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Will Boston University Begin Awarding Posthumous Degrees in 2020?

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Beginning in 2020, Boston University will begin awarding posthumous degrees to students who die before completing their studies.

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A story published by the student newspaper at Boston University attracted attention online on August 12 2020, after revealing the school’s move to formalize the process behind awarding posthumous degrees.

The Daily Free Press first broke the story on its Twitter account before following up with a story on its website an hour later:

“We sent out the inital tweet as a breaking news tweet to outline that the policy is here and what it entails,” said editor-in-chief Angela Yang, who wrote the story. “We broke the news because it wasn’t announced to the BU community and we did not find any other news articles talking about it.”

While the university only adopted a formal policy in 2020, Yang — who wrote the story — reported that BU had awarded posthumous degrees in the past, and that the policy in question was first proposed in 2013.

According to the story, meetings concerning the adoption of the policy began in January 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic was covered widely in the United States. The story was confirmed by university spokesperson Colin Riley, who said that the policy was not spurred by the spread of the disease.

“There were proposals to formalize this, sadly, when a student passes away, particularly if they’ve been here years,” he told the newspaper. “It’s unfortunate timing. People may misconstrue.”

Yang told us that she recognized that the newspaper’s initial tweet on the story did not provide enough context, but that the Free Press did not publish the story in an attempt to stir fears about the new policy, which was posted on the university’s website after being instituted.

“Our tweets simply presented the information we had, and we did not speculate on that information,” she told us. “The discussion around it falls into the hands of the BU community. The tweet was bad timing now and would have been bad timing back in June had we caught the policy when it first released. But bad timing should not hinder us from reporting on news that had yet to be broken — we were doing our everyday jobs as journalists, and did not expect this to blow up the way it did.”

According to the story:

To be eligible for a degree after death, a student must have been in good academic standing and within one semester of completing their coursework. The criteria also states students must have been “likely” to pass their courses with “acceptable” grades, as well as been likely to have fulfilled any other non-academic requirements within one more term.

Graduate students must have completed all academic requirements other than their thesis or dissertation, which, however, must be “near completion.”

“The student’s committee must have determined the scholarship to be substantial work and worthy of the degree,” the policy stated. The same goes for creative products required for a degree from a graduate program.

Students who die with more than a semester left before graduation or who otherwise do not meet the criteria for a degree will be eligible for what the school calls a Certificate of Academic Achievement.

We contacted Riley seeking further comment on the policy, but have not heard back.

While Boston University’s guidelines on how to award degrees after a student’s death were formalized only recently, several other universities have similar policies in place. For example, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo states on its site:

The majority of the faculty in the department of the student’s major may recommend to the President the award of a posthumous degree to the family of a deceased student when that student has satisfactorily completed at least two-thirds (2/3) of all coursework towards a degree. Under special circumstances, the President or designee may grant the awarding of a posthumous degree or certificate for a student who has completed less than two-thirds (2/3) of the degree coursework.

The Boston University campus is scheduled to reopen for students in August 2020. According to the university’s website, undergraduate students will be tested for COVID-19 upon returning to campus and every three days afterward, whether they live on or off campus. Graduate students will be tested once a week after their initial testing.