Many colleges in the United States and other countries recognize excellence by awarding honorary degrees to individuals with long records of achievements in particular areas. The Doctorate of Humane Letters is one such degree, usually given in recognition of achievements in the humanities or for philanthropic work.
An honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters is one of several types of honorary degrees. Many universities confer the degree upon individuals who have distinguished themselves, usually in areas related to the humanities. They also may award the degree to honor contributions to society in general. The degree is usually abbreviated D.H.L., L.H.D., or D.HumL.
Other examples of honorary doctoral degrees include the Doctor of Laws, Doctor of Science, and Doctor of Divinity.
Universities usually award an honorary degree, such as a Doctorate of Humane Letters, at graduation ceremonies to a distinguished visitor, who may have no previous connection to the awarding university. In many cases, universities may nominate several people for the honor, and a university committee screens nominees before approving the award.
Humane letters is a term for classical liberal arts education that emphasizes history, literature, and other humanities fields. The term has its roots in the intellectual movement known as Renaissance Humanism, a 14th century movement marked by the rediscovery of Greco-Roman literary works by European scholars.
The practice of awarding honorary doctorate degrees dates back to the 15th century. In the later 16th century, the practice became common at Oxford and Cambridge universities in England.
Recipients of the Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters have included former presidents, authors, distinguished scholars, business leaders, and prominent entertainers. Noted recipients include former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, historian John Hope Franklin, entertainer Bob Hope, evangelist Billy Graham, CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, and actress Meryl Streep.
Several renowned universities, including the London School of Economics, Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have a standing policy of not awarding honorary degrees, including the Doctorate of Humane Letters.
Deciding whether to award the Doctorate of Humane Letters or other honorary degrees sometimes generates controversy, especially when a political figure is under consideration. In 2009, such a controversy erupted over a decision by Arizona State University not to award an honorary doctorate to President Barack Obama, the keynote speaker at that school's graduation ceremony. The university president defended the decision, saying Obama's body of work was yet to come.