The flap over whether President Obama should get an honorary degree when he gives a commencement address is unfortunate. It shouldn't have turned into such a big deal for so many people. Traditions differ. If they had asked my opinion, I would have said yes. After all, he is the President of the United States.
Enough about the President. Now, let's talk about me. The issue struck a chord with me because I've given many commencement addresses, including two at the nation's finest university, Texas A&M. For the first one, the A&M President, Bob Gates, gave me a much-appreciated book of Texas Flags. For the second one, almost two years later, he gave me another copy of the same book on Texas flags. I appreciated it too, but consistent with the law of diminishing marginal utility, I appreciated it a little less than the first one. No mention was made of an honorary degree.
As Chancellor, I gave several commencement addresses at the other universities in the Texas A&M System. No honorary degrees there either. While Chancellor, but not because of it, I addressed the graduating class of a very special high school in Joplin, Missouri. I looked forward to that one so I could tell some Janis Joplin stories. It turned out that Janis Joplin and Joplin, Missouri, had no connection to each other. I knew she was from Port Arthur, Texas, but I thought they may have named the school after her anyway. I got no honorary degree there either.
While still at the Fed, I gave commencement address at several universities-not in the A&M System-and one high school. No honorary degrees from any of them. So far, I was batting zero. My first address was a special honor because it was Texas Woman's University, once an all-women college. Women still constituted a large majority of the student body. I'd always liked girls – let's drop the political correctness for a moment – and I was pleased that a whole university full of them wanted to hear my wisdom. By the way, I was formally invited by a neat lady, who was president of the university. She was neat, but not as neat as the current president, who is really something. Anyway, there was no honorary degree.
One unusual situation was when I gave the commencement address for Texas Lutheran University. They gave an honorary degree, but not to me. I made the talk, and Red McCombs got the honorary degree. To quote Roger Miller, "I was a man of means, by no means," but Red McCombs was a man of considerable means, which may have played a role in who got the degree.
Texans know Red primarily for his many car dealerships and other business ventures. Others may know him as a former owner of the Minnesota Vikings. The two of us had dinner with the president of the university before the ceremonies, and listening to Red McCombs' stories was a rare treat.
What I said above is true, but not the whole truth, which would include the fact that Red was also a scholar, a gentleman and a generous supporter of higher education, as evidenced by the McCombs Business School at the University of Texas. I know he's a genuine scholar because he used to read my stuff at the Dallas Fed and send me hand-written comment letters.
My biggest commencement honor was being invited by students of Midland High School, a very large and very good public high school in Midland, Texas. For a few years the Fed had conducted "Fed Challenge" competitions for high school students. The students would form a team, usually under the guidance of a high school economics teacher – there were two really good ones at Midland – and study the economy, learning everything that was relevant to an FOMC meeting. The competition was to conduct a FOMC meeting before Fed judges and then respond to questions from those judges.
The Dallas District had won the national competition the first three years with all three wins going to Bryan High School, one of two public high schools in Bryan/College Station, Texas, the home of Texas A&M. A school from another Fed District won our fourth year, and we were now in our fifth year of competition.
The Midland High School team won the District Competition and went to Washington to compete for the national championship at the table inside the Board of Governors building where the real FOMC meets. Well, you know I wouldn't be telling this story if the Midland team hadn't won, with a very cute female person playing the role of "President McTeer." Alan Greenspan presented the championship trophy.
Now, to get to the point finally, I was in the lobby of the hotel when the victorious Midland team arrived in what could only be described as a state of rational exuberance. After a round of high-fives and some recounting of some of the high points – high points of an FOMC meeting? – the students asked me if I would give the commencement address at their upcoming graduation. (Just writing that made me verklempt.)
I told them I doubted they had the authority to make such a request on behalf of the school, but I said if such a request did come from the principal, I would be inclined to accept. When the principal called a few days later and extended the official invitation, I happily accepted, even though by then I'd learned I'd have to cancel a bankers meeting with excellent live entertainment to be there.
You can find my address here on my web site.
Tired of coming away from these events empty handed (this was before the Texas Flag books), I made a bold request of the principal. I asked if he could have an inscription made of a T-shirt that designated me as an honorary graduate of Midland High School. I still wear that shirt proudly even though some college graduates smirk at the old guy wearing a high school shirt.
They gave me the T-shirt, but not an honorary degree on fancy, embossed paper. My record remained perfect – many commencements, no honorary degrees, either as President of the best Reserve Bank for almost 14 years or Chancellor of the best large state university system for over 2 years.
Five months after I retired from my second career and joined NCPA, the best little think tank in the country, I got a call from the president of Austin College, an outstanding liberal arts college in Sherman, Texas. He didn't say they wanted me to give a commencement address. He said they wanted to give me an honorary degree, and, by the way, would I give the commencement address as well?
I am now a proud holder of a "Doctor of Humane Letters" degree from Austin College. My pride is not lessened by diminishing marginal utility because it is the first and only.
One more thing: I've looked and I've looked at that embossed diploma. Nowhere on it does the word "honorary" appear. I am a "Doctor of Humane Letters," not an "Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters." What does it mean? I'm not sure, but I think it means I can write good, or at least humanely.
I haven't watched television for a couple of days; so I don't know how the flap turned out. But, if it didn't happen today, Mr. President, be patient. Your day will come.