An honorary degree (Latin: honoris causa ad gradum) is an extra-ordinary academic degree awarded to an individual as a decoration, rather than as the result of matriculating and studying for several years. An honorary degree may be conferred by an institution that the recipient never attended. The degree itself may be a bachelor's, master's or doctorate degree — the latter being by far the most common. Usually the degree is conferred with great pomp and ceremony as a way of honoring a famous or distinguished visitor.
Honorary degrees are usually awarded at regular graduation ceremonies, at which the recipients are often invited to make a speech of acceptance before the assembled faculty and graduates — an event which often forms the highlight of the ceremony. Generally universities nominate several persons each year for honorary degrees, and these usually go through several committees before receiving approval. Those who are nominated are generally not told until a formal approval and invitation are made; often it is perceived that the system is shrouded in secrecy, and occasionally seen as political and controversial - in recent years a "lamentable" trend has been to award popular icons, such as politicians and actors, rather than scientists and scholars.
An ad eundem degree may also be considered a sort of honorary degree, although it is only conferred on an individual who has already achieved a comparable qualification at another university.
The first honorary degree was awarded to Lionel Woodville in the late 1470s by the University of Oxford. He later became Bishop of Salisbury.
Recipients of an honorary doctorate who do not also hold a bona fide doctorate often choose not to use the title of "doctor", though it may be appropriate to use the title provided it was conferred based on some tangible and relevant achievement. However, in many countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, it is not customary for an honorary doctorate to receive the formal title of "doctor", regardless of the background circumstances for the award.
The recipient of an honorary degree may add the degree title postnominally, but they should always make clear that the degree is honorary by adding "honorary" or "honoris causa" or "h.c." in parenthesis after the degree title. For instance, if Joe Bloggs receives an honorary doctorate, his appropriate title might be (for instance) Mr. Joe Bloggs, PhD (honorary).
In recent years, some universities have adopted entirely separate postnominal titles for honorary degrees. This is in part due to the confusion that honorary degrees have caused. It is now common to use certain degrees, such as LLD or HonD, as purely honorary. For instance, an honorary doctor of the Auckland University of Technology takes the special title HonD instead of the ususal PhD.
Some universities also have the custom of awarding an honorary master's degree to every scholar it appoints as a full professor who had never earned a degree there, as a way of co-opting him as an alumnus. This is particularly true at the University of Cambridge, where all senior staff (whether academic faculty or not) are eligible for a special master's degree after five years of service.
Some universities and colleges have been accused of granting honorary degrees in exchange for large donations. Honorary degree recipients, particularly those who have no academic qualifications, have sometimes been criticized if they insist on being called "Doctor" as a result of their award as the honorific may mislead the general public about their qualifications.
The practice of awarding honorary degrees to celebrities has also been criticised. Detractors argue that such honorary degrees debase the value of a degree and are an attempt by the university to obtain media attention. Various honorary degree recipients have been criticised for not being meritorious. On various campuses, the awarding of an honorary degree to a controversial political figure has prompted protests from faculty or students. In 2001, the conferment of an honorary degree to George W. Bush by Yale University prompted a boycott of the university's commencement ceremony by numerous students and faculty.