There’s no standard for honorary degrees.
Judging by some of last weekend’s commencements, the criteria for honorary degrees — the number awarded and the connections of the recipients to the schools — are all over the map.
UNC-CH and State awarded honorary degrees to their respective speakers; UNCG and ECU didn’t. Of the 11 folks counted above, only one is an alum of the school that honored him (the ECU recipient, in case you don’t want to click through all the links), and only one (one of the UNC recipients) actually worked at the school. The rest are donors or people notable for their professional achievements, or some combination of both.
A couple of local colleges stand out from this randomness by honoring people who have made deep and lasting contributions to the institution.
On Saturday, Greensboro College awarded an honorary degree to Walter Newman, the outgoing chairman of the college’s Board of Trustees. Newton’s not from Greensboro (his company is in Butner), and he didn’t go to the college (his mom did).
But Newton and his wife have given plenty of money to the school over the years. More importantly, Newton has led the board since 2011, during some pretty dark days for the college — “a period during which the college has emerged successfully from a financial and related accrediting crisis that came to a head during the Great Recession,” as the release from Greensboro College put it.
Newton has served on the board since 1995. His family’s ties to the college go all the way back to the 1920s, when some of his mother’s cousins attended the school.
Next Saturday, Guilford College will award an honorary doctor to Doug Gilmer, who worked in the college’s dining services operation for 46 years. Former students say he was a mentor.
Gilmer has been honored by the college before. He’s in their sports hall of fame and is one of just four honorary alums of the college.
Gilmer is getting only the second honorary degree in Guilford's history. The first, awarded a year ago, went to a trauma surgeon from Boston.
Here’s Guilford’s president, Jane Fernandes, via email on the topic of honorary degrees:
At Guilford College, the Board of Trustees approves honorary degrees. The decision to begin awarding honorary degrees is borne of our desire as a community to lift up and affirm our Core Values, as embodied by the honorees.
Doug Gilmer was a remarkable mentor and friend to countless students and alumni during his 46 years of distinguished service at Guilford College. His wisdom, humility and integrity inspired generations to serve the community, solve social problems, and focus on the greater good. We are honored to present an honorary degree to Doug Gilmer in gratitude for the gifts he shared selflessly with our community for almost half a century.
When I see news about honorary degree recipients, I always wonder, Why this person? And why now? In the case of Walter Newton and Doug Gilmer, those answers are both clear and satisfying.
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