In days gone by, the title of Dr was held in very high esteem. It either showed that the bearer was an academic or a medical practitioner. The academics in the universities and other tertiary institutions saw it as a just reward of their labours, after many years of intense study and research. Unfortunately, this scenario is fast altering, as our Ivory Towers seem to be engaged in a competition of granting PhD honoris causa degrees to the highest bidder.
It is not in doubt that these institutions possess the prerogative to grant these honorary degrees and fellowships. What is however baffling, is the scandalous frequency and manner in which they seem to be exercising this privilege. Almost all our political office holders whether elected or appointed, from the federal down to the local government area is now a Doctor of Philosophy, thanks to their unrestrained largess. It is ridiculous to notice that some of these awardees that have never seen the four-walls of a university campus, now have chains of PhD’s from many universities. Unfortunately, even the graduates among them have no other worth, save for their political portfolio and invariably the money that goes with it.
The situation is reminiscent of the cheap ridicule that our traditional chieftaincy has taken in recent years. As a mater of fact, it is prudent to address anyone whose title you are not sure of as Chief and in most cases, you would seldom be wrong. This is because out of every ten Nigerians, eight are certainly chiefs. Many have even gone as far acquiring titles from as many communities as possible in order to show their superiority. As if this were not enough abuse, the Universities are gradually being dragged into this title mess. It is now fashionable to be known and addressed as the Honourable, Chief, Sir, Engr, Pharm, ABC PhD, MD, KSM, KSJ, KSC, HIV, etc. The more the prefixes and suffixes, the merrier.
Pitiable as it may be, the title craze also invokes a comic relief. This was the case after I read through pages of newspaper adverts congratulating a famous Chief in the South-South during his birthday celebration. These ads had one thing in common; it was a litany of titles. Unfortunately, this does not speak well about us, as the value of industriousness is gravely diminished and subjected to self-adulation, sycophancy and a negation of our value systems. A student who has toiled to earn a first degree, sweated to gain a Masters and after many deprivations finally succeeds in gaining a doctorate may be persuaded in believing that his efforts are all in vain. After all, nothing stops him from seeking for political power using any means and buying a PhD after. Our value system or what is remaining of it is gradually being eroded as the priority is being misplaced.
Sir Winston Churchill said, “the duty of the University is to teach wisdom not a trade; character not technicalities”. The extent of dedication to these ideals stands much to be questioned. Nevertheless, the little left of our universities’ prestige should be salvaged. Granted that the nation’s institutions are grossly under funded. It is obvious that education is an expensive business. Funds are needed for continuing research by lecturers, providing recent books for the library, meeting recurrent expenditures for paying of salaries and going into capital projects. The subventions from the government is minimal, a direct consequence of low budget allocation of funds to education, grants from foreign bodies are not too easy to come by and other list of problems. Can this be a justification for the universities to turn into degree-selling enterprises? It is a direct affront to the sacred goal of educating the students both in character and in learning. Which moral right will the principal officers of the academia fall on when they claim to effect the above if by their actions they have failed to live up to expectations?
Chinua Achebe rejected the national awards in other to make a statement. A gesture that carried a lot of weight that some have no doubt that he is a prophet. He was not the first person to contribute on the state of affairs of the nation. Yet he seems to have made the most courageous declaration by the singular action of rejecting a title. He could have opted to remain silent in this dangerous situation like many others. He was not obliged to express his views neither was it necessary that he reject the awards. Yet he did both, to drive home his point and by so doing has consolidated his niche as a hero. This is a deep contrast to the countless number that had lobbied all their lives just to be given a national award. Actions they say speak louder than words.
A little bit of history has shown that big men tend to be easily forgotten. Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Wole Soyinka, etc are men whose credential speaks volumes more than any chain of purchased degrees. These are men whose only passport lies not in their wealth, but in the integrity of their life and profession. There is this Igbo proverb that says that a good name is better than money. This is because wealth is only transitory and is lost sooner or later. Wealth, like titles is fluid and as such, can easily disappear and the owners forgotten. What remains forever, is honour that is channelled into service. This is because as a virtue it that cannot remain wrapped up within the owner, it extends to others. If Charlotte Bronte were a Nigerian, she would probably not have explained in the note to the third edition of Jane Eyre that her claim to the title of novelist rests on one book alone. Consequently, she would not have feared that “an honour is awarded where it is not merited; and consequently denied where it is justly due.”
The sad thing about this country is that the leadership thrives on sycophancy. Those in authority that are being awarded manifold Ph.D.’s, honorary fellowships and the like, in many cases don’t even solicit for them. This does not absolve them of any wrong doing because by accepting honours that they do not deserve they are only aiding the glorification of a ridiculous set of values. Values that no longer stand on the tested foundation of merit but gratification. It would instead be nice if these title seekers ask themselves whether these would come their way after they leave office. That would rather be asking for too much, as our political class luxuriates in absurdities.
Our politicians both serving and retired seem bent on out doing each other in the insertion of Ph.D. at the end of their names. I would only say that it would take a long time for this mess to clear. It is the fashion now and I can hear many Vice Chancellors ringing their bells, seeking the highest bidder for the next convocation ceremony. Make your offer; make your offer; Ph.D.’s for sale; going, going…
Published in The Guardian, 2004