Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Honoris Causa

Honorary degrees are conferred by universities on individuals, both renowned and obscure, who represent outstanding achievement in their personal lives or fields of endeavor and who reflect the values that the institutions hold dear and wish to instill in their students. For example, scholarly achievement, public service, selflessness, and self-sacrifice are qualities often rewarded by an honorary degree at major universities.

Harvard University in 1996, awarded an honorary degree to Oseola McCarty, who left school after the sixth grade and supported herself for 75 years as a laundress. In her eighties, she donated her life's savings of $150,000 not to Harvard but to the University of Southern Mississippi to aid needy black students. Honorands are applauded not only for what they have achieved, but for what their presence contributes to society. As historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote, "An honorary degree is granted honoris causa, both to honor the grantee and the University."

That is to say, not all universities hand out degrees to suck up to the rich or powerful. Lord Roy Jenkins, Oxford University's chancellor, recently made clear that no award would be given to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, an Oxford alumnus, because Blair possessed a "second-class mind."

The University of Arkansas, however, seems to reward wealthy white people who inherit or make lots of money in the business sector, especially those who give some of it to the University for buildings or administrative projects. In that tradition, last week they gave an honorary doctorate to Lee Scott, president and CEO of Wal-Mart.

Under Scott's leadership, Wal-Mart has delivered record growth at the company's discount stores, and the NLRB has issued over 40 complaints against Wal-Mart in the last three years, charging it with violations of labor law. Scott has been widely recognized for his leadership in making Wal-Mart a chronic low-wage employer, one that pays so low that 3,971 Arkansas Wal-Mart workers are forced to accept public assistance for food, housing, or health care, meaning in effect the Arkansas taxpayer is subsidizing the company's payroll by $16.2 million a year.

In 2005, the U.S. Labor Department required Wal-Mart to pay $135,540 for 24 child-labor violations involving teenage workers who used hazardous equipment at stores in Arkansas, New Hampshire and Connecticut. Two-thirds of Wal-Mart’s hourly employees are women, but they hold only one-third of store management slots and less than 15% of store management positions, and the company currently is facing a class action lawsuit by 1.6 million women employees who were paid less than their male colleagues. Wal-Mart paid big fines for using illegal immigrants to clean their stores, and they face another class action suit on racial discrimination in hiring truck drivers. They spy on employees and reporters.

That record got Lee Scott a $22 million bonus this year. Those are the business practices and values that the University of Arkansas chose to praise on May 12 by awarding an honorary degree to Lee Scott.

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