Yale Commencement – Awards for Everyone

This year’s Yale University Commencement consisted of two acts, a dozen Honorary Degrees followed by Awards for Everyone.

Act one occurred on the Old Campus at 10:30 AM and act two moved to the residential colleges at noon for awards and diplomas.

Secretary of State John Kerry gave the keynote address on Sunday the day before, so there was no speaker on graduation morning. Our seats were so far away we had to watch the massive projection screen.  Over 1200 undergraduates and as many graduate students formed up by the platform.

The conferral of honorary degrees was the highlight of the ceremony and the honorees were the only 12 people to receive a degree by name that morning.  This practice of honoring individuals for outstanding achievement without completing the academic requirements dates back to Yale’s commencement in 1702.

It continues there to this day, but is controversial.

“Some universities and colleges have been accused of granting honorary degrees in exchange for large donations.”  And, “the university may derive benefits by association with the person in question.”  (Wikipedia).  Research could determine the extent of influence, financial or otherwise.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell University, and Stanford University followed the precedent set at University of Virginia: the explicit policy of not awarding honorary degrees.

Guess who set that up? Its founder, Thomas Jefferson.

The program insert for the 12 Honorary Degrees is 16 pages long. As the marshal placed a hood over the honoree, the University President read highlights.  ( For full list, Yale News, 12 Honorary Degrees )

 Bluegrass musician Ralph Stanley receives Honorary Doctor of Music

In contrast, a student marshal from the college and each of the thirteen schools received a symbolic diploma from the dean for all the graduates who actually did complete the academic requirements. The Dean of the School of Management, for example, announced, “Master of Business Administration, 271 in number.”

Yale’s website states:

The Honorary Degrees awarded annually at Commencement are intended to be the most significant recognition conferred by the Yale Corporation to signal pioneering achievement in a field or conspicuous and exemplary contribution to the common weal.

That was abundantly clear.

The graduates left the Old Campus to receive their diplomas individually at their colleges.
At Calhoun College, tables with Yale blue gift bags ran the length of graduate seating. The program was one folded card with 113 undergraduates, so I was optimistic.  The master of the college welcomed us and explained what to expect for the next 90 minutes.
Ninety minutes.  A sigh passed through the audience and my niece, a graduate, said she fell asleep.

The dean, the master, and the associate master gave awards, cups, prizes, departmental, and academic prizes.  There were prizes for most theatrical and most athletic, the latter given with a story of how the college moved from last place, or from 15th, to 12th.  Laughter followed and I wasn’t sure it was a joke or real.  Yet both recipients left with a blue bag.  They created a new award for quiet strength or something along these lines which made me envision a team of Yalies brainstorming a way to find an award for everyone.

The departmental prizes earned like Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry seemed significant but were announced by name, no highlights or story.

I asked my cousin if a fourth of the grads got awards and we agreed it might be closer to a third.
The Master of Calhoun College gave a speech.  He told his story and he told his story and he told more of his story, then he mentioned his studies but said he didn’t want to bore us.   He told us about his decision 16 months ago to leave and how the time had come to leave.  The rest of us held captive in the quad, on plastic folding chairs, beneath the overhead sun, thought he might never leave.

My elderly mother blurted out, “This is boring.  I feel sorry for Yale if this is all they have.”  I covered my face, but I noticed others smiling.

When they handed out diplomas, they announced the degree and honors like Summa cum laude, Magna cum laude, Cum laude, and distinction.  They also noted scholarships and Phi Beta Kappa membership.  It would be fair to say half received one or more of these. Perhaps a majority.

There was one Rhodes Scholar and she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Women’s Gender & Sexuality Studies, the only such degree in Calhoun College.

The weather was gorgeous.  The campus was gorgeous.  My niece was gorgeous.   But I left with a vacant feeling. This was my first Ivy League graduation and I had expectations.
Here’s what I learned.

Grade inflation is rampant in the Ivy League with Harvard awarding honors to 90% of its class (Harvard Hands Out A’s like Candy). The problem is no one is honored and the bottom percent of the class is punished.  Awards lose their meaning.  The speech at Calhoun reflected the narcissism, egoism, and navel-gazing of a generation enamored with itself.

And Yale’s focus on the Honorary Degree recipients is meant to inspire, but it is a distraction from the purpose of commencement at best and posturing and pandering at worst.

May 23, 2014

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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