An honorary degree, in Latin a degree honoris causa ("for the sake of the honor") or ad honorem ("to the honor"), is an academic degree for which a university (or other degree-awarding institution) has waived the usual requirements, such as matriculation, residence, a dissertation and the passing of comprehensive examinations. The degree is typically a doctorate or, less commonly, a master's degree, and may be awarded to someone who has no prior connection with the academic institution or no previous postsecondary education. An example of identifying a recipient of this award is as follows: Doctorate in Business Administration (Hon. Causa).
The degree is often conferred as a way of honouring a distinguished visitor's contributions to a specific field or to society in general.
It is sometimes recommended that such degrees be listed in one's CV as an award, and not in the education section. With regard to the use of this honorific, the policies of institutions of higher education generally ask that recipients "refrain from adopting the misleading title" and that a recipient of an honorary doctorate should restrict the use of the title "Dr" before their name to any engagement with the institution of higher education in question and not within the broader community. Rev. Theodore Hesburgh held the record for most honorary degrees, having been awarded 150 during his lifetime.
The practice dates back to the Middle Ages, when for various reasons a university might be persuaded, or otherwise see fit, to grant exemption from some or all of the usual statutory requirements for the awarding of a degree. The earliest honorary degree on record was awarded to Lionel Woodville in the late 1470s by the University of Oxford. He later became Bishop of Salisbury.
In the latter part of the 16th century, the granting of honorary degrees became quite common, especially on the occasion of royal visits to Oxford or Cambridge. On the visit of James I to Oxford in 1605, for example, forty-three members of his retinue (fifteen of whom were earls or barons) received the degree of Master of Arts, and the Register of Convocation explicitly states that these were full degrees, carrying the usual privileges (such as voting rights in Convocation and Congregation).
Honorary degrees are usually awarded at regular graduation ceremonies, at which the recipients are often invited to make a speech of acceptance before the assembled faculty and graduates – an event which often forms the highlight of the ceremony. Generally, universities nominate several persons each year for honorary degrees; these nominees usually go through several committees before receiving approval. Those who are nominated are generally not told until a formal approval and invitation are made; often it is perceived that the system is shrouded in secrecy, and occasionally seen as political and controversial.
The term honorary degree is a slight misnomer: honoris causa degrees are not considered of the same standing as substantive degrees earned by the standard academic processes of courses and original research, except perhaps where the recipient has demonstrated an appropriate level of academic scholarship that would ordinarily qualify him or her for the award of a substantive degree. Recipients of honorary degrees typically wear the same academic dress as recipients of substantive degrees, although there are a few exceptions: honorary graduands at the University of Cambridge wear the appropriate full-dress gown but not the hood, and those at the University of St Andrews wear a black cassock instead of the usual full-dress gown.