The great, the good and the ugly

Astronauts, actors, controversial politicians and a Muppet are among those to have landed an honorary degree. So is it all a populist stunt or is there a credible rationale for such awards? asks Hannah Fearn

August 7, 2008

What do Kermit the Frog, Jeremy Clarkson and Robert Mugabe have in common? It may sound like the opening line of a tasteless bar-room joke, but the answer is a little more sobering: they have all been awarded honorary degrees.

"I stand here before you a happy and humble frog," Kermit said, accepting his honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters from Long Island University in 1996. "When I was a tadpole growing up back in the swamps, I never imagined that I would one day address such an outstanding group of scholars."

It was an amusing publicity stunt for the institution, but one that raises important questions about the role and value of honorary degrees. The proliferation of such awards over the past two decades has led to an increasingly bitter debate about their worth. Universities pride themselves on their ability to recognise and reward achievement, inside and outside the world of academe. But, as the proverb goes, pride comes before a fall. Many institutions have faced fierce criticism for their choices. At its best, conferring an honorary degree on a little-known but influential figure pays tribute to that person's accomplishments and makes a firm statement about the values of the university. At its worst, it is an embarrassing exercise in celebrity PR.

Last year, the University of St Andrews became the centre of press attention when singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was photographed during his honorary degree ceremony - apparently taking a nap.

Niall Scott, director of corporate communications at the university, argues that the picture did not tell the full story. "He did close his eyes for a second, and that gave the press the picture and the story they wanted. It shouldn't have been a surprise - it rained all day and Dylan's people didn't want the media in the hall, so we left them soaking outside for a couple of hours while he was smuggled in and out of a side entrance," he explains. "I think that's what you might call a hostile press. Anyway, it's become legend now that he fell asleep. Completely untrue, but that's rock'n'roll."

But Dylan is not the only celebrity name on the roll of honorands at St Andrews. Dame Judi Dench and Michael Douglas are among the actors who have been recognised. The university faced criticism for populism when Douglas was awarded the degree, but Scott says the critical reception misrepresented the institution's intentions - to celebrate Douglas's work with golf and charity.

"It was the right decision. He was worthy of an honorary degree," Scott says. The university seeks to make awards to those with a connection with St Andrews the place, the birthplace of golf. As such, Charlie Sifford, the first black golfer in America and named as a major inspiration to today's international champion Tiger Woods, has also picked up an honorary scroll.

"Charlie doesn't have an academic bone in his body, but he was utterly appropriate for an honorary degree because we're in the home of golf. We're well placed to do that," Scott says.

Inevitably, media interest does lead to a debate about the worth of the award. Scott says these debates are self-perpetuating. "Universities that occasionally give degrees to celebrities find that the media want access to come to take a picture of the celebrity holding the scroll. The media then become very serious and ask questions about whether they should be awarded. That, of course, just gives them the chance to run the picture of the celebrity again."

St Andrews is happy to discuss its choices. "If anyone from the university community were to say, 'I'm not happy about having that celebrity', we would take notice of it," Scott says. "We get far more nominations than we get approvals. It's not a smoke-filled room; it's quite a robust and open process."

The university is even confident enough to use the honorary degree programme to make a political statement. It conferred the award on Mohammad Khatami, the former President of Iran, in 2006. At the time, Khatami, who had been succeeded as President in 2005 by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was held up as an advocate of peaceful dialogue while much of the Western world appeared focused on military intervention.

"Universities are in a unique position in being academically independent, so they can do these things," Scott says. "We got a lot of criticism, but we were able to fly the flag for dialogue. We were strongly encouraged to do it, no matter how much criticism we got."

Yet it is no surprise that most institutions now have a ban on serving politicians built into the nomination process. Wading into politics is a dangerous game. The University of Edinburgh awarded Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe, an honorary degree in 1984. Last year it stripped him of that honour, the first UK university to take such a step. The move prompted a review, and a potential shake-up, of the institution's awarding criteria.

"It's a sort of an inevitable learning consequence," says Tim O'Shea, the principal of Edinburgh. "We've got some distinguished colleagues to look at the very particular issues around revoking the Mugabe degree. They came to some more general conclusions. We're working on those conclusions now. I think the type of criteria will be fleshed out in more detail, and more due diligence will be done."

Even if the honorary graduate isn't as politically or internationally inflammatory as Mugabe, a controversial choice can lead to embarrassment and potential damage to reputation. Oxford Brookes University certainly understands the risks; it came under fire when it decided to award Jeremy Clarkson, the outspoken television presenter and newspaper columnist, an honorary degree in 2005. At the ceremony, he was greeted by a student demonstration and the presentation of a lengthy petition against the award.

"He's more deserving of an ASBO," student Denise Lock said at the time. "He encourages drivers to break speed limits and incites violence against cyclists. While other universities are rewarding the likes of Nelson Mandela, Brookes is rolling out the carpet for a dangerous buffoon."

The spectacle culminated with Clarkson, gowned and glowing with pride, having a custard pie thrust into his face.

Since such incidents, debate about the worth of honorary degrees has spilt over on to the web. One poster to The Scotsman's website claims that the awarding of honorary degrees "contemptuously belittles those graduates who have toiled away for years to earn their qualification through merit and hard work".

But Oxford Brookes did not renege on its choice or accept criticism that bestowing the accolade on a popular television presenter sent out the wrong message about the institution.

Denise Morrey, dean of the School of Technology, proposed Clarkson for the honorary degree. "The school I run has a very successful suite of courses and other activities to do with motor-sport engineering," she explains. "One of the things we have noticed over the years is that there aren't that many people who are good champions of engineering. It's central to the UK economy ... and if we were better at promoting it we might do better as an economy.

"Our courses have been very successful at attracting students, partly because it's motor sport and it's exciting, but one of the great things about Jeremy Clarkson is that he's really passionate about it. He really does love engineering and is genuinely very interested.

"When you talk to our students, many of them are great fans of Top Gear. They really like him. He's enthusiastic about the things they're interested in. There are lots of young people who are switched on to engineering by the things he promotes."

Morrey dismisses the criticism that has been launched at the university for recognising the achievements of the wrong kind of people. In her view, Clarkson's position as an ambassador for engineering sits perfectly with the ethos of the university - and of higher education. She says: "Universities are made up of some diverse groups, and we have to sit alongside each other. It's really critical that we provide people with sharp engineering skills that are pushing back the boundaries. That, for me, doesn't sit uncomfortably next to concerns about the environment."

At Edinburgh, the recognition of how recipients of honorary degrees can stimulate current students is well understood. When the university awarded an honorary degree to astronaut Neil Armstrong in Washington earlier this year, he spent time with a group of alumni and student researchers. Other honorary graduands, including former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, Microsoft entrepreneur Bill Gates and bestselling author J.K. Rowling, have talked to students about their achievements. "In these cases, students get a particular benefit. There's no question that Armstrong galvanised a group of researchers by his enthusiasm," O'Shea says. "It's more likely that someone with J.K. Rowling at their degree ceremony will go on to write a serious novel."

Most institutions follow a very similar formal procedure for deciding on a final list of figures to be awarded an honorary degree each year. The University of Wolverhampton's mechanism is typical.

"Staff at the university are invited to put forward people they think are deserving of an honorary award. Nominations are then made by the deans of schools, department heads and the university executive," a spokeswoman explains. Then a specially selected committee considers the nominations before a final list of recommendations is put forward to the board of governors or senate for approval and ratification. There is typically a loose list of guidelines, which usually includes a reference to "outstanding contribution" or "eminence" in a nominee's chosen career path or field, a link to the institution or local area, a link to an academic specialism of the university, and sympathy with its values. Most regularly recognise high-achieving alumni.

Colin Crowder, deputy dean of the faculty of arts and humanities at Durham University, is a member of the senate advisory panel that considers first nominations. The panel has a membership of roughly 15, including senior officers from the faculties, pro vice-chancellors and the student union president. Writer Bill Bryson and Olympic champion Sir Steve Redgrave are among those who have been honoured as a result of this process.

"The nominations come from the grass roots. They're not dreamt up by a management committee. I think a crucial factor for us is that we have some very senior professors (on the advisory panel). That will help it get the respect of the academic community," Crowder says. "The process means that inappropriate nominations are taken out very early on."

In the third and final phase, Durham's senate holds a secret ballot. As a general rule, six honorary degrees are conferred on each occasion. A quick glance at the university's honorary roll shows many figures rewarded for their academic excellence. There are few names the layperson would recognise.

"We don't actively court controversy. We certainly don't do celebrity for celebrity's sake," Crowder says. "We do our own thing. It may be entirely proper for other institutions to reflect a different kind of mission with honorary degrees. What we do reflects our place, ethos and subject mix.

"My sense is that the significance of a few controversial cases can be greatly exaggerated. The fact is that there are so many more degree-awarding institutions than there were a generation ago and therefore many more honorary degrees being conferred every year. Given that increase, which goes with the increase in (the number of) new universities, it's inevitable that sooner or later there will be controversial choices."

Following protocol and the priorities of the university does not always lead to easy choices, however. This year, London Metropolitan University awarded the Dalai Lama an honorary degree. This was no radical or maverick decision - the university has a Tibet scholarship programme, working with the Office of the Dalai Lama to offer the region's most gifted students a chance to study at the institution for free.

When the degree was awarded, Brian Roper, the vice-chancellor, said: "A great man, a great occasion for us. I don't know what it means to be a God-king or a spiritual leader but whatever it is, he's got it, and it ain't just showbusiness."

Roper also saw the importance of the impact of honorary degrees on the university's students. "To see the reaction of the Tibetan students to being in the presence of the Dalai Lama was moving, even for an old campaigner like myself," he explained. "He wanted to (accept the award) because of his commitment to education, and I think this is the important message. He was reminding us, I think in the West particularly, that education is not just about material development, though it is about that, (and) not just about getting a job, getting money, buying things."

But although Roper said at the time that he was aware that the award "may not be universally well received", he could not have been prepared for what happened next. Murmurings of dissatisfaction led to a meeting between Roper and Chinese Embassy officials to debate the issues at stake. Although London Met fell short of issuing an apology and the degree will not be withdrawn, Roper did issue a public statement saying the university regretted any "unhappiness" the award had caused among the Chinese people.

Even where there is no political element, the presentation of an honorary degree can be a powerful and symbolic ceremony for both university and individual. When Edinburgh recognised Armstrong, it did it in style.

Piers Sellers, a Nasa astronaut and graduate of the university, had received an honorary degree years earlier. When he was due to take part in his next space mission he made a unique request. "He asked to take our bonnet to confer degrees with him into space. We couldn't allow it, but he took a piece of the velvet," Edinburgh's O'Shea recalls. On Sellers's return to Earth, the piece of velvet was sewn into the bonnet later used to confer Armstrong with his own honorary degree.

"Like Neil, it had gone into space. I couldn't imagine a more appropriate thing," O'Shea says. "Tapping him with the medieval bonnet that had already had sewn into it a piece of University of Edinburgh velvet that had been in space was just lovely."

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