The Mona campus of the University of the West Indies has announced that it will honour world record holder, Usain Bolt, with an honorary doctorate in Laws. In a press release, the University cited Mr. Bolt’s “athletic prowess” and “contribution to regional advancement” as the reasons for the award. Perhaps predictably, members of the academic community, particularly students of Law, have condemned the move as outrageous and ill advised.
But what is an honorary degree? And what is it’s use, if any?
According to The Oxford University Press, an honorary degree, or a degree honoris causa (for the sake of the honour), is an academic degree granted by a university, after the institution has waived the normal requirements for the award of such a degree (registration, residence, examinations etc). This degree is normally granted in recognition of an individual’s contribution to a specific discipline or the society in general. The university usually derives benefits from it’s association with the individual in question. Keep the preceding sentence in mind as you read the rest of this post.
The Oxford University Press opines that once the degree is granted in accordance with the terms of the University’s charter, it technically has the same standing as a substantive degree in the same field. That is, a degree which was read for. The holder of the honorary degree is entitled to the same styles of address, honours and privileges as their substantive counterparts, unless the university explicitly states otherwise. Since the UWI, Mona has not denied Mr. Bolt the style of address or privilege, we can safely assume that Mr. Bolt is to be styled Dr. The Honourable Usain St. Leo Bolt O.D. O.J.
Nothing sounds more ridiculous. Nothing.
I do not “bad mind” Usain; nor am I a “hater”. My objection to him being granted this honour is purely on my firm conviction that he does not deserve it. If we are to trace those who have been granted honorary degrees in the past by the UWI, we encounter names such as Michael Lee Chin and John Maxwell. These are individuals who have truly made indelible marks in their fields. Usain ran a race and won. It cannot be understood to be the equivalent of years of hard work and sacrifice. It simply cannot.
What is further distressing is that on his own academic merit, it is highly unlikely that Mr. Bolt would qualify for such a degree. Considering Bolt’s youth and arguable recklessness, (see his partying antics and speeding on the highways of Jamaica), are all these titles and honours wise? I don’t think so. Bolt has done very little to earn himself a place with those who truly have made strides in regional advancement and development. As a people, indeed as a region, our priorities are flawed. In an attempt to attract tourists, we have steadily elevated athletes far beyond their competence. The ability to run is a natural talent, the region benefits very little from Usain’s talent. Has our government used him as an ambassador for the development of sport? Has he contributed to the maintenance of sporting infrastructure in Jamaica? Or has he signed multi million dollar contracts that benefit himself? Someone needs to explain the regional cause he has advanced. I am not readily recalling any.
I’ve also considered the argument which suggests that we ought to honour him before our international counterparts do.
“Mek wi honour our own before di farrinaz”
I find this seriously wanting. It is not enough to suggest that because he attracts international attention we must honour him. We must see how this international attention actively and positively advances the region’s interests. He needs to earn the honours and titles. Otherwise, we risk opening the door for serious consideration of Bob Marley becoming a national hero. We may as well award Portia Simpson Miller a doctorate of laws for being one of the few women in the region to be Head of Government. Do you see where I’m going with this? We risk belittling the honour of the honour. It must be earned on merit, not on hype and euphoria.
Let us consider the Doctorate of Laws itself. Considering that Mr. Bolt will be accorded the same styles and privileges as a “real” Doctor of Laws, we must be concerned. This is a degree held by noted and respected legal minds such as Dr. Lloyd G. Barnett. It is not a degree that is a walk in the park. It’s a big deal. The Bachelors of Laws at UWI, Mona costs some $USD 10,000. That’s some $JMD 800,000. It requires a candidate to apply his or herself and persevere to the very end. In other words, they have to work for it, and work very hard. It cannot be easy to think someone who will never know the stress and strain in studying for a Law degree gets the very highest academic privilege and honour in legal studies.
My problem rests in merit. Does he deserve it on merit? Did he work hard enough? Did he contribute enough? Did he prove himself enough? Did he show himself worthy? Seriously, did he? I am not even comfortable with him having the Order of Jamaica. Do some research on the other recipients of that national award and perhaps you’ll see why. He distinguished himself, that is undeniable and therefore I believe the Order of Distinction is fitting, but that is as far as I am prepared to go.
Finally, we must interrogate UWI Mona’s motives for awarding him the degree. “Yuh neva see smoke widout fire”. It is my considered opinion that this is purely a marketing strategy. The university will benefit by it’s association with Dr. Bolt (BUH!) – the fancy blue track at the UWI Bowl? Endorsed by Mr. Bolt. Whether it is to attract sponsorship for the cash strapped institution, or attract international students who might want to study at an institution that has awarded the world’s fastest man, the university will benefit. The undeniable truth is that he is very marketable, he can attract large sums of money, money the UWI needs desperately. That’s only an opinion of course. It has no base in fact.
I don’t believe Mr. Bolt should be awarded a degree in Law. He has not, in my opinion, done enough to earn the honour or title. I’m sure those who have tagged me as a “hater” are now anxiously awaiting their chance to bash me. The mic is now open, go ahead. Dr. The Hon. Usain St. Leo Bolt O.D. O.J. does not deserve it.