Usually the degree is conferred as a way of honoring a distinguished visitor's contributions to a specific field, or to society in general. The university often derives benefits by association with the person in question.
The practice dates back to the middle ages, when for various reasons a university might be persuaded, or otherwise see fit, to grant exemption from some or all of the usual statutory requirements for award of a degree.
On the visit of James I to Oxford in 1605, for example, forty-three members of his retinue (fifteen of whom were earls or barons) received the degree of Master of Arts, and the Register of Convocation explicitly states that these were full degrees, carrying the usual privileges (such as voting rights in Convocation and Congregation).
The term honorary degree is a slight misnomer: honoris causa degrees, being awarded by a university under the terms of its charter, may be considered to have technically the same standing as 'real' degrees, except where explicitly stated to the contrary. Honorary degrees are often considered not to be of the same standing as substantive degrees, except where the recipient has demonstrated an appropriate level of academic scholarship that would ordinarily qualify them for the award of a substantive degree.
An ad eundem or jure dignitatis degree is sometimes considered honorary, although they are only conferred on an individual who has already achieved a comparable qualification at another university or by attaining an office requiring the appropriate level of scholarship.
Although higher doctorates such as DSc, DLitt, etc, are often awarded honoris causa, in many countries (notably the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand) it is possible formally to earn such a degree. This typically involves the submission of a portfolio of peer-refereed research, usually undertaken over a number of years, which has made a substantial contribution to the academic field in question. The university will appoint a panel of examiners who will consider the case and prepare a report recommending whether or not the degree be awarded. Usually, the applicant must have some strong formal connection with the university in question, for example full-time academic staff, or graduates of several years' standing.
Some universities, seeking to differentiate between substantive and honorary doctorates, have a degree (often DUniv, or 'Doctor of the University') which is used for these purposes, with the other higher doctorates reserved for formally-examined academic scholarship.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has the power to award degrees. These 'Lambeth degrees' are sometimes, erroneously, thought to be honorary; however the Archbishop has for many centuries had the legal authority (originally as the representative of the Pope, later confirmed by a 1533 Act of Henry VIII), to award degrees, and regularly does so to individuals who have either passed an examination or are deemed to have satisfied the appropriate requirements.
Between the two extremes of honoring celebrities and formally assessing a portfolio of research, many universities use honorary degrees to recognize achievements of intellectual rigor that are comparable to an earned degree. Some learned societies award honorary fellowships in the same way as honorary degrees are awarded by universities, and for similar reasons.
In the United Kingdom the author and lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson, who had some years earlier been unable (due to financial considerations) to complete his undergraduate studies at Pembroke College, Oxford, was awarded the degree of Master of Arts by diploma in 1755, in recognition of his scholarly achievements. In 1765, Trinity College, Dublin awarded him the degree of Doctor of Laws, and in 1775 Oxford bestowed upon him the degree of Doctor of Civil Law by diploma. It is unclear how much these degrees count as "honorary", though, as they were bestowed in recognition of a specific, undoubtedly substantial and original scholarly work, and one that was arguably far more deserving than many other doctoral theses submitted at the time.
The recipient of an honorary degree may add the degree title postnominally, but it should always be made clear that the degree is honorary by adding "honorary" or "honoris causa" or "h.c." in parenthesis after the degree title. In many countries, one who holds an honorary doctorate may use the title "doctor" prenominally, abbreviated Dr.h.c. or Dr.(h.c.). Sometimes, they use "Hon" before the degree letters, for example, Hon DMus.
In recent years, some universities have adopted entirely separate post nominal titles for honorary degrees. This is in part due to the confusion that honorary degrees have caused. It is now common to use certain degrees, such as LL.D. or Hon.D., as purely honorary. For instance, an honorary doctor of the Auckland University of Technology takes the special title Hon.D. instead of the usual Ph.D. Some universities, including the Open University grant Doctorates of the University (D.Univ.) to selected nominees, while awarding Ph.D. or Ed.D. degrees to those who have fulfilled the academic requirements.
Most American universities award the degrees of LL.D. (Doctor of Laws), the Litt.D. (Doctor of Letters), the L.H.D. (Doctor of Humane Letters), the Sc.D. (Doctor of Science), the Ped.D. (Doctor of Pedagogy) and the D.D. (Doctor of Divinity) only as honorary degrees. American universities do not have the system of "higher doctorates" used in the UK and at other universities around the world.
These ad eundem degrees are earned degrees, not honorary, because they recognize formal learning.
Similarly a jure dignitatis degree is one awarded to someone who has demonstrated their eminence and scholarship by being appointed to a particular office. Thus, for example, a D.D. might be conferred upon a bishop on the occasion of their consecration, or a judge created LL.D. or D.C.L. upon their appointment to the bench. These, also, are properly considered substantive rather than honorary degrees.
The awarding of an honorary degree to political figures almost always prompts protests from faculty or students. In 2001, George W. Bush received an honorary degree from Yale University where he had earned his bachelor's degree in history in 1968. Some students and faculty chose to boycott the university's 300th commencement.
In 1985, as a deliberate snub, the University of Oxford voted to refuse Margaret Thatcher an honorary degree in protest against her cuts in funding for higher education. This award had always previously been given to all Prime Ministers who had been educated at Oxford.
In 2005 at the University of Western Ontario, Dr. Henry Morgentaler, a gynecologist involved in a legal case decriminalizing abortion in Canada (R. v. Morgentaler), was made an honorary Doctor of Laws. Over 12,000 signatures were acquired asking the UWO to reverse its decision to honor Dr. Morgentaler. Several protest rallies were held, including one on the day the honorary degree was bestowed (a counter petition to support Morgentaler's degree gained 10,000 signatures.)
Few people object when an honorary degree is awarded in a field that the awardee is noted for. McGill University's decision to grant musician Joni Mitchell an honorary Doctor of Music in 2004 was unopposed, although it was timed to coincide with a symposium about Mitchell's career.
In 1996 Southampton College at Long Island University (now a campus of SUNY Stony Brook) awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters to Muppet Kermit the Frog. Although some students objected to awarding a degree to a puppet, Kermit delivered an enjoyable commencement address and the small college received considerable press coverage. It should be noted, too, that the degree was conferred in recognition of efforts in the area of environmentalism. Said the university: "His theme song, 'It's Not Easy Bein' Green,' has become a rallying cry of the environmental movement. Kermit has used his celebrity to spread positive messages in public service announcements for the National Wildlife Federation, National Parks Service, the Better World Society, and others.
Some universities, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology , Cornell University , Stanford, the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Virginia , do not award honorary degrees. MIT does, however, on rare occasions award honorary professorships; Winston Churchill was so honored in 1949 and Salman Rushdie in 1993. Similarly, the Stanford Alumni Association occasionally awards the Degree of Uncommon Man/Woman to individuals who have given "rare and exceptional service" to the university.
The Philosophy faculty at Cambridge courted controversy amongst the academic community in the early 1990s over its initial refusal to award an honorary doctorate to Jacques Derrida, on the grounds that his work did not conform with accepted measures of academic rigor. Although the faculty eventually passed the motion, the episode did more to draw attention to the continuing antipathy between the analytic (of which Cambridge's faculty is a leading exponent) and the post-Hegelian continental philosophical traditions (with which Derrida's work is more closely associated) rather than the official reasons given.
In 2007 protesters demanded that the University of Edinburgh revoke an honorary degree awarded to Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe in 1984. The University subsequently revealed plans to review its honorary degree policy and strip certain figures of their honorary degrees who did not deserve them. When considering revoking the honorary degree of a political figure, such reasons as human rights abuse or political corruption would be considered. As a result, it was announced that Mugabe had been stripped of his honorary degree. The University also planned to have a more rigorous selection procedure regarding potential recipients of honorary degrees, in an attempt to rectify the trend of awarding degrees to celebrities. Students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst also asked the university to revoke the honorary degree that was awarded to Mugabe over twenty years ago, and on June 12, 2008 the trustees unanimously rescinded Robert Mugabe's honorary degree.