Some Recipients of Honorary Degrees Are More Puzzling Choices than Others

When I read the headline that King Jong Un had received an honorary degree, I assumed immediately that it had been awarded by a North Korean University. I was surprised that it had been awarded by a private Malaysian University, but I was not aware that, except for China, Malaysia has maintained closer relations with North Korea than any other Asian nation.

When I realized that the honorary degree was a doctorate in economics, I was, like many others who have reacted very viscerally and vocally to the news, struck immediately by the irony that a degree in that discipline should be awarded to the head of a regime that has kept its people so economically isolated that agricultural production keeps them always on the edge of starvation and, when a crop fails disastrously, as it did several years ago, millions of North Koreans perish from starvation.

When I read that the institution conferring the degree was a private university with the dubious-sounding name, Help University, and that the name was actually an acronym, I assumed that it was all part of some strange turn of circumstance made to seem even strange in translation—if you will, a sort of unintentionally “sick joke” created by a cultural miscalculation combined perhaps with some further cultural misunderstanding.

I suspected that the leaders of the institution had perhaps conferred the degree in an attempt to gain international attention, not recognizing that in much of the world that attention would amount to a stigmatizing notoriety.

I began to make a mental list of the infamous to whom obscure American colleges and universities might grant honorary degrees in order to gain the same level of national media attention: Mullah Omar, Ayman al Zawahiri, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bashar al-Assad, Omar al-Bashir, Joseph Kony, Robert Mugabe, or, closer to home, that old stand-by Fidel Castro. The list would be significantly expanded if the degree could be awarded posthumously: at the top of such an expanded list, of course, would be Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Gaddafi.

Or if the possible recipients were restricted to U.S. citizens, one might consider Bernie Madoff, James Holmes, Charles Manson (who keeps hanging on like Castro), O.J. Simpson, or even George Zimmerman. And, if the degree were to be expanded to include posthumous domestic possibilities, there is an ever lengthening list of other serial killers, mass murderers, spree killers, and hate mongers from which a college or university president or a selection committee might choose if notoriety were the primary consideration. And that’s not even including political demagogues and miscreants. among whom there is literally a legion of possibilities.

But after reading several largely repetitive news stories about Kim Jon Un’s honorary doctorate, I came across an article for Foreign Policy by Isaac Stone Fish that includes the following explanatory statement issued by Paul Chan, the founder and president of Help University, who is himself an economist. If one is willing to accept Chan’s statement as sincere, he is clearly and unexpectedly both an optimist and an idealist:

“My wife and I started the HELP Education Group in 1986 (1st April). HELP means Higher Education Learning Philosophy. We had, and still have, the conviction that it is a moral duty to provide to disadvantaged people, regardless of race, religion and ideology, equal access to tertiary education. I left the University of Malaya (a public university located in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) to start HELP with about US $5,000. We had 30 students and 5 staff members.

“We are now listed on the stock exchange of Malaysia, with an enrollment of more than 10,000 students from over 60 plus countries plus partnerships in Asia. We offer our own degrees and we have numerous international partnerships to use different educational models to address the educational needs of Malaysia and Asia.

“After more than 20 years, I formalize my philosophy and principles of education in a simple mission statement: ‘to help people succeed in life and to live a life of significance through education’. The first part about success means creating competencies for individuals to pursue a career or self-employment; the second part means learning to live a life of meaning and purpose: the cultivated man. This is the way of Socrates and Confucius.

“We are guided by five values: Pride of Achievement, Sharing Success, the Courage to Be, to be Compassionate, and to be Significant. We try our best to practice and live such values. Ultimately, we have a VOW. That is, in what we do we must create values, opportunities, and wealth. In Chinese wealth is pronounced as ‘cai’ which means intellectual knowledge and financial prosperity. Each year we donate the equivalent of about US$8 million in financial assistance and fee waiver to help many students to access quality education.

“I am an economist and have my philosophical views about life and global matters. I am 70. It troubles me to see wars and destruction, whether in the Middle East, Africa or anywhere. Humans should not kill humans, regardless of ideological or religious differences. As a Christian, and knowing Confucian and Buddhist values, I find the use of wars and weapons to subjugate others totally unethical and unacceptable. A human being is a noble creature and we should help each other to ennoble ourselves. Education is ennobling: the means are noble and the ends are noble.

So, I extend our mission to create the platform: ‘Education for Peace and Prosperity’. All of us, regardless of our station in life, and wherever we come from, should use our talents and time to build human capacity and capability using educational means. This is the only acceptable way to change societies to help them become open minded, fair minded, and have high self-esteem to pursue a life of meaning–whether it is about life, liberty and happiness or equality.

“I hope to build the Education for Peace and Prosperity platform into a global movement. I have spoken about this to many friends in US, UK and Australia, besides others. They agree that this is the way forward. Now too much time, attention, talents and resources are devoted to conflicts and wars and weaponry. This creates ill will and hatred amongst men, not good will and the pursuit of the good life.

“I hope that you also subscribe to my philosophy that educating is ennobling: that Education for Peace and Prosperity is a powerful platform. And we can use this platform to liberalize closed societies. I hope that you pass this message forward and onward so that people have a clear understanding why education is so essential and critical in helping societies to be more progressive and liberal in their thinking. We should use education to help the people of DPR Korea to have a better life by having a higher standard of living.

“Above all, let’s help them to integrate faster into the global network of open societies. To me, the conferment of an Honorary Doctorate to His Excellency President Kim Jong Un is building a bridge to reach the people. It is good that he has accepted it. We had a simple ceremony in the DPR Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We just had a simple citation about the President and we explained the Education for Peace and Prosperity concept to the DPR Korean Ambassador and about 35 people who were invited to attend. I hope that using this ‘soft constructive’ approach we can help them and North Asia and the world to be a better place for mankind.

“I understand this conferment was reported by the DPR Korean News Agency. I anticipate that it is a matter of time, within the next 6 years or so, that DPR Korea will engage the world in many constructive ways. When a world leader facilitates this, probably an American President, there will be a rush to DPR Korea. Everyone will rush in to offer assistance and investment. I am just a bit ahead of them in that I feel no one at this moment has the courage to do this though their hearts tell them to do so. DPR Korea is the last society in Asia to open up. Myanmar has already done it. Every leader visits Myanmar. But no one dared to do so a few decades ago for fear of being misunderstood, that is, people will say you are supporting an authoritarian regime. Now world leaders meet the Myanmar leaders in making deals.

“I recall the secret missions of Kissinger to China. What happened? No one said it was bad. The world became safer and richer when China was facilitated to become a member of the global system of trade and politics. It is learning to be a responsible global player in world issues. Did anyone dare visit China before President Nixon went to China? Now, China is engaged and consulted.

“Soon, it will be the turn of the DPR Korea. But let’s start with offering education opportunities to the people of this country with the support of their President. Why deny them? Why punish them with sanctions? The people are hungry for education to change their lives. Give it to them.

“It is the same with many authoritarian regimes in Africa. Why just trade and do commerce and sell arms? Why not use Education for Peace and Prosperity? The US had the Peace Corp which changed the lives of many.

“Where are such noble causes now? Education for Peace and Prosperity can be such a universal platform. But to make it influential and efficacious we should have a lot support in small and big ways from all quarters. I start Education for Peace and Prosperity using our limited financial assistance for individuals. Now I want to help at the country level. I sincerely hope more powerful individuals and organizations would join this cause.

“In Asia, we have close to 3 billion people. Before the industrial revolution Asia

contributed about 54 percent of the world’s output. After the Industrial Revolution, it was reduced to about 15 percent during the 1950s. Now it is about 25 percent or thereabouts. The goal is to contribute around 55 percent by 2050. The Asian Millennium aims to enhance the standards of living to the present level of Western societies by 2050. There is no way they can do it without a sound education system that provides thinking skills and creative innovation.

“Small institutions like us want to have a meaningful role in this journey. I watched Malala conversing with Christiane Amanpour on CNN. I told myself that we should have more Malalas in closed societies. As educationists, my wife and I believe that it is our role and responsibility to nurture more Malalas.

“To help DPR Korea in the way we do it is a road untraveled, but we hope our first small crucial step will contribute to peace and prosperity for all. Can you help to send out this message and enlighten the world? Would you support this cause: to help the world, especially closed societies, to be enlightened and enriched using Education for Peace and Prosperity?”

I realize, of course, that this lengthy statement may be Chan’s desperate attempt to put some positive spin on a ploy for publicity that backfired terribly, but I doubt that Help University has much foreign enrollment. Moreover, Chan would have to have been completely disconnected from global political realities to believe that such a publicity gimmick could have served to increase enrollment. If that was the purpose, then he could have awarded an honorary degree to Nelson Mandela or even Malala. So, at the very least, what we are left with is a news story that is considerably more ambiguous, if not nuanced, than it might have appeared to be.

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