Among the peculiarities of Macau is what seems an exaggerated lauding of certain individuals. In public we tend to bestow labels of “expert”, “specialist”, “media mogul”, “pundit” or even “scholar” all too readily. It is as if by putting on a pedestal those we associate with, we improve our own public value.
It is taken for granted that we trust these allotted labels. They refer to the person, rather than their achievements, for we are rarely given evidence of the merit that serves to support the nomenclature. True experts will readily argue their positions and are open to critique. They will question evidence and denounce drivel. Few real experts I know will happily label themselves as such because they know how much they don’t know, and are aware that paradoxically such a label distances people and warns not to question “the expert”.
By the use of such value-laden labels the status of the entity that bestows them is improved and legitimised whether it be the media, at public talks or awards by government bodies or universities.
Another example is the expansive awarding of honorary degrees at almost every graduation ceremony in Macau. What grates with substantive graduands is the elevated distinction given to honorary awardees, especially when they are celebrities or unconnected with the particular institution, have little history of service to the community, or do not exhibit academic eminence.
The honours are often given to people who already have status in the community, frequently for jobs already remunerated. The forward thinking doers are less accessible, less presentable and far less agreeable, and awarding those real shakers is a much harder and politically riskier task. Successful executives, highly promoted government bureaucrats, well-published academics and internationally awarded celebrities are safe bets and good publicity.
If the awardee is truly deserving and special, they will be worthy of accolades as was Macau’s own beloved Father Lancelote in 2010. Otherwise the award demeans the qualifications of those that worked towards them and the award itself becomes a tool in the ‘scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ game of serving in-group interests and self-promotion. The trend towards actually using the title of “Dr”, in opposition to generally accepted protocol, lends support to this.
Cynicism perceives some honorary degrees by lesser universities to international greats as a coup by the university in leveraging the awardee’s name in a case of borrowed legitimacy.
UMAC has a history of awarding honours on significant occasions to Nobel Prize winners: in the late 80s, an honorary Doctor of Law to Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Dr Henry Kissinger, and fifteen years later upon the institution’s 20th anniversary in 2002, an honorary Doctor of Social Sciences to the 2001 Nobel Laureate in Economics, Professor Joseph Stiglitz. Upon the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China and 30 years of China-U.S. relations, the 41st President of the United States, George H. W. Bush was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Social Sciences. All were festive occasions, opportunely celebrated with big name drawcards.
A similar cynicism looks towards the outgoing rector’s litany of honorary doctorates from 12 Portuguese universities as a kind of undisclosed quid pro quo, just prior to his second mandate. What happens when an award generally becomes devalued by ill-conceived agenda? In a world where Kermit the frog is given an honorary doctorate of Amphibious Letters and Kanye West – a man who received widespread acclaim for his album “The College Dropout” – gets one from the publicity-seeking School of the Art Institute of Chicago, we can see why one honorary degree from one Portuguese University is no longer enough. Even three universities jointly awarding a degree is deemed insufficient. Only twelve offer real impact anymore.