Important scholars (e.g. Nobel laureates) regularly receive honorary doctorate from different universities. I know that the Board of Trustees (or a similar board) reviews available nominations and awards an honorary degree to a person, but I wonder how the nomination process is conducted.

It seems to be very chancy, as there are many universities and many famous scholars. Usually there were no previous relationship between the awarding university and awardee. For example, it is common for a Nobel Prize winner to receive honorary doctorate from 30 universities. He/she could have previous connections (e.g. collaboration, contribution, etc) with only a few of them.

How does a nominator suggest awarding to an eligible but irrelevant scholar?

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    The policy depends on the institution, so you'd have to check each of the ones you're interested in. Examples: Cambridge, McGill, etc.
    – F'x
    Commented Apr 15, 2013 at 13:49
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    My impression is that people are given honorary degrees when they are invited by the university to speak. Commented Apr 15, 2013 at 15:02
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    This question seems to be well answered by wikipedia. Is there something more you need?
    – StrongBad
    Commented Apr 17, 2013 at 14:28
  • @DanielE.Shub I did not find any point on my question in the Wikipedia page. My question is: University A awards honorary doctorate to Noble Prize winner A, not B. Is it merely chancy? Every year about 10 scientists receive Noble Prize, and all of them receive honorary doctorate from higher education institutions. How this match is made? Only by chance? Just by chance University of Cambridge choose (through chancy nominations) to award an honorary doctorate to one of them?
    – Googlebot
    Commented Apr 18, 2013 at 7:33
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    "He/she could have previous connections (e.g. collaboration, contribution, etc) with only a few of them." - are you sure you aren't underestimating the amount of networking going on in academia, as well as the frequency of collaboration? Even during the few years of getting a doctoral degree, I collaborated with people from five different universities. I would not at all rule out the possibility that nobel laureates indeed have some connections with 30 or more institutes from different universities. Commented Jun 6, 2016 at 20:26

2 Answers 2


Some universities allow faculty to nominate those chosen for honorary degrees. From what I understand, some even allow certain members of the graduating class and/or student council to nominate & vote. At other institutions, the senate, department heads, deans, president or chancellor may pick the candidates. Some institutions may have a nomination body and a voting body. I would think that it depends upon the size of the institution.

To find out for sure, check out websites for specific universities. Often times universities have focused areas of research or a campus wide research goal for which they have TONS of funding. On most occasions, honorary degrees are awarded to those who are conducting research in that field. They often award honorary degrees to those who are active in their communities as well.

Another common thing with honorary degrees: once an individual has been granted one other institutions will sometimes scramble to recognize that person as well. This is especially true if both institutions are located in the same area, or if they largely focus on the same research matters. People who make a difference on a global scale are often chosen as recipients of honorary degrees not only because they've made a difference, but because a university is, after all, still a business. If they give someone famous an honorary degree, you can bet it will be on the news. It will even get better coverage if other universities have also awarded the person with honorary degrees! Sometimes they look for a unique person to give an honorary degree to- because that will also get more coverage (for example, people from minority groups or from third world countries).

Each university has their own policy regarding nominations and different criterion, but they're all about creating a buzz. They may pick a First Nations community leader as a recipient in hoping that they will attract more students from that community. They also use honorary degrees as a way to network. If they want to meet their idol, they award them with an honorary degree so that person has to come and meet them to accept it (it is, after all, only polite, right?).

If you're curious about individual schools, you can look up the honorary degree recipients - they will often state why the person was given the degree. The key thing to remember is that they could come across anyone and find a reason to nominate them. They may see a firefighter on the news who saved the lives of people by rushing into a burning building. They attribute great courage to that person, so they nominate them to receive an honorary degree in emergency service operations. Their spouse, friend or neighbor may tell them an inspiring story which urges them to do more research on the person. Then that person ends up nominated! Yes, they have criterion, but it is flexible. They can word their statements for nomination in such a way that anyone would be fit for an honorable degree.


Often honorary degrees are awarded because an individual is seen to have done some service to the field in question, often outside the normal confines of academia.

A notable example is Jeremy Clarkson who holds an honorary doctorate in engineering form Brunel University, even though he clearly doesn't have the equivalent technical or academic knowledge. In this case it is more about his prominence as a motoring journalist and broadcaster. Note that this was a bit controversial at the time.

This is often a two way street, with an academic institution recognising a person who has some links to the institution itself or the local area and may be a way of attracting or rewarding high profile patrons.

On one hand an honorary degrees is a 'free' form of currency for a university to dish out at virtually no cost to themselves, but of course they don't want to dilute it too much or it will loose it's (already rather vague) value.

The actual decision making process will depend on the management structure of the university but would normally need to be approved at a high level ultimately by the Vice-Chancellor via the Senate, or Equivalent body and it is fairly reasonable to assume that formal nominations originate at Chair or Head of Department level vial whatever political structures exist in any given institution.

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