Honorary Professor

The use and abuse of honorary titles in academia

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I recently reported on a new China-led university alliance, and noted the increasing influence of China in Central Asia.

So I thought it was good timing to note that Kyrgyz career diplomat and Minister of Foreign Affairs Erlan Abdyldaev was recently awarded an honorary academic post by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The award of Honorary Professor at the Chinese Diplomatic Academy (attached to the Ministry) came in recognition of Abdyldaev’s contributions to building relations between the two countries. Abdyldaev is a fluent Chinese speaker and lived for many years in China as a Soviet diplomat/Kyrgyz ambassador.

The use of honorary titles in academia is common around the world’s higher education systems. The award of such titles can be used by higher education institutions as a way to recognize an individual’s achievements, their contribution to the institution/community, or to symbolize something the institution wants to tell you about its values and principles. They can also be a way to build or cement a relationship with the individual (or whoever/whatever it is that the individual represents).

Witness, for example, the award of honorary doctorate to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev from Japan’s Tokai University and Korea University, both in 2010. In both cases, the awarding universities stressed the importance of country-to-country and institution-to-institution cooperation and the Kazakh government’s Bolashak scholarships, which have provided good funding for many students to study in both countries.

In the case of the Kyrgyz-Chinese connection noted above, the honorary title goes beyond institution to the level of the state. This is not surprising in a higher education system that remains very closely tied to the state, more so than in other jurisdictions where individual institutions have more autonomy to decide on their own awards.

In systems where universities have more autonomy, institutional values and principles through honorary awards are sometimes expressed in other ways. The University of Oxford’s famous denial of an honorary doctorate to Margaret Thatcher in 1985 demonstrated academics’ rejection of Thatcher’s social policy, which was seen as damaging UK science, education and health.

I don’t expect any such actions from Central Asian universities (yet?) but there’s certainly an interesting piece to the higher education jigsaw in considering the ways that institutions around the world use symbolic expressions like honorary degrees and titles that remains under-explored.