.

The University of Massachusetts in Amherst is awarding a doctorate in science this year to a gentleman it describes as ''the greatest golf-course superintendent of our time." Sherwood Moore ''pioneered the use of fairway contour mowing and triplex green mowers on fairways," according to a statement from the university. Moore, an alumnus of the university's agriculture school, is certainly an exemplar to the students graduating from what is now called the Stockbridge School at U-Mass. But wouldn't hearing from Moore, now retired and living on Cape Cod, during class have benefited them more than watching him receive an honorary degree on their way out the door?

The University of New Hampshire is conferring an honorary doctorate this spring on an actor who made his mark, not on the Shakespearean stage, but in a television sitcom. Mike O'Malley, a UNH alumnus, stars in a CBS comedy called ''Yes, Dear." In its announcement of his selection, the university noted that ''in addition to 'Yes, Dear,' O'Malley hosted Nickelodeon's sports action fantasy show, 'Guts.' He is also well known for his portrayal of sports fanatic 'The Rick' in ESPN's popular promotional spots."

Well, there you are. A fine actor, a comic talent, but an honorary doctor of fine arts? For his work on ''Guts?" Isn't it enough that he is delivering the university's commencement address?

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

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