What’s in an honorary title?

The Age recently carried an op ed by a Visiting Professor at UTS, Mitchell Landrigan, suggesting we need to be careful about granting honorary doctorates and claiming that recipients “may – forever more – call themselves Doctor.”

Up to a point Lord Copper and Professor Landrigan. In fact the custom is that a recipient should not refer to themselves as Dr, any more than an Adjunct Professor should refer to themselves as Professor, unless within the university or on university business, for example, speaking as an expert associated with the university. The awards can obviously be listed in CVs but not beyond that. The reaction to a former Canberra Department Head, Jane Halton, apparently using the Professor title is an example of how this rule has been interpreted.

Being both an honarary and an adjunct the blog has followed those rules although it did once get persuaded, and still feel rather guilty about it, to use the professorial title for German hotel bookings. It didn’t make much difference probably because there you need to be at least Herr Professor Dr. Dr. Dr. (h.c.) to get attention. And if you used the Professor title in Italy, of course, people would think you were a school teacher.

There is no doubt that universities grant honorary doctorates for a wide range of reasons and the incidence is perhaps increasing as a function of the dramatic expansion of degree granting institutions. On the other hand the English speaking world’s third oldest university St Andrews is a regular granter of honorary doctorates to a wide range of people from comedians and poets to crime writers and actors. Ian Rankin, the crime writer involved does not use the title nor did Seamus Heaney another St Andrews recipient.

The barrister, Julian Burnside, had an RMIT honorary doctorate (largely due to his work with refugees but also other community contributions) conferred on the same day as the blog. Julian mentioned in his acceptance speech that in some respects it had been harder to earn this one – given the Australian Government’s refugee policies – than any of the other degrees he studied for. This was in contrast to the blog who fessed up in its acceptance comments to having started three degrees at Melbourne and never finishing any of them.

There have been exceptions in Victoria to the non-public use custom. The late NGV Gallery Director, Eric Westbrook, was regularly referred to by his very well earned honorary doctorate title from Monash University. The medical profession has its own anomalies. The blog knows one surgeon who actually earned a Ph D but still refers to himself as Mr.

Now the blog obviously has a horse in this race but it was extremely chuffed at its award. It suspects many other people feel the same and that its and their satisfaction is not allayed by still being just a Mr, Ms, Mrs or Miss.

Nevertheless, as Professor Landrigan is in Sydney, he has perhaps found the title use customs different there.