Luminaries such as Chimamanda Adichie are given a free pass with honorary degrees. Universities award these ornamental degrees and allow recipients to bypass all of the usual requirements, so they can financially and publicly hitch a ride on their rising stars.
In recognition of Chimamanda Adichie's contribution to society, Vincent E. Price, President of Duke University announced that the author will be one of this year's honorary degree recipients.
She will be awarded along with six other individuals who have been leaders in their respective fields and have also contributed immensely to society. They are: General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra; former Durham Mayor William Bell; Phil Freelon, lead architect for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture; Dr. William Kaelin, professor of medicine at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School; and Russell M. Robinson II, attorney, community leader and philanthropist.
A world-renowned feminist and cultural critic, Adichie has become quite influential on the global stage over the years, continually gaining recognition and amassing awards and prizes. In the last year she's been elected into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, received an honorary degree from Haverford College and Williams College, received the Mary McCarthy award, was awarded Doctor of Letters by the University of Edinburgh and was featured on The Greats Issue of New York Times style magazine.
"Duke is proud to recognize the contributions that this distinguished group has made to society," said Price, who will be presiding over his first commencement since becoming Duke's 10th president last summer. "They each have been bold leaders in their respective fields, and their work has enriched and improved our lives. I am delighted to have the honor of awarding their degrees, and I am certain that the graduating Class of 2018 will be inspired by their example."
Adichie has been recognized as a voice of both contemporary African and global Anglophone fiction. She is the author of three novels - "Purple Hibiscus" (2003), "Half of a Yellow Sun" (2006) and "Americanah" (2013). "Americanah" won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and was named one of The New York Times's Ten Best Books of the Year. It was selected as the first-year summer reading assignment for Duke's Class of 2018. More succinctly "Americanah" was selected as the first-year summer reading assignment for Duke's Class of 2018.
A brief history of the honorary degree
If you are one of the people wondering why other than the celebration of her literary prowess Adichie is receiving all of these honorary "ornamental" degrees then here's a little insight.
Priceonomics talks about the phenomenon stating that "For more than 500 years, the honorary degree has provided an opportunity for colleges to build relationships with the rich, famous, and well-connected, in hopes of securing financial donations and cheap publicity."
Nearly all modern-day honorary degrees awarded by universities are one of the following: Litt.D. (Doctor of Letters), L.H.D (Doctor of Humane Letters), Sc.D. (Doctor of Science), D.D. (Doctor of Divinity), D.Mus (Doctor of Music), or, most, commonly, LL.D. (Doctor of Laws). For recipients of these degrees, matriculation, residence, study, and the passing of examinations are bypassed.
Like Adichie it is not in the least bit unusual for popular icons to be offered more than one honorary degree. Most U.S. Presidents have upwards of 10 apiece (George H.W. Bush has 32); Elizabeth Dole has 40. With 7 honorary degrees, J.K. Rowling has one for each of her "Harry Potter" books. Acclaimed actress Meryl Streep has more diplomas (4) than Oscars (3). Perhaps most impressively, Supreme Court member Ruth Bader Ginsburg has an honorary doctorate degree from every single Ivy League School, with the exception of Cornell, which doesn't give them out.
"Sometimes they are used to reward donors who have given money; sometimes they are used to draw celebrities to make the graduation special," said a The New York Times article. "I've always viewed it as a last lesson a college can teach, by showing examples of people who most represent the values the institution stands for."
Aside from stroking the intellectual egos of wealthy donors, many universities see the honorary degree process as an opportunity to score some free publicity. This is most true for Chimamanda Adichie, as the worlds current literary darling and feminist marvel anything she touches becomes an instant sensation.