Since the commencement of 1944, Bates College has awarded honorary degrees to individuals whose dedication to the values embraced by the college has made a substantial impact on our graduates, society and the world. Recipients over the years have been models of achievement and honorable service. The college, in its selection of honorands, gives particular consideration to those who have demonstrated dedicated service to the college and the state of Maine.
From 20th century master builder Robert Moses to Nobel Peace Prize recipient Reverend Desmond Tutu, honorands have been invited to Bates commencement celebrations to share their insights, experience, and passion with the graduating class and their guests.
Honorary Degree Committee Composition
The Committee on Honorary Degrees is a standing committee of the Board of Trustees that makes honorand recommendations to the Board. The committee is composed of trustees, Bates faculty members who serve on the Faculty’s Committee on Faculty Scholarship, staff members, and students.
Nominations for the award of honorary degree may come from any quarter but are typically provided by the faculty, staff, students, the president of Bates, the Board of Trustees, and alumni. Nominations are collected throughout the year and submitted to the President’s Office for review by the committee.
The Committee on Honorary Degrees considers a range of factors when making its selections. The committee first evaluates whether a nominee meets one or more of the criteria listed below and then considers the subsequent set of guiding principles.
The individual should meet one or more of the following:
- The nominee has reached an exceptional level of achievement and distinction in a field that is highly valued by the college, including the arts, education, humanities, public service, and the sciences.
- The nominee is an alum of the college and has made a significant contribution to their field and/or society.
- The nominee has made a particularly meaningful contribution to the college or the State of Maine.
The following principles guide the committee’s final selections of honorary degree recipients:
- Up to five honorands are targeted for each class of degree recipients.
- The class of honorands should represent a diversity of fields and demographics.
- The character and integrity of the honorands should be consistent with the college’s values.
- Sitting or campaigning politicians should be considered only in exceptional circumstances.
- An honorand who is widely considered to have made a uniquely distinctive contribution to their field and who has demonstrated strong public speaking skills will be asked to deliver the commencement address.
- As explicitly stated in the Charter and Bylaws of the college, degrees cannot be granted in absentia, unless the commencement or other formal convocation is held virtually, or it is deemed unsafe for the honorand to travel to campus.
Finalization and Publicity of Honorary Degree Recipients
A vote of the Board of Trustees is necessary to finalize and make official the selection of honorary degree recipients. A public announcement of the identities of the honorands is typically made in the months leading up to the commencement ceremony.
- Doctor of Divinity – Clergy or scholars in religious studies
- Doctor of Fine Arts – Artists
- Doctor of Humane Letters – Societal contributors
- Doctor of Laws – Jurists, legal scholars, or public servants
- Doctor of Letters – Writers or journalists
- Doctor of Music – Musicians
- Doctor of Science – Scholars in science fields
The Commencement Ceremony
The organization of the commencement ceremony has varied considerably over the years, in deference to the wishes of the president, the honorands, and the Board of Trustees. For example, in 1985, Honoree President Jimmy Carter was the sole honoree and lone commencement speaker, due in part to the unique stature of the former president. Another example of an approach occurred in the 1990s, when on three separate occasions Elie Wiesel, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Julian Bond received honorary degrees during an April convocation, over a month before commencement. In a departure from the typical speaking address, Mr. Rostropovich gave a cello performance, deemed more representative of his extraordinary talent.
From 2004 until 2012, up to four honorands spoke for approximately 5 to 8 minutes each. At present, Bates has a commencement ceremony at which one honorand delivers the keynote address.