Commencement has come and gone, and with it another crop of eager graduates. Yet given far more of the spotlight at any of these commencements than bachelors’, masters’, and doctoral candidates were those being awarded honorific degrees and certificates. The practice of universities bestowing honorary degrees originated as a way to give public recognition to those rare individuals who had made outstanding contributions to society. Someone who had written great books would have bestowed on him a Doctorate of Letters or a Doctorate of Literature; a distinguished statesman would be awarded a Doctorate of Laws; and the theologian of great distinction given a Doctorate of Divinity.

The theory behind this was laudable. Society should have some way of recognizing and honoring its great men and women. Unlike England, where outstanding individuals can receive the title “Sir” or “Dame” at the hands of the queen, Americans have been content with this less aristocratic form of recognition.

But human nature being what it is, the honorary doctorate was being widely abused by mid-20th century. To be elected governor of a state was to bring an honorary doctoral degree from those state institutions aspiring to bigger budgets, while any wealthy donor who gave a large sum to an institution obviously was qualified to be a doctor of something or other.

Where the great universities pioneered, the small teacher-training colleges followed, and the honorary doctorate was soon cheapened. Schools that were not accredited to award any graduate degrees were handing out honorary doctorates wholesale. So widespread is the abuse of honorary degrees that many states have passed laws forbidding the practice at state colleges and universities. Now these institutions give out “Distinguished Service Awards” or, if the recipient is a graduate of that institution, a “Distinguished Alumnus Certificate.”

Anyone who gives a sizable sum to a university no doubt deserves some public recognition. Few would quarrel with Distinguished Service Awards or Distinguished Alumnus Certificates. Nor would most people quarrel with the honorary doctorate for those of genuine accomplishment. However, almost everyone would agree that the sale of what purport to be genuine diplomas is a fraud.

For years officials from the Post Office Department and various other governmental agencies have been trying to close mail order diploma mills. Those who peddle such degrees seem to congregate in California, Texas, and Florida, but they offer their wares through advertisements in national magazines—even occasionally in academic journals: “Enrollment now underway for undergraduate and graduate degrees. Credit given for non-collegiate experience. Earn a Ph.D. in just three months.”

Those who answer such ads are informed that, for a fee ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, they can become an engineer, an accountant, a medical doctor, or a doctor of philosophy. Many such diplomas come instantly. The completed application and accompanying check gets grades assigned, a full transcript completed, and a diploma suitable for framing mailed.

There are a few higher-class mail order institutions that make applicants swear to have completed a required reading list of several books. Then the applicants fly to the “university” to stay in its facilities for a’ week-long “seminar” or two. Those who fail the first examination are guaranteed that they can pass the test if they enroll for “remedial tutoring,” which requires another week or two at the institution’s facilities. Then the degree is awarded.

Such institutions apparently do a good business, for ads continue to run where they can easily be seen. There always are sufficient egotists around who want to hang a framed diploma proclaiming themselves to be a Ph.D. and who are willing to pay for the privilege. Others buy such diplomas in order to get good jobs. I recall a few years ago when one such institution in Texas was shut down by the authorities amid wide publicity about the fraud involved. In a neighboring state several county school superintendents resigned in a hurry because their only academic credentials were from this tainted institution.

For those individuals in America who want a doctorate from an accredited institution, not one purchased by mail order, there are many private colleges and universities still awarding honorary doctorates at every commencement. In fact, it is the genteel awarding of such diplomas to wealthy donors that keeps many such schools solvent. The going price these days, I understand, is about $200,000—although if one shops around the degree can be had for less at those church colleges with the proverbial wolf at the door.

In fact, it is these schools that practice one of the greatest frauds in the doctoral business. At every commencement at most small church colleges, the institution awards five or six Doctor of Divinity degrees to practicing ministers. These recipients, for the most part, do not make a personal donation to the school in order to receive the degree, nor do they have to demonstrate great piety or wisdom. Rather they usually are preachers whose churches make a steady donation to the school to help with its financial problems.

The president of one such school confided to me recently that but for donations from ministers aspiring to an honorary doctorate he would have had to close his institution. And, he added, he always made certain that any preacher getting an honorary doctorate had his church donate at least $10,000 a year for five years before awarding the degree. This president said such was his practice because he had noted that the minute most preachers received an honorary doctorate from his school, they ceased the annual contribution. “They no longer want to have anything to do with us, no connection,” he told me, “for they are embarrassed at how they got the degree.”

However, such preachers are not too embarrassed by the process to ignore their new stature. The minister will instruct his staff and his faithful congregation to address him as “Doctor.” And he will change his title from “Reverend” to “Doctor” on the bulletin board outside the church and on its printed literature. I know one such preacher who immediately had new business cards printed.

If you think this an exaggeration, the next time you are introduced to a preacher using the title Doctor, ask him what kind of doctorate it is. The odds are he will say a Doctor of Divinity. And on the bulletin board outside the church or on his card, he will abbreviate his degree as D.D. The earned graduate degree in this field is Doctor of Theology. With a D.D. there were no years in graduate school, no lengthy thesis, no burning the midnight oil; just a healthy donation from his church budget to some struggling little denominational college.

Still, there are times when the honorary doctorate can be of use. Years ago I was teaching at a major university whose president had only one academic degree, a bachelor of shop education. He held his position by virtue of his rank of major general in the state national guard and the fact that this institution was heavily military in its undergraduate emphasis. Nearby was a name university run by a fundamental Protestant sect; its president likewise had no doctorate, holding his position by virtue of his orthodoxy. The faculty at each institution was embarrassed at not being able to address the president as doctor, so a swap was arranged between the two schools. Each president would address the other’s commencement, and each would be awarded an honorary doctorate of letters. Sad to relate, the president of the school I was at, the major general, gave his address without benefit of a written text. It was one of the less literate efforts ever delivered at a commencement ceremony. But he returned to our hallowed halls crowned with his doctorate, and the faculty was more comfortable with him thereafter.

Another university president of my acquaintance—I’ll call him Smith—handled the matter with much better taste and wit. Ten years ago the regents of this medium-sized state university asked Smith to move from his position as head of the state’s Department of Public Safety to the presidency of the institution. As an attorney he had an earned juris doctorate degree, but the faculty did not feel that this was really an academic degree.

One professor, referring to the juris doctorate, said to him at the first reception held for him on campus, “I don’t know if I can call you Doctor Smith.”

“That’s all right,” the attorney responded with a smile. “Just call me President Smith.”