Can an academic administrator go around calling himself “doctor” if he holds only an honorary doctorate?

This is an actual matter of debate over at Faulkner State Community College, a school in southern Alabama. According to an article by Brendan Kirby in the Press-Register:

The longtime president of Faulkner State Community College is widely known around Bay Minette as “Dr. Gary Branch,” but the title comes from an honorary degree awarded in the mid-1980s. Branch said he never has hidden the fact that his doctorate was honorary. “I’ve been very open about it. When that was awarded, we sent out press releases,” he said. “It’s always been clear that it’s honorary. I’m very proud of it.”

Lynne Thrower, the interim vice chancellor of legal and human resources for the two-year- system, said there is no requirement that people with honorary degrees insist that other people refrain from using the honorary title. She noted that Branch’s honorary doctorate came from Livingston — now the University of West Alabama — which is an accredited public university.

“There’s nothing wrong with that. He was conferred the degree in an honorary way,” she said. “They are real. They’re from real schools. They’re just honorary.”

Well there’s nothing legally wrong with it, but come on. It’s true that there’s no statutory requirement that people with honorary degrees never allow other people to call them “doctor,” but they still should.

Correcting an error like that is pretty necessary if someone wishes to be taken seriously as an academic administrator. This was probably not Branch’s intention but allowing anyone to use the “doctor” is troublesome because it suggests the behavior of a swindler.

An honorary degree is a ridiculous throw-away device and represents a present only between a college and someone it wishes to honor. It by no means confers any academic qualifications on the person who got the piece of paper and he should take care never to reference it outside of the institution that issued it.

This latest problem came up after one Alabama woman discovered that two administrators at another Alabama community college received online doctorates from unaccredited institutions.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer