ACCRA — Last week, the Ghana Academy of Executive Doctors (GAED) issued a statement in the newspapers, warning Ghanaians about foreign universities that are dishing out fake honorary degrees to Africans. It stated: “In another stain on the image of Africa, reports from leading educational experts and concerned industry chieftains suggest that bogus and unaccredited so-called Universities in Europe, Latin America, and the US are snarling unsuspecting business, government executives and leaders; and clergymen in Africa with fake doctorates and /or honorary doctorate degrees.”
This is not the first time such a warning has been given. The National Accreditation Board issued several public notices last year, alerting Ghanaians to “instances where some foreign institutions confer honorary degrees, particularly doctorate degrees on prominent personalities with intent to legitimize and popularize the operations of the institutions in Ghana, and thereby seek to attract unsuspecting students to enroll in them.” GAED also mentioned newspaper reports in Nigeria lambasting “a leading politician for accepting an ‘honorary doctorate’ in a hotel room in London from a fake online University.” It advised the public to be careful about such honorary offers.
It is not unusual for universities to dignify the contributions of accomplished individuals with honorary degrees. Only last week, President John Dramani Mahama got a Doctor of Laws from Scotland. Presidents John Rawlings and Kufour collected a few honorary degrees from some universities. Other leaders, including Barack Obama, have been given honorary doctorates. Since they are only honorary, the issuing bodies reserve the right to take back their honour. The University of Edinburgh withdrew the honorary degree it conferred on President Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Comedian Bill Cosby recently lost a few of his many doctorates after he was accused, outside the statute of limitations, of multiple sex assaults.
How useful are honorary degrees? At the death of Maya Angelou some two years ago, Mark Oppenheimer wrote a very ‘unlikely’ tribute about the celebrated poet on the website of the new republic, a reputable digital information resource. Mark wondered why the poet was addressed Dr. Maya Angelou when she did not earn a PhD. In her obituary, she was referred to as “civil rights activist and Professor Dr. Maya Angelou.” Mark insists: “But Ms. Angelou, who never went to college, was not Dr. Angelou.”
Maya’s twitter handle was @DrMayaAngelou. Oppenheimer called the Wake Forest University, where Angelou taught for several years, to inquire about their recognition and description of the poet as a ‘Dr.’ Oppenheimer reports that the university told him: “That was her choice, to be called that.” To be fair to history, Maya Angelou, a Tony-nominated actress and an inaugural poet for an American Presidential election, received several honorary doctorates from Mills College, Smiths College, Lafayette, Eastern Connecticut State, and many more. These were not equivalent to one PhD, anyway.
At this point, we are all agreeable that an honorary doctorate does not entitle a person to call him or herself a ‘Dr.,’ and so far many of them have used the title quite honorably. There are, however, a few cases of some title-hungry abusers who prefix their names with the title ‘Dr.,’ as though they followed a PhD programme, wrote a thesis and defended the findings of their research before grey-haired academics. People like Mark may consider it a bastardisation of academic integrity and scholarship.
We in Africa love our titles and designations. At a business forum in Accra only recently, a gentleman handed me a very unusual business card, which looked more like a foldable leaflet advertising a product. Just beneath his name were his degrees, which included a certificate in International English Testing System (IETS), an English proficiency test required in university applications. He told me he is a royal, a sub-chief in one of the villages in Ghana, and that had been captured on the business card, alongside many needless titles. He had completed a degree in Theology in a private university, and that also found spaced on the card. Of course, he was also a Dr.
There is suddenly an explosion of pseudo-doctorates in the world and many Africans are rushing to be decorated with such honours. GAED reveals that “These unaccredited so-called Universities operate online with glossy websites; some may have campuses and many operate through sales reps in African countries.” Nearly every week, our newspapers publish congratulatory messages celebrating people for receiving honorary doctorates. Most ironically, PhDs, that is, those who have earned the ‘academic right’ to use the ‘Dr.’ title, hardly seize newspaper pages to advertise their hard-earned degree.
Colleagues at my workplace in Canada used to address me ‘Sir,’ ‘Boss’ and sometimes ‘Chief.’ I found it very weird because they called everybody else by their first names, including Murray, our supervisor. “You guys love your titles,” they jokingly told me over beer at our usual pub. Providence being an unwelcome guest when you least expect him, a young man I knew at Bodweseteco (Bodwease Secondary Technical College) in Ghana, entered the pub and addressed me as ‘Prof’, my moniker in secondary school. I joined my white colleagues to laugh away at a joke that was not funny at all.
That is why we are victims of unaccredited foreign universities who donate honorary doctorates and other qualifications, as part of their marketing strategies. Titles and degrees are useful when there is a crucial reason to know the credentials of people in a particular environment. For example, we may want to know if there is a reverend minister in the midst of freethinkers. He may say the grace for dinner. Secondly, and especially in our case, we use titles to honour and distinguish our big men and women from the rest. That is why we have Nana Prof Dr. Dr., and sometimes Sir, all prefixing one person’s name. And you must mention all of them in the sequence he or she likes. They may not honour your invitation next time if you mess up the protocols.
If you complete a doctoral thesis in communication studies, your university may award you a PhD in Communication Studies. That is another reason why we use titles. Indeed, before the title inflation, that was what came to mind when you heard about Dr. So and So. The other instance, usually the most admired and popular, is the case of the medical doctor. Those days, every child wanted to be a doctor, and they did not mean a Dr. of books. They referred to the guy who wears a white robe and a stethoscope.
Today, any average fellow whose only formal qualification is an online degree in nutrition may also be decorated with an honorary doctorate for excelling in a particular field of endeavor. As Oppenheimer observes “we are heading toward a world in which the main effect of the ‘Dr.’ title is to exclude the millions of gifted people who don’t have doctorates.” While he has a PhD in Religion, Mark prefers to be called Mark.
When you want to be formal, you may call him Mr. Oppenheimer. How bad is that? I didn’t know former British PM Gordon Brown had a PhD until he left office. Over here, I am careful not to miss the Professor in Prof Atta-Mills or Nana in Nana Akuffo Addo.