Who doesn't have an honorary doctorate?

It's convocation season. Although not de rigeur, university convocation keynote speakers usually receive an honorary doctorate as well. Which means they are ... well, what nowadays does it mean?

Between Oxford University's first honorary doctorate awarded to the Bishop of Salisbury in the 15th century, and Southampton College at Long Island's 20th century Honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters to Kermit the Frog, the ceremonials of university graduation have been preserved, but the who and why (and in some cases why not) of the honorary doctorate is a whole other story.

Hon docs today are a hodge podge. They're still awarded to deserving traditional types who have made significant contributions to positive human knowledge, or to outstanding exemplars of public service. But increasingly they're also awarded to celebrities (Kermit, as noted, ex-con Mike Tyson, game show host Bob Barker ), invited solely on the grounds of popular recognition and their professional experience in raising laughter and applause from superficially educated audiences with tweet-long attention spans.

This trend is doubtless an inevitable corollary to the democratization and concomitant dumbing down of higher education. When England's doyen of letters Samuel Johnson got his hon docs from Trinity College, Dublin and Oxford, it was a buyer's market; a handful of universities could choose amongst a plethora of learned men. Today there is a handful of universities in every biggish city, not to mention one in virtually every small town in New England. This multitude of institutions jostles to attract too few top candidates.

Modern universities also have prosaic concerns beyond edifiying the graduating class. Sol Linowitz, formerly ambassador to the Organization of American States and chairman of the board at Xerox, has 64 hon docs. His friend, writer Joseph Epstein (himself an hon doc, so disinterested), says Linowitz represents the near perfect candidate: "someone not disgraceful who might donate a large sum to the school that [has] honoured him."

So fund raising is a consideration, but there are others. Diversity, for example. Woe to the university that slights representation from the usual politically correct groups, which inevitably leads to the honouring of lower or even dubious achievements. Northwestern University (from which actresses Julia Roberts and Julia Louis-Dreyfus have received hon docs) was forced to withdraw its invitation to Reverend Jeremiah Wright during the presidential campaign in 2008 for obvious reasons. But what were they thinking in the first place?

Some universities, like MIT, Cornell and Stanford, don't award hon docs at all, while the University of Chicago does not honour businessmen or politicians. Perhaps wise in these politically charged times, when controversial choices can backfire, staining the university archive and arousing resentment in the wider community.

The University of Massachusetts (Amherst) and the University of Edinburgh, for example, were embarrassed into stripping the tyrannical thug Robert Mugabe of hon docs awarded in his more auspicious salad days (memo to university presidents: Choose proven commodities nearing the end of their career trajectory). Oxford foolishly bruited its self-righteous refusal to honour Margaret Thatcher because she cut university budgets.

More hon doc gaffes: Last year the University of Arizona invited Barack Obama to speak at commencement but refused to offer an hon doc. They said it had to be for "lifetime achievement," even though they had formerly given pre-ascendant hon docs to two future star Arizonans, Barry Goldwater and Sandra Day O'Connor. That got Arizona U into hot water with liberals. But Obama was awarded an hon doc at Notre Dame, a Catholic university, in spite of his liberal abortion views, and that got Notre Dame into hot water with conservatives.

Canada has seen similar tense situations. Abortionist Henry Morgentaler's 2005 hon doc from UWO garnered 12,000 protest letters (and 10,000 support letters to counter them). Ryerson University's 2006 hon doc to McGill bioethicist Margaret Somerville evoked virulent protest amongst gays incensed at her disapproval of gay marriage.

Joseph Epstein was once asked to fill in for a sick commencement speaker at an Illinois university. A modest honorarium was attached and, the president added, "Of course we'll toss in an honorary degree." Epstein wryly reflects: "I turned down the invitation but have never forgotten the phrase 'toss in,' and even now regret I didn't say to him that I'd much rather he toss in a rear-window defogger."

Sic transeunt honores mundi.