The Great Degree Controversy

What was the “great degree controversy?”

In the previous post, there was some question as to whether or not Emerson could legally confer a Master of Arts in 1887. That MA, as well as a Doctor of Philosophy given to Lucius Alonzo Butterfield and a Doctor of Laws given to Charles Wesley Emerson, were honorary degrees. Back in the day, the degrees were considered legitimate because they came from a credible institution. But was the Monroe College of Oratory credible?

By 1891, the College had become known as Emerson College of Oratory and had moved to the Odd Fellows Building at the corner of Tremont and Berkeley streets. The College was thriving; in the following two years, enrollment doubled from 250 to 500. In March 1893, the Boston Advertiser published a story titled “EMPTY DEGREES, granted by a College of Oratory.” The College’s response was immediate. It accused the paper of conspiring with faculty at a competing school to discredit Emerson College of Oratory.  

That year, Massachusetts passed a new law to tighten regulations and make illegal degree granting punishable by imprisonment, forcing Emerson College of Oratory to drop the reference of all degrees in its catalogs and create a rubric of qualifications that made the distinction between diplomas and degrees. The College also had to add an admission requirement: any student wishing to attend had to submit testimonials of good character and an entrance exam “may be required.” Quite different from today’s admission standards!

Christina Zamon (Iwasaki Library)