CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Honorary degrees are a routine part of graduation ceremonies at nearly every college in the land -- but not at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT's founder, William Barton Rogers, regarded the practice of giving honorary degrees as "literary almsgiving ... of spurious merit and noisy popularity."
Since MIT held its first graduation ceremony in May, 1868, every MIT degree has been earned by academic labor. It is an MIT tradition of meritocracy that traces its origin back to Rogers and to Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the University of Virginia.
Rogers was a geologist from the University of Virginia who believed in Thomas Jefferson's policy barring honorary degrees at the university, which was founded in 1819.
In 1845, Rogers was serving as the chairman of the University of Virginia faculty when the policy was under discussion by the Virginia Legislature's Committee of Schools and Colleges. In a report to the Committee, Rogers strongly condemned honorary diplomas.
"In most other colleges and universities, as is well known," he wrote, "such honors are extended not only to those who have earned some reputation in divinity, medicine or law, or even in the uncongenial pursuits of party politics, but are accorded, as [a matter] of course, in the case of a Master of Arts, after the interval of a few years, to all who have taken their first academical degree.
"Rejecting a system so unfriendly to true literary advancement," wrote Rogers, "the legislators of the University have, we think, wisely made their highest academic honor -- that of Master of Arts of the University of Virginia -- the genuine test of diligent and successful literary training, and, disdaining such literary almsgiving, have firmly barred the door against the demands of spurious merit and noisy popularity."
To this day, MIT and the University of Virginia have awarded no honorary degrees. Jerome B. Wiesner, who was president of MIT from 1971 to 1980, considered this an advantage in recruiting presidents of the Institute.
When Charles M. Vest, then provost of the University of Michigan, was offered the job of president of MIT in 1990, he met with Wiesner, who also had come to MIT from the University of Michigan. Wiesner, in ten words of concise persuasion, cited three worries of university presidents that Vest would not have at MIT -- "No big time athletics. No medical school. No honorary degrees."