Honorary Degrees: Guidelines and Constraints



In ritual the University acts out an ideal version of itself. At its Convocation ceremonies the University dresses in academic costume, parades and processes in order, and assembles en masse to hear directly from the Chancellor and the President. Through the repetition of formalized phrases, the calling of names, the wearing of academic gowns, the formal greeting by the Chancellor, hooding and the gift of inscribed paper, students are transformed into graduates in the presence of the entire community.

At this rite of passage the University also personalizes its abstract ideals through the granting of honorary degrees to people whose achievements represent the values the University cherishes, whose benefactions have strengthened the community and the institution, and whose public lives are deemed worthy of emulation by the graduands. The granting of this degree provides a focal point for the ceremony. The citation of honourable deeds and the words of experience of the honorary graduand challenge and inspire the university and reinforce its links to the wider community

Convocation is thus a notable occasion which the graduates and their family and friends may remember with pleasure and satisfaction. While the honorary graduand provides a focus for the ceremonial message, the graduands themselves must be at the centre of attention, for it recognizes their achievements in the granting of degrees. To that end, the ceremony must attend to their presence, achieve a celebratory ritual in which they gain their new status, and provide each with a personal moment which their families and friends note and remember.

The Guidelines which follow address general considerations, programme considerations, Sub-Committee operations, and include comments on logical constraints for the ceremonies, specific considerations regarding these awards and the work of the Senate Sub-Committee, and in general the operating principles for nominations and approvals.

Members of the York community should note that the Sub-Committee looks forward to receiving not only nominations but also suggestions from the community on any aspects of selection, conferral, or ceremony

1. Introduction

This report considers the major principles underlying the offering of honorary degrees and the procedures of the Sub-Committee to ensure the quality and efficacy of conferral. It attempts to describe the state of the Sub-Committee's overall deliberations after more than 30 years of honorary degree conferrals and constitutes a review of guidelines last established in 1987. While the Report represents the consensus of its members at the time of writing, the Sub-Committee welcomes comment on its procedures and suggestions for improvement of its implementation.

It should be noted at the outset that the process often results in the simultaneous accommodation to difficult and sometimes conflicting constraints of a programmatic, logistical or other nature. The Sub-Committee holds as its objective the presentation of as broad a mix of creative and worthy honorary graduands, representing as broad a range of the University's values as possible for conferral during the yearly Convocation sessions.

2. General Considerations

The award of honorary degrees is an important feature of Convocation at York University.

These awards are important to the celebration of the achievements of our graduands. They add to the distinction of the ceremony which graduands, their families, members of the York Community and guests will remember with satisfaction. At their best, short, witty and incisive addresses from honorary graduands provide an important focal point for the occasion. So the Convocation and, more widely, the University receive a significant benefit while honouring these distinguished graduands. The Convocation is in many ways a signal public gesture of goodwill to the wider community.

Honorary degrees therefore add lustre to the academic tradition which draws public attention periodically to the importance of the University and its activities in the wider community. The conferral of degrees on honorary graduands may be the principal focal point of a carefully planned Convocation ceremony which is recorded by the news media as well as by friends of the University. Such celebratory gestures, however, require careful planning.

Careful consideration is given to candidates for honorary degrees who have made a significant contribution to the public good. The following criteria shall be considered (note that candidates are not expected to meet all criteria):

  1. eminence in her/his field of activity;
  2. service to humankind, Canada, Ontario, York University or a particular community in a significant way;
  3. significant benefaction to the university
  4. public contributions to society worthy of emulation.

Members of the first category are nearly always distinguished in some academic field or in one of the arts. Their accomplishments have gained the high and sustained approbation not only from their peers but nationally or internationally. Many such candidates are likewise talented in addressing Convocation audiences in a particularly apposite way. Such candidates should be selected for their unusually high achievement in the field of endeavour to which they have dedicated their respective careers.

Members of the second category have served and are seen to have served the world community or a significant part of it in an extraordinarily distinguished, creative and faithful manner. Their contributions are exceptional, but vary in type with respect to the community they have served. We have been particularly interested in honouring at York Convocations candidates who have served Canada or this University in this way. We have given especial attention to candidates who have not been similarly honoured by other universities or by other means in recent years. While the University is much indebted to its senior faculty and other members of the York Community, the Sub-Committee does not feel that honorary degrees are the appropriate means for their well-deserved recognition. Rather, honorary degrees are reserved for exceptional service to the University, to be conferred some time after active service has been completed.

The third category, benefaction, must be treated with discretion and tact. Benefactors are those who have made a magnanimous past contribution to the University, creatively, materially, or financially. The conferral of an honorary degree represents a recognition that the University has significantly and invaluably benefited from that contribution.

Certain additional considerations inform the Sub-Committee's deliberations in all categories. First, York tries to seek out candidates who are meritorious yet who have not (yet) received such recognition by other universities. Sometimes York's choices are extremely prescient. In other cases, good candidates had been ignored or systematically overlooked. We have been particularly concerned that York honour with appropriate ceremony and dignity those candidates who for reasons attributable to social prejudice or ignorance may have been passed over. In this connection, we encourage assiduous and careful search for appropriate candidates among women and among cultural and other minorities.

As guidelines of propriety, the Sub-Committee excludes candidacies of politicians currently in office (at any level of Canadian government: municipal, provincial or federal, including the Senate). For similar reasons, members of the York faculty and community in active service are not considered.

3. Programme Considerations

Practical and logistical constraints set certain limits within which the honorary degree conferrals are awarded. While these constraints may vary from time to time, the following represent current planning in relation to academic and broader considerations:

First, the number of Convocations to be held each year is governed by space requirements and the number of graduating students. Normally, a larger number of graduates qualify for and attend spring ceremonies. At this time, there is no campus space that will seat more than 2200 graduates and guests per event and that fact must govern the number of events being held. In planning for these events, statistics from previous years which indicate the percentage of graduating students who attend Convocation form the basis of this judgment, with an allowance of 3 guests per person in the calculation.

Specific constituencies within the University may also best be organized into distinct ceremonies because of the size of their graduating classes and/or location. In the past years, these constituencies have included Atkinson College, Glendon College, the Osgoode Hall Law School, and the Schulich School of Business. Wherever it is possible, and depending on the anticipated number of graduates attending, Faculties and Colleges will be combined in ceremonies to produce an event of appropriate effect and manageable size. These combinations and ceremonial assignments are the responsibility of the Convocation Officer, after consultation with appropriate authorities. The determining factor for most free-standing, dedicated ceremonies, therefore, is the number of graduating students and guests anticipated; this rule is particularly applicable to the Fall series of Convocations where more combinations are required because there are fewer graduates overall in that season.

The Sub-Committee considers the mix of honorary degree candidates who would be appropriate for conferral of degrees at each of the Convocations to represent, as a body, a range of values which the University prizes. The Sub-Committee advises that there should normally be no more than one honorary degree conferred at each ceremony. It is also possible that the central honoree for an event, who would also deliver the Convocation Address, might be a candidate for a different academic honour, such as a Distinguished Research Professorship or a University Professorship. Normally, the number of honorary degrees conferred each year should not exceed the number of Convocations; for example, if there are 12 ceremonies in June and 4 ceremonies in the Fall, there should be no more than 16 honorary degrees conferred in the course of that year. If other honours are conferred at graduation ceremonies (such as University Professorships or Distinguished Research Professorships), then special ceremonies might be held where an honorary degree could be conferred outside the normal Convocation seasons.

Further considerations of the mix of candidates contain collective implications both for the yearly cycle of Convocation ceremonies as well as for the University. While each candidate is chosen on merit according to the criteria and guidelines detailed above, the final list is intended to recognize as wide a variety of different areas of expertise and achievements as possible.

There is no intention of a striking preset balance among candidates in various categories. Nevertheless, the Sub-Committee wishes to avoid lists of candidates drawn from only one of the above-mentioned categories or principally from one particular community. Likewise, absence from the final list of any person of high eminence in his or her field, of any person of a cultural minority background or of any woman, for example, would occasion serious question as to whether the University's interests and objectives were being as fully and faithfully served as possible.

Honorary degrees in absentia. Under exceptional circumstances, degrees may be conferred in absentia. Should a candidate who has accepted an invitation to receive an honorary degree cancel her/his attendance at convocation, the degree will be awarded on another occasion. If the name has been published, then Convocation will be advised. The degree will not be conferred in absentia.

Posthumous honorary degrees. Posthumous honorary degrees are not normally awarded. Where a candidate for an honorary degree approved for inclusion in the pool of candidates subsequently dies, the name will be removed from the pool. Should someone agree to accept an honorary degree and then die before the Convocation at which it is to be awarded, the degree will not normally be awarded posthumously.

Specific Constituencies. Various University constituencies sometimes propose honorary graduands for a specific Convocation ceremony. These recommendations are taken seriously and accommodated as far as possible in accord with the general criteria mentioned above. They are subject to constraints such as very limited funds for travel assistance and other expenses. In the interest of long-range planning and establishing a balance of graduands representing York values across the range of ceremonies in a given year, such specific constituencies should propose a list of potential candidates for review by the Sub-Committee, rather than submitting one name per session. Such a pool allows the Sub-Committee, the Chancellor and the President to be prepared with appropriate candidates well in advance of the deadline, and allows for substitutions if one or more candidates are unable to accept the invitation.

Special Convocations. On infrequent occasions, honorary graduands are proposed in connection with a specific University commemoration, such as the opening of a major academic programme or symposium or the dedication of a new building. Such Convocations normally attract a modest size gathering and form an integral part of a series of events. They require careful scheduling, advance planning and co-ordination of several offices of the University. Such proposals must be made well ahead of the projected date, usually early in the academic year prior to the proposed event.

Long Range Planning. The complexity and variety of proposals for honorary degrees signals the necessity for a great deal of early planning as well as much co-ordination with the Convocation Office and Office of the President (Vice-Chancellor) in order to arrange ceremonials with appropriate dignity but also efficiently and within budgetary constraints. Co-operation on the part of nominators is both essential and most appreciated.

4. Sub-Committee Operations

According to Section 12(f) of the York University Act the Senate has the power "after consultation with the Board, to confer honorary degrees." The Sub-Committee on Honorary Degrees and Ceremonials will report to the Senate Executive (in confidence) names of recommended candidates for honorary degrees, for confirmation. Confirmed candidates' names will be kept in a pool from which candidates will be assigned to specific ceremonies by the Chancellor and the President, taking into account comments from the Sub-Committee. Those candidates who have agreed to accept the honour from York, are reported to the Senate for information in advance of the ceremonies.Membership: The Sub-Committee draws members from a cross-section of University Faculties so that a broad spectrum of points of view and information may be gathered. Thus the Sub-Committee membership includes one member elected by the Senate from each of the University's ten Faculties. Membership also includes two students, one graduate and one undergraduate. In addition, the Secretary of the Senate shall be responsible for recruiting a member of the Alumni Association. Ex officio voting membership includes the Chancellor, one College Master and the Convocation Officer (or Representative of the Convocation Office), the President and Vice-Chancellor, the Vice President (Academic Affairs) and the Chair of Senate. The Secretary of Senate is a non-voting, ex officio member.

Nominations: Each year in Fall Term, nominations are solicited by the Sub-Committee from the University community in general as well as from Deans of Faculties, the Principal of Glendon College, College Masters and members of the Board of Governors. It is expected that nominators will have canvassed members of their respective constituencies in the course of preparation of their submissions. The Sub-Committee also receives nominations through the offices of the President and Chancellor; these nominees may either be proposals directly from those offices or be nominees of constituencies in the wider community, sponsored by or supported by the President and/or Chancellor.

To supplement the Nomination Form, the Sub-Committee requests as much additional academic and biographical information as possible. Far more information than available in standard "Who's Who" biographies is required to enable the Sub-Committee to proceed in its assessment. While the Sub-Committee appreciates the sensitivity and delicacy involved in gathering biographical information without the candidate's knowledge or consent, inadequate information is a great disservice to the proposed candidate.

Nominations generally include additional letters of support. In an effort to preserve confidentiality, normally such letters shall be solicited from within the York community. The Sub-Committee discourages nominators from seeking letters from those external to the community unless it is necessary to provide additional information to support the nomination, and in any event nominators should emphasize the need for confidentiality.

It is also helpful for the Sub-Committee to be informed of any particular reasons underlying the selection (e.g. close connection with a programme or College). The Sub-Committee welcomes all nominations and will give full consideration to each nominee.

Nominators are invited to consult the list of the more than 450 honorary graduands of the University. It indicates both the breadth and depth of qualities of the people honoured to date. Implicitly, it also indicates sensitivity of the Sub-Committee to academic and ceremonial concerns and to the suggestions so constructively forwarded by members of the University. The list is available from the Sub-Committee Secretary.

The Sub-Committee may request additional information from nominators at any time. For reasons of confidentiality and especially out of respect for the integrity of the candidates, the outcome of any individual nomination is not released. The final selection of nominees is presented to Senate for information at the meeting prior to Convocation.

Each honorary graduand is conferred a degree as appropriate for his or her past career: LL.D. (Doctor of Laws), D.Litt. (Doctor of Letters) or D.Sc. (Doctor of Science). The most commonly awarded degree is the LL.D. Other degrees might be conferred. The Sub-Committee will consider such suggestions carefully.

5. Summary and Conclusions

Honorary degrees are an integral part of the Convocation ceremonies each year. Those being honoured at each Convocation provide an important focus in the ceremony both for the Convocation participants, their guests and for the wider public.

The Sub-Committee depends upon imaginative and carefully considered nominations each year. They will represent contributions in one of four categories: eminence in his or her field of specialization; extraordinary, distinguished service; benefaction to the University,and contributions to society worthy of emulation by our graduates. Additionally, programmatic and logistical constraints may limit selection among many worthy nominations to a mix appropriate to York's Convocation series.

Nominations are solicited from the University community at large and from Deans, College Masters, Offices of President and Chancellor each Fall Term for inclusion in a pool of eligible candidates to be drawn on during a 3-5 year period. The list of past degree recipients is available from the Secretary of the Sub-Committee. The Sub-Committee is grateful to nominators for their assistance and co-operation is the important but time-consuming process of nomination.

Nominations may be submitted to the Secretary at any time during the year, according to instructions from the Sub-Committee. Consultation with colleagues and respective constituencies is expected in the nomination process and indication that this has taken place should be part of the file presented. Nominations should be accompanied by ample biographical and academic information, with letters of support from appropriate members of our community. Deliberations of the Sub-Committee are confidential, as are the considerations of the Senate Executive on recommended candidates. The final list of nominees who have accepted the conferral is forwarded to Senate for information immediately prior to the respective Convocation series.

The Sub-Committee looks forward to receiving not only nominations but also suggestions on any aspect of the process of selection, conferral or ceremony. It also hopes that tangible measures will be taken to enhance the visibility and participation of past honorary graduands in the ongoing life of York University. Not only should the mutual goodwill be nourished, but the University gains by continued fruitful association with recipients of its highest honours.