Bastardising Honorary Degrees

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Bastardising Honorary Degrees
 

By

 

Sola Akinyede

 

 

"It is not titles that honour men it is men that honour titles"
- Niccolo Di Machiavelli (1469-1527)

 

 

culled from GUARDIAN, April 30, 2006

 

 

The rate at which Nigerian universities are churning out honorary degrees and splashing them on high political office holders and people who are perceived as wealthy has, to say the least, become less than honorable. Ours is a country that has become title-crazy.

 

Before the advent of the military, a Balogun in Yorubaland for instance, was a man whom society would have generally acknowledged as having made a significant achievement in some fields of human endeavour. So it was in every other part of the country. A Chief Awolowo for instance to use the words of Machiavelli quoted above honoured that title "Chief". A Nelson Mandela honours the title "Dr". Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe honour the title "professor" , while Mallam Adamu Ciroma has the character and respectability that many rogue politicians with long strings of honorary degrees would never dream of.

Perhaps, as a sub-conscious acknowledgement of the fact that we live in some sort of jungle, it seems as if there is a frenzied and frenetic rush to be at the top of the pecking order. It is no longer enough to be a chief, we must out-do our neighbours by labeling ourselves as double chief, high chief, Otunba, etc. It is not uncommon to see a semi-literate traditional ruler in Yorubaland for instance giving someone the title of Bamofin (the most knowledgeable lawyer) of some village or hamlet. There was the story of a man who went to a traditional ruler to ask to be conferred with a chieftaincy title. The traditional ruler responded "Oye ti tan" - translated into Yoruba, it means I have exhausted all titles. The desperate man said 'Oye tan' is a title and he was promptly made the Oye tan of his town.

 

The race among Nigeria's self-indulgent and self-serving elite whose ego is inversely proportional to its achievements has spurned a thriving industry - that of creating awards such as the most influential politician of the year. Influential in doing what and for whom? Female politician of the year. The most consistent bank of the year. Consistent for what? And many other meaningless awards. Even the dead are not spared for we now have what was described in one magazine as "post-humous of the year" whatever that means.

 

It is a case of self-importance by self-invention by all concerned. The person or organisation giving the title or award is inconsequential but arrogates to itself or invents its own importance. The title or award itself is meaningless or inconsequential and is nothing but an invention of the inconsequential giver. The awardee's importance is of course invented for only an inconsequential or insignificant person will take a meaningless or inconsequential award from the inconsequential.

 

The situation has become so bad that even 419ners have joined the fray. On my arrival from my holiday in January, one of the first mails I opened was a letter from some Biographical Institute in the United States of America stating that I had been nominated as man of the year in 2005. "Me?" I mused to myself. Being someone with a disdain for such, I did not even bother to finish reading the letter before throwing it into the trash can. However when I got a reminder on my award three weeks later I decided to read through the letter and of course I was required to indicate my credit card number or send some money to an account in North Carolina before I could collect the award. 419ners know that politicians have large egos. I have since dispatched a copy of the letter to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.

 

That this depravity has now crept in at the highest levels into our citadels of learning which are supposed to be beacons of values for the rest of society is unacceptable. Time there was when honorary degrees of foreign "universities" were awarded to the less discerning and people of questionable character in lobbies of hotels here in Lagos. It appears that since those large "certificates" have become dishonourable, the universities are now the place to acquire academic chieftaincy titles.

 

We the elite in Nigeria have a penchant for borrowing reputable institutions or ideas from foreign countries and bastardising them. This year Oxford University will be awarding honorary degrees. Leading scientists, prize-winning writers, a historian and a senior university administrator are among the international group of eight men and women who are set to be honoured subject to approval by congregation. The honorands will be awarded their honorary degrees at Encaenia, the University's annual honorary degree ceremony, on Wednesday June 21, 2006. Permit me to state the profiles of just four of the awardees.

Sir John Houghton, MA, D. Phil. CBE, FRS is Chairman of the John Ray Initiative, an educational charity that develops and communicates a Christian understanding of the environment. A former Professor of Atmospheric Physics at the University of Oxford (1976-83), he was Director General and Chief Executive of the UK Meteorological Office from (1983-91) and was Chairman of Scientific Assessment for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1988-2002) and of the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (1992-1998).

 

Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, B.Sc, Ph.D, D.Sc, FRS, F. Med. Sci, F.I.Biol, FRSA, MRC, Professor of Psychology at the University of Manchester is a leading figure in the field of neuroscience. Her research has contributed toward major advances in the understanding and treatment of conditions such as brain injury and stroke. She is also credited with discovering the importance of a small tissue called 'brown fat' in body-weight regulation.

 

Professor Allison Lurie, Frederick J. Whiton, Professor of American Literature Emerita at Cornell University is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer (for her 1984 novel Foreign Affairs) whose work has often been described as social satire. She has also published collections of ghost stories, a book on the psychology of fashion and a collection of essays on children's literature and folklore and was co-editor of the 73-volume Garland Library of Children's Classics.

Mr. Derek Walcot, OBE, FRSL, is a Noble Prize winning poet and playwright. Educated at St Mary's College, St Lucia, he won a scholarship to the University College of the West Indies in Kingston Jamaica where he studied French, Latin and Spanish. Formerly of Creative Writing at the University of Boston, he has worked as a teacher and journalist and founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop.

 

You will notice that the list is not populated by moneyed men or holders of high political offices but by people who have devoted their whole lives to the service of humanity and development of human knowledge. If these men and women were in Nigeria, not only is it that they would not be so honoured, some of them who have retired would have been pauperised by years of not receiving their pensions. How can we develop as a country and how can Nigerian universities be within the first 200 universities when we do not acknowledge, appreciate and reward merit, excellence, dedication and service?

In the 90s when Lady Margaret Thatcher was the British Prime Minister, the committee in Oxford University that was to consider her nomination for an honorary degree rejected her nomination on the ground that she had among other things presided over the cancellation of free milk for primary school children. This is not to say that politicians who have made exceptional achievements should not be recognised. For example, Dr. Manmohan Singh, the 14th Prime Minister of India who studied at Punjab University, Cambridge and Oxford Universities was in 2005 conferred with an honorary degree by the University of Oxford which like other leading universities in the world has developed rules and regulations to prevent the kind of bastardisation we are witnessing in Nigeria.

 

One hears whispers that some of these honorary degrees are sold to the awardees and this may not be surprising as it is not uncommon to have awardees announcing during convocation ceremonies the donation of money or building projects which they know they will never fulfill. Perhaps, the logic is that having fulfilled their own part of the bargain by paying cash in exchange for honorary degrees, those pledges were ex-gratia pledges given without what we lawyers call consideration.

 

Top-rate universities in Britain such as University of Oxford and University of London have developed rules and regulations to prevent abuses. Honorary degrees are only to be conferred on:

 

* Those whose distinctions and achievements are outstanding,

command international recognition and constitute a contribution of unusual importance to society as opposed to what might be described as a successful career.

* Persons of conspicuous merit who are outstanding in their field or

who have given exceptional service to their university.

* On persons of outstanding intellectual or creative accomplishments

and shall be awarded to recognise only the exceptional accomplishments.

The nominee's special achievement and contribution to society shall be the fundamental consideration and shall be evaluated without particular regard to the nominee's attainment of influential position of financial status.

Honorary degrees shall not be conferred on a person whose contribution or achievement is chiefly in the service to the college. Honorary degrees shall not be conferred on a serving politician, a serving chairman of the governing body of a college or person in the employment of the college.

 

The situation in our universities today is the obverse of the words of Machiavelli. We have got to a stage where men are beginning to dishonor titles. Although honorary degrees are the prerogative of the Senate in a university, unless the Committee of Pro-Chancellors and Vice-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities with facilitation of the National Universities Commission develop similar rules and regulations and adhere strictly to them, the words of Machiavelli will in an ironic way be so prophetic because honorary degrees might become so worthless that our universities may have to pay awardees to accept them.

It is a sad commentary on us as a people that what was so obvious to Machiavelli about five hundred years ago is still too cloudy to be understood by Nigeria's elite.

 

 

*Akinyede is Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Governing Council, Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike.

 

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