CAIRO—The state visit to Egypt by Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz last year ended with a ceremony at Cairo University in which the king was awarded an honorary doctorate.
Awarding degrees as gifts to political leaders is not new at Arab universities, but it has long been a source of controversy, with academics unhappy that the practice compromises university independence, and makes institutions of higher education play an unwelcome political role.
The Saudi king’s honor was given in recognition of his service to “Arabism, Islam and Muslims, his support for Egypt and its people, and a remarkable role in boosting Cairo University.”
The kingdom announced a substantial aid program for Egypt during the visit. That aid included a $20 billion oil and gas guarantee, an economic development plan for the Sinai Peninsula (including a multi-campus university named after King Salman, and a causeway linking Egypt with Saudi Arabia at the Straits of Tiran), as well as funding for the refurbishment and upgrade of Cairo University’s five hospitals.
Anouar Majid, a Moroccan higher education expert and vice president for global affairs at the University of New England, said, “On the one hand, it’s risky to offer honorary degrees to politicians and heads of state because it could send the wrong message that universities support the politics of the recipient. On the other hand, a politician may deserve recognition for supporting an educational or cultural program.”
“Conferring an honorary degree is like naming a building after a donor—he may turn out to have engaged in illegal practices and the university would have to consider removing his name from it,” he said. “In any case, honorary degrees are symbolic; they don’t indicate credit for academic work.”
Farouk El-Baz, director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University and a member of the Presidential Advisory Council that advises Egyptian president Abdel Fattah-El Sisi said, “Honorary degrees are given for many reasons: some are political and others are for financial gain for the awarding institution. I think the academic community knows this.”
Cairo University has given numerous honorary doctorates to heads of state of Arab and non-Arab countries. The university lists the recipients on its website, but only as far back as 2010.
In 2010, a group of Cairo University professors protested the honorary doctorate awarded that year to Suzanne Mubarak, wife of Hosni Mubarak, who at the time was still Egypt’s president.
In 2013, the University of Aleppo revoked the honorary doctorate it awarded to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey, while in 2011 the University of Khartoum revoked the honorary doctorate it awarded to Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, shortly before his overthrow.
Samir Khalaf Abd el-‘Aal, a research professor at the National Research Center in Cairo, said that awarding honorary degrees to political figures risks “undermining the academic reputation of the university and devaluation of the status of the honorary doctorate degree.”
In May 2013, Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, rejected an honorary degree from the University of Duhok. “I never attended university,” he said. “Giving me an honorary doctorate will reduce the value of the university… and it will be misinterpreted.”