Gachagua and Murkomen, you are not qualified to wear doctoral attires

Transport CS Kipchumba Murkomen and Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua during past graduation ceremonies. [File, Standard]

After successfully defending my PhD thesis in October 2019, the panel chair sternly warned me. First, I was forbidden from referring to myself as a “Dr” until I graduated in a ceremony that would be held in December of the same year.

Second, when we went for the graduation ceremony rehearsal a day before D-day, we were given strict instructions not to put on the doctoral tam (a graduation cap worn with a gown and hood) but await the university chancellor, and the accompanying authorities do so while reading the citation to admit us into the doctorate ‘club’ on the graduation day.

The tradition of the title Dr (PhD), as well as the doctoral regalia, ought to be respected. Still, our universities have decided to take part in deflowering the sanctity of such academic cultures.

Graduation regalia denotes traditions of academic achievement for individual graduates and the institution awarding the degree. The tradition is that only those who have achieved an academic honour, and not any other, are entitled to wear special regalia.

This tradition should be kept, not as a matter of law, but as a matter of upholding the sanctity of the academic ritual.

Last week, I attended the 11th graduation ceremony of Laikipia University, my alma mater, in person. Laikipia Governor Joshua Irungu was a guest alongside Kericho Governor Erick Mutai.  Dr Mutai graduated with a doctorate from Laikipia University in 2018.

The most visible difference between the two governors was that Dr Mutai wore a doctorate regalia. Governor Irungu donned the ordinary graduation gown won by Bachelor's and Master’s graduates.

During his speech, Dr Mutai requested the university council and the management to consider awarding Governor Joshua Irungu an honorary degree so that he could qualify to wear doctorate regalia.

We have attended graduations where members of the university council, powerful and influential as they are, are not allowed to put on doctorate gowns until they earn the degree or are awarded honorary doctorates. However, there have been breaches of such traditions.

On December 19, 2023, during the 12th graduation ceremony of Kisii University, Kisii Governor Simba Arati wore a doctorate regalia, even though we know that he has never earned or been awarded a doctorate.

And when Roads and Transport CS Kipchumba Murkomen graced the Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology’s 20th Graduation Ceremony on December 1, 2023, he donned a doctorate gown, even though he said during the ceremony, that he is yet to complete his PhD programme.

A similar scenario was seen on June 23, 2023, during JKUAT’s 40th graduation ceremony, in which Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua wore a doctorate ceremonial dress against the tradition.

These three gentlemen have accomplishments in politics and other areas of life, but that does not qualify them to don regalia reserved for doctorate academic achievement.

My colleague, Babere Chacha, wrote an opinion article in the Standard on July 21, 2022, titled "Graduation gowns are not for all and sundry." In his article, Dr Chacha decried our universities' blatant abuse of doctorate regalia on persons not qualified to wear them.

Dr Chacha recounted an incident in 1988 when the then assistant minister Oloo Aringo donned a doctorate gown without earning a PhD during a graduation ceremony at University of Nairobi.

He recounts that the university council was recalled to explain after the breach. At the same time, UASU held a press conference to demand an apology from the minister on behalf of the academia.

If the universities find it hard to have their guests put on ordinary gowns, why can't they first award them honorary doctorates to qualify them to wear them? Why are universities allowing the 'big man' to dilute the seriousness of doctorate regalia?

Dr Ndonye is a senior lecturer, the Department of Mass Communication, at Kabarak University.