To honour, or not to honour?

Handing out honorary degrees doesn't always go as planned

August 11, 2016
Donald Trump
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Which is the most embarrassing honorary degree handed out in recent times?

It’s a crowded field, but it’s hard to look beyond the doctorate presented to Sir Jimmy Savile by the University of Bedfordshire in 2009, three years before he was exposed as the UK’s most prolific paedophile.

That award’s cringe factor was amplified by the existence of a photograph of a berobed Savile, cigar in hand, next to Bedfordshire’s smiling vice-chancellor Les Ebdon, who is now the director of fair access to higher education. The image’s ubiquity also meant that the University of Leedslargely avoided publicity over the honorary degree it awarded to the Top of the Pops presenter in 1986. Both institutions rescinded their awards shortly after Savile was posthumously exposed in 2012.

Other institutions have also faced embarrassment over awards to those later exposed as paedophiles. An honorary degree awarded in 2010 to Rolf Harris by Liverpool Hope University was rescinded in 2014, days after the artist and children’s TV presenter was convicted on sex abuse charges. Lancaster University’s 1993 veneration of Sir Cyril Smith, a Liberal MP who was later the subject of numerous allegations of sexual and physical abuse of children, and who was given a deputy pro-chancellor’s role in the 1970s, remains listed on the university’s website despite anger at the award. Most recently, the University of St Andrews announced that it is mulling whether it should withdraw an honorary degree given to its former rector, broadcaster Sir Clement Freud, in the wake of posthumous allegations of sexual assault made against him by four women. Meanwhile, in the US, some 60 universities are wrestling with how to deal with the honorary awards they gave to Bill Cosby, the one-time king of American sitcom TV, in the wake of multiple rape allegations against him.

Other honorary degrees that have come back to haunt their awarders include the 1984 degree handed to reviled Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe for services to education in Africa, revoked by the University of Edinburgh in 2007 – a move described by the Zimbabwean government as a “disgrace” and a “humiliation” for Edinburgh. The revocation was hailed as “historic” at the time, but removal of honorary degrees now seems to occur regularly, particularly at Scottish universities.

Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University made headlines in December when it stripped billionaire tycoon Donald Trump of a 2010 honorary degree over anti-Muslim comments he made while fighting to become the Republican nominee for the US presidency. Paralympic star Oscar Pistorius, now a convicted murderer, was also relieved last year of the degree awarded to him by the University of Strathclyde in 2012. However, St Andrews resisted calls in the wake of the near-collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland in 2008 to revoke the honorary degree it gave to the bank’s infamous former boss Fred “The Shred” Goodwin in 2004. Goodwin was stripped of his knighthood in 2012.

Even the most seemingly deserving and well-loved public figures, such as former Kids’ Company chief executive Camila Batmanghelidjh, can appear a bad choice in hindsight. The five institutions that awarded an honorary degree to the now discredited boss of the collapsed children’s charity will no doubt have been particularly unnerved when, in the face of mounting criticism of her management of the charity, she began to cite her awards as evidence of her professional standing and competence. Maybe it’s best to stick to innocuously cuddly fictional characters such as Kermit the Frog, who was awarded an honorary doctorate of amphibious letters in 1996 by Long Island University for his services to environmentalism.

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POSTSCRIPT:

In the above article, "To honour, or not to honour", we included Jack Monroe on a list of embarrassing honorary degrees. We have now removed Jack Monroe from that list, and apologise for any distress caused to Jack as a result of that inclusion. We have great respect for Jack's work and certainly did not intend to cause any distress.

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