Over the past few days, there have been several inquiries about honorary degrees, their meaning, and significance. The honorary degree is a tradition that dates back to the late 15th century at the University of Oxford. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) has itself granted honorary doctorates since at least 1938, and we are immensely proud of the remarkable group of individuals we have recognized with this distinction over the years.
Recipients of an honorary degree from SAIC generally fall into one of two categories. First are individuals whose achievements are closely aligned with our institutional mission as a leading school of art and design, and/or who have exceptionally strong ties to our community. This year, for example, we will grant honorary doctorates to Douglas Druick, a scholar of 19th-century art and the President of our partner institution, the museum; Rhona Hoffman, an influential gallerist in our home city of Chicago; Janet Neiman, an artist and SAIC alum who, along with her husband, the late LeRoy, is among the school’s most generous supporters; and Albert Oehlen (also our commencement speaker), a contemporary German artist whose practice is in the vanguard of postmodern painting. In years past, other honorees have included Jeff Koons, Frank Gehry, Jeanne Gang, Marina Abromovi?, and Ellen Sandor.
Second are individuals whose primary achievements merit recognition in terms of their major contributions to the cultural landscape. In recent years, this has included notable figures in politics (Mayor Richard Daley), theater (Anna Deavere Smith), acting (Ed Harris), experimental music composition (Philip Glass), and popular music (Patti Smith). These individuals have each approached their work with extraordinary creativity and in ways that befit our school’s ideals of interdisciplinary exploration, innovation, and experimentation. This year’s recipient Kanye West is in this category.
Each year, after the Dean of Faculty makes an initial recommendation on which individuals to honor in consultation with academic colleagues across disciplines, the President and Provost give their final approval. Once this list is finalized, the President extends formal invitations to each prospective honoree, who then may or may not choose to accept. The honorary doctorate each of these individuals receives at our commencement is in no way the same as a formal degree. It is instead a ceremonial recognition of his or her work and achievements. Our honorary doctorate recipients neither pay for the privilege, nor do they receive compensation.
In selecting our honorees, we aim for a diverse group of artists, designers, scholars, thinkers, makers, and cultural figures whose work reflects both the complexity of the arts and society at large. As a result, and as with many schools that offer honorary degrees, there are numerous individuals among our past and present honorees whose work has pushed boundaries and proven to be challenging or even provocative, but always in the spirit of fostering meaningful dialogue on critical issues. As a curious and engaged community of artists, designers, and scholars, I think we can all agree that this is a worthy cause.