I have long seen the awarding of honorary degrees to famous people at college commencements as an effort to liven up the often tedious proceedings, and of no real value to recipients who are already wildly successful — and probably don’t need another prize.
Then came Saturday, when I saw an overwhelmed Missy Elliott cry over the degree she was given by Boston’s private Berklee College of Music, the largest independent college of contemporary music in the world. (The talented artist Justin Timberlake cried over his, too, it appeared).
Over more than four decades, I’ve attended scores of graduations, for personal and professional reasons, and have seen politician after comedian after movie star after delicatessen owner — really, two of them, at the University of Michigan in 2015 — handed honorary degrees. I’ve also read the transcripts or watched videos of plenty more.
Sometimes the speakers are cheered, especially when they make the graduates laugh. Dolly Parton did that in 2009 at the University of Tennessee:
“I know that I am supposed to say something meaningful to you. Maybe some good advice for you to always remember. Now, I usually try not to give advice. Information, yes; advice, no. But, what has worked for me may not work for you. Well, take for instance what has worked for me. Wigs. Tight clothes. Push up bras. High-heel shoes, five-inch high-heel shoes. ... Now people are always asking me, what do you want people to say about you a hundred years from now? I always say I want them to say, ‘Dang, don’t she still look good for her age?’“
And sometimes they are heckled, such as in 2017, when students at the historically black Bethune-Cookman University in Florida booed and turned their backs on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Earlier, she had called historically black colleges and universities, which were created because blacks couldn’t attend white schools, “pioneers” of school choice, and many students were unhappy with her presence.
Honorary degrees, given to folks who have not done the required work to actually earn one, have been awarded since the Middle Ages. The first appears to be one given in 1478 or 1479 at the University of Oxford in England to Lionel Woodville, dean of Exeter and the brother-in-law of Edward IV.
The first in the United States, apparently, was awarded at Harvard University in 1692 to Puritan clergyman Increase Mather.
Schools say they select honorary degree recipients as a way of connecting with people who have made remarkable achievements in their field and who can represent the values they seek to promote in their students.
That, however, does not quite explain the choice of Kermit the Frog as a commencement speaker in 1996 at Southampton College, who said:
“Congratulations to all of you graduates. As we say in the wetlands, ‘Ribbit-ribbit-knee-deep-ribbit,’ which means, ‘May success and a smile always be yours ... even when you’re knee-deep in the sticky muck of life.’ “
Schools don’t like to say that there are, sometimes, hopes that the especially wealthy honourees might see fit to add the donor institution to their philanthropy roster, or, at the least, have the lustre of a luminary rub off on the college, even if only for a moment.
Sometimes, the honourees are graduates of the school, but often they have no connection — and are not likely to have much to do with the school again.
The honorary degrees themselves — usually honorary doctorates — have no formal value, even though Timberlake made several doctor jokes during his acceptance speech at Berklee: “You messed up giving me this award. You can’t tell me nothing now. I’m a doctor!”
Schools spend a lot of time looking for famous people who meet their criteria for an honorary degree. Gary Lee, an award-winning journalist, remembered when he was a student at Amherst College and was part of the selection process for honourees.
“It could be hard finding people who represented the spirit of the class,” he said. “And you always wanted someone who was famous because they added some prestige or other dimension to the ceremony. But sometimes they were taken [by other schools] or weren’t interested.”
My cynicism over this ritual began to melt when I saw Missy Elliott — a pioneer hip-hop innovator who recently became the first female hip-hop artist inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame — at Berklee’s graduation.
Melissa Arnette “Missy” Elliott, who was either genuinely moved or an Academy Award-grade actress — I’m going with the former — was one of three honourees at the ceremony. Along with Timberlake, whom you should know, was Alex Lacamoire, a Berklee graduate who is likely the most influential force in musical theatre whom you don’t know but should.
He was the musical director of the original Hamilton and a mountain of other brilliant works, and has won numerous Tony and Grammy awards. “I don’t even know how I’m standing here,” Elliott said, eyes brimming with tears as she thanked Berklee president Roger Brown and others who chose her for the honour. The crowd cheered and cheered.
Before introducing her, Brown listed some of the giants in music who had received honorary Berklee degrees in the past, including the first person to get one, Duke Ellington in 1971, and Aretha Franklin, in 2006. It was understandable that anyone would feel overwhelmed by being included on a list with those two. “I am so sorry that I’m a crybaby, but I’m about to wear this cap and gown in the shower, on all my next videos, wherever I go,” she said.
Like graduation speakers before her, she told the graduates to never give up, but she projected an authenticity that was undeniable. She warned graduates there would be ups and downs in their lives, and she related some of her own, including being kicked off her label and realising that she wasn’t “the look of beauty” that was in vogue when she was younger. She told of being nominated one night for 12 awards and walking away with none. At one point, she said: “My nervous system shut down on me. I thought this was it, there is no need for me to keep going, but something in my spirit, the drive and the patience, because you have to have patience. As long as you are breathing, it is never too late. People will tell you are too old, people will tell you it will never work. But don’t believe that.”
Timberlake gave a funny and sometimes moving speech, and at one point seemed to tear up, saying, “I said I wasn’t going to cry.”
He told students they had to try to accomplish things, no matter the consequences.
“You have to dare to suck,” he said. “You do. You have to dare to suck. You will never make something great if you are afraid it is going to suck and that you are going to fail.”
He also spoke about growing up and feeling like an outsider because of his passion for music, which others around him did not share or understand.
“When I was young, I felt like a weirdo,” he said. “I felt like I didn’t belong, and I look around the room and I feel like I found all the rest of the weirdos,” he said to thunderous applause.
Both Timberlake, who has won ten Grammys and plenty of other awards, and Lacamoire said receiving the honorary degree from Berklee was a singular event in their lives. Cynics may not believe them, but many in the crowd did. “To be bestowed this distinguished title for simply doing what I love, what I believe I was born to do,” Lacamoire said. “It fills me with a level of pride that I can’t compare to anything else I’ve felt until today.”
• Valerie Strauss is an education writer who authors The Answer Sheet blog. She joined The Washington Post as an assistant foreign editor for Asia in 1987 and weekend foreign desk editor after working for Reuters as national security editor and a military/foreign affairs reporter on Capitol Hill. She also previously worked at UPI and the Los Angeles Times