Are You a Real Doctor?

We’ve become a society obsessed with credentials – a trend long in the making. My maternal grandmother, who emigrated from Russia just prior to the Communist Revolution, quickly latched on to the meritocratic impulse of her adopted homeland. When I decided to go to law school, in 1964, my grandmother asked why I wasn’t going to medical school; she, a prototypical Jewish grandmother, wanted “a doctor in the family.” My forthcoming law degree, I explained, was basically the equivalent of a doctoral degree. “But what degree will it be?” she asked. “A bachelor-of-laws,” I replied. “Heh – so you won’t be a doctor of anything,” she noted with disappointment – and maybe a bit of sarcasm.

My grandmother’s admonition came to mind some years later, when the distinction between a “bachelor” and a “doctor” arose yet again.

I graduated Harvard Law School in 1967 and was awarded the degree of Bachelor of Laws, or LL.B – as was the case then at every other law school in the country.  Within a decade, however, law schools began to change the name of the degree to J.D. (Juris Doctor). The old LL.B. – which had, at least to that point, served me well -- was perfectly acceptable; I didn’t quite understand the need for the switch. An unexpected letter from the then-dean of the Harvard Law School, Derek C. Bok (later president of Harvard University) provided the rationale. Federal agencies that hired lawyers and other professionals paid higher salaries to those “with doctorates” than to professionals with mere “bachelor” or “masters” degrees. As a result, explained Dean Bok, HLS graduates who entered public service in the federal government were at a disadvantage: alumni from one of the country’s top law schools were being paid less than their peers because they held an LL.B. instead of a J.D., even though they are in substance the same degree. Henceforth HLS would award the J.D., just like its competitors. Parity would be achieved.

But what about lawyers who had already graduated HLS with the lowly bachelor’s degree? Figuring that alumni might feel left out if only new graduates benefited financially from the new degree name, HLS invited all of its alumni to send a check to get their J.D. degrees in the traditional faux parchment – $25 for the English version and $35 for the Latinate. Four to eight weeks later, a genuine J.D. degree, awarded retroactively, would show up in the mail. Problem of unfair competitive disadvantage solved!

I wrote to Dean Bok, protesting a private university’s allowing itself to be held hostage by the federal bureaucrats (particularly on such an inane matter) and urging Harvard to instead pressure the feds to wake up and see that it’s the same degree. In any event, I really didn’t need a “doctorate,” I explained, because I worked for my own law firm and would never likely work for the government. But I’d always wanted a degree in nuclear physics, so I enclosed a check for $35 and expected to receive a Harvard Ph.D. in that field – the Latinate version, of course, hence the $10 premium over the more plebian English.

Dean Bok wrote back, explaining, in a letter marked by the grace with which he always carried himself, that he could not send me a doctorate in physics – which he suspected I realized when I placed my order. He nonetheless thanked me for my $35 contribution to the Harvard Law School Fund, to which he had forwarded my check. By the time I received Dean Bok’s letter, it was too late for me to instruct my bank to stop payment.

I sometimes think about what would have become of that $35 had I invested it in Microsoft. Alas. But my real regret was, and is, that American institutions of higher learning continue to allow themselves to be controlled by the vast number of often senseless and destructive regulations that pollute the federal statutory and regulatory codes. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. But when Harvard Law changed the name of its degree because of a bureaucratic glitch that should have been fought rather than followed, one didn’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing. Federal regulations would soon come to plague all institutions of higher learning in a bewildering number of areas. And credentials would become even more of a national mania.