Honorary degrees were awarded at the first Commencement in 1769 “at their own request” to ten gentlemen graduated at other colleges and to eleven others who were recommended for literary merit. Honorary degrees were generally awarded without consulting the recipients and in the early days of the college were liberally bestowed upon English clergymen in hope of attracting support for the college. Rev. John Ryland of England assisted in identifying prospective honorees by sending lists of names of British clergymen and noted in a communication to James Manning in 1773, “For me to ask any of those gentlemen I nominated in my letter, whether he would please to accept of a degree from your College, would spoil all the honor and delicacy of conferring it. Its coming unsought, yea unthought of, constitutes its chief excellence and acceptableness to men of fine feelings. For my own part, I would not have given you a single farthing, or so much as a thanks, for a feather, if I had it not in my power with the utmost truth to say, ’I neither sought it, nor bought it, nor thought for a moment about it.’”
For several years all the honorary degrees awarded were Master of Arts degrees. In 1784 the first Doctor of Laws degree was conferred upon Stephen Hopkins, and in 1786 the first Doctor of Divinity degree upon Rev. Samuel Jones. In 1806 an honorary Bachelor of Medicine, apparently the only one ever, was awarded to John McKie. The first honorary Doctor of Medicine degree was conferred upon Solomon Drowne in 1804. During the life of the Medical School, from 1811 to 1828, twenty-two honorary M.D. degrees were conferred. Adoniram Judson 1807 did not even want the honorary Doctor of Divinity degree awarded to him in 1823 and refused to use the title “Doctor.”
In 1900 the Board of Fellows decreed that recipients of honorary degrees should be present to accept their degrees at the University. There were exceptions to this rule. Herbert Hoover was in Belgium in 1916 and was unable to be present when his degree was awarded. The next year he attended Commencement and spoke at the alumni meeting. Reverend Joseph Taylor 1898 was in Chengtu Sze, China, in 1918, when he received an unexpected letter a few days after Commencement informing him that he had been awarded an honorary D.D. degree. In 1950 exceptional arrangements were made for the award of an honorary Master of Arts degree to John F. Aiso ’31, who was the highest ranking Japanese-American in the United States Army during World War II. Two years earlier when the degree had been offered to Aiso, he declined because of the expense of a trip to Brown. When a group of friends offered to finance his trip, he said the money should be used for more pressing causes. President Wriston, on a visit to the Los Angeles Brown Club meeting on February 14, 1950, called a convocation and presented the degree. Another exception was made for Frederick “Fritz” Pollard ’19, who was prevented by illness from attending the dedication of the Olney-Margolies Athletic Center, at which his degree was awarded. One honorary degree has been conferred posthumously, to Frederic P. Gorham, who died only weeks before Commencement. At Commencement in 1956 President Keeney read the name of John Howard Benson, who was to have received an honorary LL.D. degree, but had died in February.
Also in 1900 the practice of pronouncing citations on the awarding of honorary degrees was begun by President Faunce. His citations were printed in a little book in 1925. Most honorary degrees have been awarded at Commencement. Other occasions have been anniversary celebrations, building dedications, special institutes or convocations, or, occasionally the visit of a distinguished person, such as Marshal Ferdinand Foch, who was honored on November 13, 1921. Only one honorary degree has been revoked. In 1910 the degree of Doctor of Laws was conferred upon Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to the United States, “representing the great people to whom we owe in large measure our science, our music, our philosophy, who by chivalrous courtesy and skillful administration is hastening the time of the parliament of man, the federation of the world.” At the war-time Commencement in 1918, President Faunce read the resolution of the Board of Fellows, annulling the earlier action conferring the degree, because, “while he was Ambassador of the Imperial German Government to the United States and while the nations were still at peace, he was guilty of conduct dishonorable alike in a gentleman and a diplomat.”
The first time that the recipients of honorary degrees were announced in advance of Commencement was in 1963, when it was decided that spectators would like to be able to identify them in the procession. Before that names of the honorees were a well-kept secret. In 1969, when an honorary degree was awarded to Henry Kissinger, Special Assistant to President Nixon, three-quarters of the graduating class and some of the faculty turned their backs on him in protest of the Vietnam war. Class president Ira Magaziner announced at the end of his senior oration, “we are going to express to Mr. Kissinger a protest by standing up – at least some of us – and turning our backs when he receives his degree. I want to explain that we’re not doing this as a personal insult to him ... But we want to attempt to symbolize to him ... that people want this war ended.” The suggestion of a faculty member in 1970 that Brown give an honorary degree to controversial trial lawyer William Kunstler caused another dispute on the campus. Some seniors felt that no honorary degrees should be awarded that year. As a compromise, the Class of 1970 decided to give its own “honors,” which were awarded, mostly in absentia to Shirley Chisholm, Ramsey Clark, David Deldlinger, Charles Evers, Roswell Johnson, Robert Lowell, Ralph Nader, Milton Stanzler, Mikis Theodorakis, and Tom Wicker. After 1970 a faculty-student committee was formed for the purpose of suggesting a list of honorees. A reception similar to Kissinger’s greeted Harold Brown, Secretary of Defense, in 1977, when 150 seniors turned their backs as his honorary degree was awarded. He was, however, applauded by the audience.
It has been the custom to award ad eundem degrees to associate and full professors who have no earned Brown degrees, so that they might be alumni of the University. Since 1982, Bachelor of Philosophy degrees, honoris causa, have been awarded from time to time to selected alumni who attended Brown, but did not receive degrees.
Six presidents of the United States have received honorary degrees from Brown, although only one of them, George Washington, was in office at the time of the award in 1790. The others were John Adams in 1787, Thomas Jefferson in 1797, Woodrow Wilson in 1903, Herbert Hoover in 1916, and Lyndon Johnson in 1960, all of whom received their degrees before election, and William Howard Taft who received his in 1914 after leaving office.
Recipients of honorary degrees, while required to be present are not expected to make acceptance speeches. Over the years there have been three notable exceptions to this tradition: Charles Evans, Bill Cosby, and Jack Hexter. In 1934 Evans asked permission to speak and intoned a short verse, “In this grave presence to record my name/... Like him who in the desert’s awful frame/ Notches his Cockney initials on the Sphinx.” Cosby made a few remarks in 1985, but the most unusual acceptance of an honorary degree came from Yale historian Jack H. Hexter. President Barnaby C. Keeney, conferring the honorary Litt.D. degree in 1964 and choosing this moment to call to mind a joke among Hexter’s acquaintances about his middle initial which stood for nothing, announced, “Jack Hernando Hexter.” Hexter’s spontaneous reply, “Barney, you son of a bitch,” was made through clenched teeth into an open microphone.