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A Matter of Degrees

By Jeffrey Lott

Swarthmore awarded its first honorary degree in 1888 to Susan Cunningham, astronomer and member of the College’s founding faculty, whose former home and observatory now houses the headquarters of the Scott Arboretum. Honorary degrees were awarded occasionally until 1918 (when Isaac Clothier collected his second), after which at least one has been awarded each year.

The list of honorary degree recipients occasionally includes the famous, such as Herbert Hoover (1920), Jane Addams (1932),  and Lyndon Johnson (1964)—and one who is now infamous, Attorney General Alexander Palmer 1891 (1919)—but in many ways it reads like a list of Swarthmore family: Beardsley, Bond, Wharton, Sproul, Swain, Aydelotte, Wister, Hallowell, Sharples, Cornell. (For a complete list of honorees, visit

In recent years, a set of criteria has been developed for use by the Honorary Degree Committee in selecting the three or four persons who are honored at Commencement each year. These include:

  • Distinction, leadership, or originality in a significant field of human endeavor
  • Someone in the ascent or at the peak of distinction—and to prefer the less honored to those with multiple degrees
  • Ability to serve as a role model for graduating seniors, speaking to them on a major occasion in their lives
  • Preference (but not a requirement) for individuals who have an existing affiliation with or some connection to the Swarthmore community

The committee seeks to balance choices over the years from a variety of categories such as careers, gender, academic discipline, race, ethnicity, and public service.

The committee encourages nominations from alumni and others. Send your written nominations to Maurice Eldridge ’61, Vice President’s Office, Swarthmore College, 500 College Avenue, Swarthmore PA 19081-1390, or by email to Please enclose complete supporting background information including your own reasons for choosing the individual you nominate, and submit by noon on Oct. 3. Please note that all nominations will be kept confidential and it is not good practice to inform a nominee. The committee will forward its recommendations for faculty approval in mid-November.

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