From the Editor

The “private” Yale degree

Judge Robert Bork got his in 1965. Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria ’86 received one in 2006. The two Nobel laureates currently on the Yale faculty each have one. So does Roland Betts ’68—wealthy Manhattan developer and close friend of George W. Bush ’68 (who doesn’t).

What sterling credential is shared by real estate tycoons, pundits, and nominees to the Supreme Court? The Honorary Master of Arts (MAH): an elite degree held by some 1,120 of Yale’s 164,000 alumni. This is not the honorary degree Yale gives every year to the likes of Aretha Franklin and Orhan Pamuk (see “Recipients of Honorary Degrees”). The MAH is granted to every full professor, senior officer, or member of the Corporation—Yale’s governing board—who lacks an advanced Yale degree. Zakaria and Betts received their MAHs when they joined the Corporation. Bork’s MAH dates from his tenure at the Law School.

Why does Yale give these rather superfluous degrees? Tradition. The MAH is one of those customs that grew out of Yale’s English heritage and New England insularity. Yale didn’t have a faculty in the modern sense, historian George Pierson ’26, ’33PhD, has written, until its second century. For most of that century, from the 1801 centennial to 1877, the tenured faculty was made up almost entirely of Yale graduates. Just one outsider was tenured. But by 1887 he had six colleagues. Then the world started arriving in earnest: from 1877 to 1907, the Yale Alumni Weekly (the first incarnation of this magazine) reported in March 1908, 55 percent of tenure appointments went to “non-Yale-bred men.”

The Weekly approved of the influx, for “it is to new educational notions that a progressive and modern university must look.” But it also sounded a note of anxiety: “it cannot be expected that graduates of other colleges would feel the traditions and special characteristics of their new institutions as would its own graduates.” That anxiety might have been a factor in Yale’s adoption, in 1881, of the MA Privatim—the privately awarded MA, granted not at commencement but in a separate, more limited event. Today the MAH is still privatim, conferred in what the Yale Secretary’s Office website calls “an annual elegant, brief ceremony, usually in February or March.”

Yale didn’t invent the MAH; Harvard, Penn, and other elite East Coast schools also still give an MAH or equivalent, and they all inherited the idea from Oxford and Cambridge. But in the late 1800s, the MA Privatim clearly served a Yale community purpose. Perhaps it assuaged alumni and faculty pride, or gave the outsiders an official welcome, or made their access more palatable to insiders. Or all of the above.

By the 1960s, Yale was giving between one and three dozen MAHs every year. Henry “Sam” Chauncey Jr. ’57, who became secretary of the university (and got his MAH) in 1971, remembers that President Kingman Brewster Jr. ’41 “felt it was as much a gracious welcome to the spouses and families as the symbolic act of making the person a Yale graduate.” By the year 1999–2000, according to the Yale Office of Institutional Research, just 22 percent of tenured faculty in Yale College and the Graduate School had Yale PhDs.

Opinion about the MAH varies. Chauncey sees the graciousness, but “a kind of arrogance in it as well.” Chemical engineer Gary Haller was touched when he got his MAH in 1980 and thought it an inclusive gesture. Biologist John Carlson (MAH 1999) remembers finding in the mailbox “a curious document that magically transformed me into a Yale graduate. It was quaint. I can’t say I ever list it on my CV, but it is one of the ways in which Yale is… different.”

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