I’ve long seen the awarding of honorary degrees to famous people at college commencements as an effort to liven up the often tedious proceedings, and of no real value to recipients who are already wildly successful.
Then came Saturday, when I saw an overwhelmed Missy Elliott cry over the degree she was given by Boston’s private Berklee College of Music, the largest independent college of contemporary music in the world. (The talented artist Justin Timberlake cried over his, too, it appeared).
Over more than four decades, I’ve attended scores of graduations and have seen politician after comedian after movie star after delicatessen owner (really, two of them, at the University of Michigan in 2015) handed honorary degrees. I’ve also read the transcripts or watched videos of plenty more.
Sometimes the speakers are cheered, especially when they make the graduates laugh. Dolly Parton did that in 2009 at the University of Tennessee:
“I know that I am supposed to say something meaningful to you. Maybe some good advice for you to always remember. Now, I usually try not to give advice. Information, yes; advice, no. But, what has worked for me may not work for you.
“Well, take for instance what has worked for me. Wigs. Tight clothes. Push up bras. High-heel shoes, five-inch high-heel shoes ... Now people are always asking me, what do you want people to say about you a hundred years from now? I always say I want them to say, ‘Dang, don’t she still look good for her age?’ “
Schools say they select honorary degree recipients as a way of connecting with people who have made remarkable achievements in their field and who can represent the values they seek to promote in their students.
The honorary degrees themselves — usually honorary doctorates — have no formal value, even though Timberlake made several doctor jokes during his acceptance speech at Berklee: “You messed up giving me this award. You can’t tell me nothing now. I’m a doctor!”
Melissa Arnette “Missy” Elliott was one of three honorees at the ceremony. Along with Timberlake (whom you should know) was Alex Lacamoire, a Berklee graduate who is likely the most influential force in musical theater whom you don’t know but should. He was the musical director of the original “Hamilton” and a mountain of other brilliant works, and has won numerous Tony and Grammy awards.
“I don’t even know how I’m standing here,” Elliott said, eyes brimming with tears as she thanked Berklee President Roger Brown and others who chose her for the honor. The crowd cheered and cheered.
Before introducing her, Brown listed some of the giants in music who had received honorary Berklee degrees in the past — including the first person to get one, Duke Ellington in 1971, and Aretha Franklin, in 2006. It was understandable that anyone would feel overwhelmed by being included on a list with those two.
“I am so sorry that I’m a crybaby, but I’m about to wear this cap and gown in the shower, on all my next videos, wherever I go,” she said.
Like graduation speakers before her, she told the graduates to never give up, but she projected an authenticity that was undeniable. She warned graduates there would be ups and downs in their lives, and she related some of her own, including being kicked off her label and realizing that she wasn’t “the look of beauty” that was in vogue when she was younger. She told of being nominated one night for 12 awards and walking away with none. At one point, she said:
“My nervous system shut down on me. I thought this was it, there is no need for me to keep going, but something in my spirit, the drive and the patience, because you have to have patience. As long as you are breathing it is never too late. People will tell you you are too old, people will tell you it will never work. But don’t believe that.”
Both Timberlake, who has won 10 Grammys and plenty of other awards, and Lacamoire said receiving the honorary degree from Berklee was a singular event in their lives. Cynics might not believe them, but many in the crowd did.
“To be bestowed this distinguished title for simply doing what I love, what I believe I was born to do,” Lacamoire said. “It fills me with a level of pride that I can’t compare to anything else I’ve felt until today.”
Valerie Strauss is an education writer with The Washington Post.