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What’s up, doc? Lots of honorary degrees

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One day, you're out there doing your thing and the next, bam, you're a doctor — sort of.

It's almost that easy for people who this time every year receive honorary doctorates from colleges and universities.

Even Salt Lake Community College awards the degree — and the school doesn't even have one doctoral program. It's a detail missed by most.

"I was so taken aback and overwhelmed by the honor that it didn't even occur to me," said Pamela Atkinson, one of three being honored May 7 at SLCC's graduation ceremony. She is being recognized for her work with homeless and low-income families.

The newest honor will make Atkinson a double doctor — the first honorary degree was awarded to her last year by Southern Utah University.

Will she, like so many others, start calling herself a doctor?

"No," Atkinson laughed. "I'm a very ordinary person."

At least she'll show up for the honor. Former Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone snubbed SLCC in 2001 when he was offered an honorary doctorate.

"We were, I guess, in a way hurt," said Larry Landward, chairman of the SLCC commencement committee.

But why are doctorates, even if they are only honorary, coming from a school that only offers associate's degrees?

"I don't think it's inappropriate to say, 'What's a two-year school doing giving doctorates?' " Landward said.

Answer: Because it can.

Utah statute allows boards of trustees at Utah's nine public colleges and universities to award honorary degrees. But no one's handing out honorary associate's or bachelor's degrees.

The framed doctorates, Landward added, are "very handsome" and they mean a lot to the recipients.

So, from those outside academia to people who actually have doctorates, they'll be on every campus in the coming weeks to get their quasi degrees.

Cecilia Foxley, a real Ph.D. and former Utah commissioner of higher education, is getting one from the College of Eastern Utah.

Bernie Machen, former president of the University of Utah and now president at the University of Florida, will appear at the U. to receive the honor. Machen's wife, Chris, will be getting one of five honorary doctorates awarded this year at the U.

It's traditional at the U. to honor past presidents with the degree, said Laura Snow, special assistant to the president. As for the others, they were chosen from among 35 nominations, some of which were several pages long and included video presentations.

The committee that makes recommendations on who gets the award at least wants recipients to have a tie to the U.

Can a person get an honorary doctorate just for going to every U. home basketball and football game for 20 years straight?

Not exactly, according to Snow, who added that just giving a lot of money to the U. doesn't necessarily qualify someone either. Some level of academic achievement should also be tied to the honor. And long public service isn't a guarantee, either.

Elected officials can get an honorary doctorate — but not until after they retire from politics.

E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com