President Peter Mutharika felt it was OK to spend a jaw-dropping K50 million-plus from the national coffers to charter a plane and fly out to Ethiopia to receive an honorary degree from Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia.
My conservative estimation—from a point of knowledge—is that the taxpayer was fleeced another K30 million for accommodation, food, local transfer expenses in Addis and allowances for the presidential entourage for the two days Mutharika was in Addis Ababa.
I was curious to know why an erudite of his credentials he would still be wowed with a piece of paper of no consequential value to Malawians.
This jolted my curiosity further to find out more about honorary degrees. It then dawned on me we are in the season when universities dole out honorary degrees on the great, the good and high profile figures to spice up their graduation celebrations.
I recalled that on the local scene all former presidents and many more Malawians have been bestowed honorary degrees by universities, local and foreign. Nothing wrong with that! The difference, though, is that they did not spend so much of the taxpayers’ money to get those honorary degrees.
A wider cast availed me names like Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump who received his honorary degree from Scotland Robertson University in 2010—only to have it revoked over his comments about Mexicans.
In my search I also stumbled on Kermit the Frog, who was awarded the Doctor of Amphibious Letters by Long Island University in 1996. Whatever that means! I care less to know.
Over time, a few universities have eschewed the practice of honorary degrees altogether because of concerns about the criteria being used for selecting candidates and whether the awarding of such degrees serves any useful purpose for the university.
Nonetheless universities the world over have given out thousands of honorary degrees and who was the Malawi leader to say no.
In that light, I wanted to know who holds the record for receiving the most honorary degrees?
I learned that nobody really keeps track of such things. A certain contender though is Bill Cosby, who has been awarded more than 60. Of course, in light of the recent accumulation of old rape allegations stacked against him, the American celebrity comedian is also on track for the record for most revoked honorary degrees.
On the number of colleges which have yanked the degrees Cosby ties with Zimbabwe’s nonagenarian President Robert Mugabe.
But what if you are feeling honorary degree envy and want one of your own? No problem. The University of Berkley (an online institution not to be confused with UC Berkeley) will issue honorary doctorates to a “select group of highly accomplished individuals” such as yourself.
All you have to do is send them a brief autobiographical sketch, plus a $2,000 (K1.5million) “honorarium contribution to cover processing and handling”.
But when a president of one of the world’s poorest economies thinks it is just fine to spend a whopping K80 million (or thereabouts) to receive an honorary degree—enough money to pay school fees for over 280 University of Malawi students—you know that something is actually not OK. For wasting such a dizzying amount of money to receive an honorary degree, Mutharika may just have set a new national record on spendthrift.
As if to rub salt on a festering wound, he returns from Ethiopia and tells Malawians to be proud of the degree. Excuse me!
- The article first appeared in Weekend Nation newpaper