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Opinion: Even Kermit the frog has an honorary degree - what's the point?

PM Jacinda Ardern is introduced as an honorary degree recipient before speaking at Harvard's 371st Commencement, Thursday, May 26, 2022, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo / AP

PM Jacinda Ardern is introduced as an honorary degree recipient before speaking at Harvard's 371st Commencement, Thursday, May 26, 2022, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo / AP


Vera Alves

Social Media and Trending Reporter for



What do Jacinda Ardern, Taylor Swift and I have in common? Well, none of us have bothered to put in the hard work, or invest any time or money into getting a PhD.

Yet, two of us this week became honorary doctors and none of those two was me.

It's all good, I'm not bitter. Definitely not as bitter as I'd probably be if I had, in fact, put in the time, money and effort required to complete years of extra study to become an expert in my field and be granted the honour of adding PhD after my name and make people I don't like call me Doctor.

I'm mentioning Taylor Swift and Jacinda Ardern because they are the most recent examples of famous people receiving honorary degrees but they are two in a very long list of people who've received them. And it's not even just people - even Kermit the Frog has an honorary degree and I don't, even though we're probably equally deserving.

In their defence, both Taylor Swift and Jacinda Ardern - two people who no one should argue deserve plenty of recognition for their work - acknowledged in their commencement speeches that they had not actually earned the titles they were being given.

"I in no way feel qualified to tell you what to do. You've worked and struggled and sacrificed and studied and dreamed your way here today," Taylor Swift told the crowd at her New York University ceremony.

"Now I am not an academic. I acknowledge the robes on this occasion aren't exactly truth in advertising. Rather, I am a politician from Morrinsville," Ardern told the Harvard audience.

With those phrases, they both pointed out that their honorary titles were nothing but performance art.

What is the point of handing out an achievement to someone who already has the limelight?

And if even a fictional frog gets to have an honorary degree from a real-life university, what's the point of handing them out at all?

The answer is actually quite simple and I needn't waste so many paragraphs before getting to it: money.

Universities often dish out honorary degrees to their top donors or they'll hand them out to a celebrity in exchange for the publicity they'll get when that celebrity goes and gives a commencement speech (and, I'm no PhD but even I know that publicity = money). Ten years ago, a Herald investigation found that New Zealand universities had spent $250,000 on honorary degrees so, whatever publicity or benefit the institution gets from those, they pay a price for it.

I have nothing against recognising people for their professional achievements, in whatever field - and both these examples from the last few days are, undoubtedly, two people at the absolute top of their field. But it doesn't mean we should be giving them the equivalent title to someone who has dedicated years of time, money and energy to academic research.

And while I understand that recognition is not pie and one person getting it doesn't mean others can't get it, I feel like the distinction is important, especially when you consider that so many honorary degrees are given, not because of merit or achievement, but because of financial donations made to the university.

There is a lot that can be said about the long history of inequality in academia and in the access to higher education in general. Granting honorary degrees to the rich and famous does very little to even out any playing field.

In a world where it is increasingly harder to distinguish between "experts", does it make sense to keep muddying the waters through meaningless honorifics? I argue that, more than ever, as pandemics threaten our lives and climate change threatens our future, it has never been more important to be extra clear about who the experts are.

Like Kanye at the VMAs, I too am very happy for Taylor Swift, and I mean this without a hint of shade but, honorary or not, does it really make sense to give her an academic degree?