THE picture on the front page of the online edition of ThisDay of Sunday, 19 June 2011 which showed Mrs Patience Jonathan being decorated with the academic gown as an emblem of the honorary Doctorate of Science Degree awarded to her by the University of Port Harcourt has revived debate about the value of honorary doctorate degrees. It has also provoked public commentary in the media and in the public domain on the indiscriminate manner of the award of the degrees by Nigerian universities.
The PM News of Sunday, 19 June 2011 also reported that President Goodluck Jonathan had approved N3 billion for the development of the University of Port Harcourt. The news was announced by Vice President Namadi Sambo who represented Jonathan at the 27th graduation ceremony of the university. The news came on the same day and in the same event in which Mrs Jonathan received the honorary doctorate degree awarded by the institution. Formally, Jonathan serves as the official visitor to the University of Port Harcourt.
By coincidence, both the president and his wife are graduates of the university. And this is where questions of ethics have been raised about the appropriateness of the conferment of the honorary doctorate degree on Mrs Jonathan at the same time that news emerged that Jonathan had authorised the release of the sum of N3 billion to be used for the university's development.
Although the University of Port Harcourt reserves the right to confer its honorary doctorate degrees on persons that it considers worthy of the honour, I would argue that the timing of the award given specifically to Mrs Jonathan was badly chosen. I will explain why shortly. First, let me clarify that Mrs Jonathan was not the only person who received the university's honorary doctorate degree of the University of Port Harcourt. Other recipients, according to PM News, included renowned novelist Elechi Amadi, Alhaji Bamanga Tukur and Jacob Nwokolo. If these personalities could be regarded as distinguished, I am not so sure that Mrs Jonathan could be placed in the same league. Yes, as wife of the president, she enjoys certain privileges.
It seems that Mrs Jonathan made the list of honorary doctorate degree recipients on the odd basis that she was a former student of the university. If that constitutes the key criterion for the award, we can expect all former graduates of the University of Port Harcourt to be eligible for the institution's honorary doctorate degrees. Certainly, that would be a parody of the concept of excellence in service to the university and the community and a mockery of the institution's name. In that context, we can expect the public to ridicule the value of honorary doctorate degrees awarded by the University of Port Harcourt. This is why some people feel justified to claim that there is something dodgy about the president's wife being awarded an honorary doctorate degree by a university that benefited from a recent N3 billion grant approved by the president. To facilitate the process for the award of honorary doctorate degrees, clear criteria must be established by every university. Universities cannot just award honorary doctorate degrees on improvised standards that are neither transparent nor justifiable nor indeed unquestionable.
For someone like Mrs Jonathan, whose activities and utterances are the subject of regular media scrutiny, public perception matters a lot. It is important for the Dame to be mindful of what she does in public and in private to avoid public perceptions of her actions as a form of abuse of office, even though under our constitution she does not occupy any constitutionally recognised office other than the bogus title of First Lady.
For ethical reasons and for her character, Mrs Jonathan doesn't need the honorary doctorate degree, particularly at this time when her husband, in his current capacity as the president, has given a huge amount of money legally to the university. Public opinion will construe the honorary degree conferred on her by the University of Port Harcourt as the institution's own way of reciprocating the money that Jonathan gave to the institution for the advancement of higher education. Other people might also misconceive the university's gesture as an indirect attempt to recruit Mrs Jonathan to influence her husband to make more financial contributions to the university to enable the institution to engage in innovative teaching and research activities.
No matter how the University of Port Harcourt views the controversial honorary doctorate award, a cross section of the public will regard the acceptance of the degree as poor judgment on the part of Mrs Jonathan for the simple reason that the award does not sit comfortably with many people's fair assessment of a merit-based award. A number of people might argue that there is nothing improper when a university awards an honorary doctorate degree to one of its former students. Fair enough! But universities do not award honorary degrees on the basis that some people merely passed through or graduated from the universities. If that were to be the case, every university would have to manufacture as many honorary degrees as there are people who graduated from the institution.
For a very long time, honorary doctorate degrees were awarded on merit. Honorary doctorate degrees were bestowed on members of society who distinguished themselves through significant contributions to the development of humanity in general and university education in particular. These were men and women who contributed to the advancement of research and teaching, as well as services they rendered to their community and to the academy. That was the practice until universities transformed the process into an avenue for earning revenue.
The sharp drop in funds allocated to Nigerian universities may have compelled some of the institutions to engage in indiscriminate award of honorary degrees as a way to raise funds. Thus, universities have been left to shop for funds by any means – legal and illegal, ethical and unethical - to meet their basic operating costs. That practice has had the unintended consequence of devaluing the quality of honorary doctorate degrees awarded by the universities. When universities award honorary degrees arbitrarily to all classes of men and women, they convey the message that the degrees are available for award but only to privileged members of our society who can afford the glorified title.
In a society that adores academic titles, in a society in which everyone wants to be festooned with university degrees of high value or of no value, in a society in which many people want to be addressed as "Dr XYZ", universities have plunged headlong into the muddied ponds in order to satisfy the demands in a burgeoning market for honorary doctorate degrees.
Our culture compels us to celebrate everything. We celebrate the birth of a child. We make merry when we are promoted in our workplaces. We celebrate when we receive chieftaincy titles. We enjoy membership of church organisations or some obscure social clubs. We celebrate the completion of a new house or the purchase of that new car. All these confirm our large appetite for pretentious way of life. These achievements transform us into super heroes and heroines; they offer us some kind of cathartic relief from economic hardships and everyday's drudgery.
The collapse of our tertiary education system may have been affected by the breakdown of the foundations of our social institutions. Take the religious institution, as an example. Everywhere you go, there are prayer meetings set up by bogus pastors, priests and bishops to sell the message that God loves cheerful givers, particularly those who give in millions. There is a growing acceptance within the community that the kingdom of God has been preserved specifically for those who can afford it. The kingdom of God, we are reminded, is not for the impoverished.
It is not only the basic principles and practices of religious institutions that have been bastardised. Traditional institutions and those who should protect them have also joined in the rush for lucre. In many local communities, new chieftaincy titles are regularly conceived, rolled out and awarded to undistinguished men and women of dubious integrity.
As I argued in a previous essay: "Each time we wonder how we got to this point, we must reflect on our past and present practices. What were those qualities that held our society together? What social values were cherished and admired in our society? To what extent are they still valued and respected? Like culture, social values are supposed to be dynamic but the social disintegration of our society must be attributed in part to the haste with which we dumped our values. A society without values is a normless society. And a society without norms is a dysfunctional society."