Uba’s Honorary Doctorate: Why UniZik Was Right

The recent award by Nnamdi Azikiwe University (UniZik), of an honorary Doctor of Public Administration (DPA), to Andy Uba, during its eighth convocation on November 21, 2009, generated some controversies. While some hailed it as a worthy appreciation of Uba’s donation of a communication centre, said to be worth over N50m, to the university, others condemned it as being utterly in bad taste. Former Governor of Anambra state, Dr Chinwoke Mbadinuju, was quoted as calling the award ‘a reward for evil’. Some also argued that to award an honorary doctorate to someone who is thought not to have a proven bachelor’s degree cheapens the value of such an honour. Yet others argue that suspicions that Uba had been one of the brains behind the recent politics of infamy in Anambra state disqualify him from being honoured by any credible institution in the state. I beg to disagree.

One, an honorary degree – also known as degree honoris causa – (Latin: ‘for the sake of the honour’) could be conferred on any one for a variety of reasons. It could be conferred on someone who is already academically distinguished in the field or on a public figure or a philanthropist who has been a pillar of support to the university or whom the university is wooing. An honorary doctorate could be conferred even on a non-person. For instance in 1996 Southampton College at Long Island University, USA, (now a campus of SUNY Stony Brook) awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters to the Muppet, Kermit the Frog – one of the puppeteers in Jim Henson’s famous Muppet creations. Though Southampton College claimed the award was in recognition of the Muppet’s efforts in the area of environmentalism, some people suspected it was deliberately aimed at attracting media attention. An institution could also award or deny an honorary degree to someone to make a point. For instance in 1985, as a deliberate snub, the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, voted to refuse the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher an honorary degree in protest against her cuts in funding for higher education. The award had previously been given to all Prime Ministers who had been educated at Oxford.

Contrary to the belief in some quarters, you do not necessarily need to have earned a bachelor’s degree or to be a ‘model citizen’ to be awarded an honorary doctorate. Retired heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson had by the age of 13 been arrested 38 times for sundry crimes. His only education was graduating from reform school to boxing. Yet, Tyson was in 1989 awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters by Central State University in Ohio. The award could have been as much an appreciation of his philanthropy as it was to tie his hands to be of ‘good behaviour’ or to woo him into donating to the university.

Two, while there are legitimate concerns about Andy Uba’s sources of wealth, and his politics, (or what we suspect it to be since he prefers to operate from behind the scenes), for as long as he has not been convicted of any crime in the country, and his donations are for good causes, they should be accepted and appreciated. I would even want to see the moneybags and godfathers encouraged to build and maintain structures in our schools, which will be named after them.

A close scrutiny of many of the world’s famous philanthropists will reveal that they are not necessarily saints. The French novelist Honoré de Balzac in fact tells us that behind every great fortune lies a hidden great crime. Consider George Soros, regarded as one of the world’s greatest philanthropists. Many people continue to suspect a dark side to Soros partly because like Andy Uba, he operates clandestinely, far from the spotlight enjoyed by most of his fellow billionaires. In 1995, Soros shocked many people by openly disapproving of his father’s reluctance to die, despite being gravely ill. Soros was quoted as saying: “My father unfortunately wanted to live … and I was kind of disappointed in him…. I wrote him off.” In 1992, Soros earned $1 billion by selling short the pound sterling, forcing Britain to bail out of the European Monetary System. In 1997, Soros and other speculators triggered the Southeast Asian currency collapse that caused the biggest one-day drop in the history of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Despite these, Soros has received honorary degrees from the New School for Social Research in New York City, the University of Oxford, the Budapest University of Economics, and Yale University. In 1995, the University of Bologna, Italy, awarded him its highest honour, the Laurea Honoris Causa, in recognition of his efforts to promote open societies throughout the world.

Three, the award to Andy Uba could signal to the ‘political godfathers’ and moneybags in Anambra state that one could use one’s money to immortalise oneself rather than fomenting trouble and seeking to personalise the public space. The award could even be used to helm the godfathers and moneybags into ‘perpetual good behaviour’ if they know they could be rescinded if they behave badly. For instance both the University of Edinburgh, UK, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA revoked honorary degrees they awarded to the Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe on grounds of human right abuses.

Four, UniZik used the award to attract very good media attention. Though Uba was not the only one honoured, his award attracted the most press coverage and UniZik smartly tapped into the controversy to sell itself, including letting us know about its “impressive main Festus Aghagbo Nwako Library with seating capacity of 2,500 and 500-computer virtual Library space” and its ambition to be among the 500 best universities in the world. Nigerian universities should not be shy of exploiting their brand name and value to shore up their revenues. In fact, were Nigeria a country where universities compete to attract foreign students, the award to Andy Uba would have been a PR coup for UniZik.

Five, while I believe the honorary doctorate to Uba was right, UniZik should perhaps have been more creative in the choice of honour. To confer on him Doctor of Public Administration raises a legitimate question of Uba’s contributions in the field of public administration. Perhaps UniZik could have followed the practice in some universities by simply calling the award, ‘Doctor of the University’ (DUniv). It could also have adopted a modified version of the practice by the Stanford Alumni Association, which occasionally awards the Degree of Uncommon Man/Woman to individuals who have given “rare and exceptional service” to the university.

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