Q&A: Rick Levin

How Yale decides on honorary degrees

An alumnus asks, "Why not honor an unsung hero?"

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

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Y: Harold Williams, Yale College ’40, sent us a question about honorary degrees. Before we get to it, I want to cover some background. First, from Yale's website, it's clear there aren't formal criteria for a Yale honorary degree. But there's a statement that these people “represent collectively the aspirations of this institution.”

L: We want to recognize excellence -- truly distinctive, pathbreaking contributions in whatever field of endeavor the recipient represents. We look at this also with an eye to inspiring the students who are graduating. We think of the honorary degree recipients as exemplars of excellence, people who have led the kinds of lives that our young graduates should aspire to. It's one of my favorite moments of the year, reading the citations and seeing the reaction of the audience -- which is usually quite warm and sometimes wildly enthusiastic.

Y: Your committee includes representatives of the Corporation, AYA [Association of Yale Alumni], University Council, and faculty. How do they solicit names? And how many names are put forward?

L: Annually, the secretary's office sends out letters to the faculty and to other constituencies, like the AYA board of governors and the fellows of the Corporation, to solicit nominations. Any member of the Yale community can send a nomination -- we often get unsolicited letters from alumni. At any given time, there must be two to three hundred candidates under consideration. The binder is at least three inches thick. At a certain point, the committee decides who should be given top consideration in a given year, and the original list shrinks to maybe 40 or 50 serious candidates. Those people are looked at very intensively. Opinions of faculty and alumni experts are often solicited.

Y: There is often a Yale connection.

L: In a normal year, we award eight or nine honorary degrees, and typically one, two, or three have previous Yale degrees.

Y: I've seen citations for honorary degrees elsewhere that start off not with the achievements, but with the million-dollar gift. Is money a factor for Yale?

L: It can be, but in my time we've never recognized a person exclusively for philanthropy to Yale. A number of honorary degrees have been awarded to people who have been generous to Yale, but they have also distinguished themselves in other areas. Richard Gilder [’54, HON ’07] is a perfect example. He was the entrepreneur behind the Class of ’54's wonderful 50th reunion gift, but he has also been an extremely creative philanthropist elsewhere. He initiated the campaign to build the Rose planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. He led the conservation and improvement of Central Park. He has funded programs to educate high school teachers about American history.

Y: Harold Williams writes, “You honor several important and publicly recognized people every year. Why not honor an Unsung Hero -- for example, an alumnus who has spent many hours of volunteer work in community projects such as school tutors, ambulance squads, tax counseling, church work, city commissions -- without much recognition?”

L: The key is excellence and inspiration. We have actually thought about this idea and made some efforts, for example, to find a truly inspiring schoolteacher to recognize. We just haven't yet found a compelling example. So I am very sympathetic to the spirit of the question. The committee has on a couple of occasions identified less well-known individuals who have made really important social or civic contributions. So by no means would we rule out an unsung hero. I hope Mr. Williams or any other reader with ideas for us will send nominations. We would definitely consider them.

Y: Can you think of anybody Yale has honored in the past who would fall under that rubric?

L: We found people who work in areas of healthcare, environment, or poverty eradication efforts in developing countries -- people who weren't particularly well known in the U.S. at the time. A couple of them subsequently won Nobel Peace prizes [Wangari Maathai and Muhammad Yunus]. But frankly, these names wouldn't have come to our attention if they didn't have some visible recognition. The bulk of nominations are people who have some fame.

Y: You've had political controversy in the past. George W. Bush [’68] famously told the New York Times he disliked the fact that Yale didn't give his father a degree until late in his father's term. Then as soon as the younger Bush took office, Yale gave him a degree.

L: We were aware that the university had recognized the senior George Bush rather late, and the committee wished not to make the same mistake.

Y: But you never gave Bill Clinton an honorary degree.

L: Don't assume that we never invited him.

Y: Have you had a favorite?

L: The committee chose Willie Mays [honored in 2004] as a gift to me. I had no idea he was under consideration. Knowing of my passion for baseball and that Willie Mays was my childhood hero, the committee made the recommendation without my knowledge. It was great having Paul Simon, too -- he was really lively and fun. We sat up half the night talking about the music of our generation. But it's hard to single out favorites. Every year it is a thrill to meet so many brilliant, accomplished, and inspiring people.

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