Doctors steal the limelight

July 9, 1999

Jennifer Currie reports on how the new universities' quest for fame has fuelled the rise of the honorary degree.

If every honorary graduate followed the precedent set by Samuel Johnson, the world would be awash with doctors. Manchester United's performance would be dissected post-match by Dr Alex Ferguson, Dr Robson Green would appear on Top of the Pops and Dr Trevor MacDonald would read the news.

Dr Johnson had good reason to dispense with proper etiquette, according to Sheldon Rothblatt, professor of history at the University of California. "He was so poor that he had to drop out of Pembroke College, so he never got his degree. Johnson used the 'Dr' of his honorary degree as a status-enhancing symbol."

The status of the honorary degree itself has been enhanced over the centuries. Some would argue that the proliferation of academic institutions in recent years has led to a watering down of the necessary criteria - so much so that honorary degrees are now often nothing more than "gongs for the boys", as one university spokesperson put it.

Polytechnics were seen to eagerly embrace all aspects of ancient academia when they were awarded full university status at the beginning of the decade, as they immediately started conferring honorary degrees. There are now about 100 institutions making an average of ten awards every year.

Despite the growing number of B-list celebrities with honorary doctorates, most universities still insist that their primary function is to recognise distinction and achievement, academic or otherwise.

According to its university statutes, Cambridge honours are conferred on "members of the Royal Family, British subjects who are of conspicuous merit or have done good service to the university, and foreigners of distinction".

Most universities stick to similar guidelines, although interpretations vary from institution to institution. Celebrities with local links are becoming an increasingly frequent component of graduation ceremonies.

Actress Brenda Blethyn becomes a doctor of letters next month, courtesy of the University of Kent, while Bradford will pay tribute to gardening troubleshooter Alan Titchmarsh. Roy Lowe, head of Swansea University's education department, thinks this is no bad thing.

"There are certain types of people who seem to go around picking them up, but personally I quite like them. They can provide the degree ceremony with an extra dimension. Some universities make their honorary graduands say a few words during the ceremony, so then they really have to summarise what they are about."

Professor Lowe fondly recalls an occasion when as an undergraduate he watched the then archbishop of Canterbury collect an honorary degree from Keele University.

"He slept in a great throne all the way through the graduations. He had to be woken up when it came round to his turn," he said.

The popularisation of honorary degrees raises a number of issues for universities today. Has the integrity of such an ancient academic tribute been compromised by mass distribution? Are offers always made with solid academic motives in mind? Institutions keen to promote themselves know that big names equal media attention, while the benefits that courting the favours of financial magnates can bring speak for themselves.

"There is a risk that some universities could use them as window-dressing to enhance their respectability," admitted Professor Lowe.

Yet conferring honours with one eye on the coffers is nothing new. When Charles I moved his court to Oxford in 1642, he asked the university to award 350 of his courtiers honorary degrees. Oxford complied, but later sent a petition to the king that said that the university could no longer afford to give out honorary degrees to all of his friends with no recompense.

"That by this means our solemne Acts and Exercises will be destroyed, the fountain of our Revenue dryed up, hopefull Schollars discouraged and the Universitie dishonoured," the petition said. Future nominees would be considered on the basis of their academic capability, as well as their ability to pay fees.

The practice of awarding significant or potential donors with honorary degrees is long-established in the United States, where it is usual for universities to approach businesses with fundraising purposes in mind. Professor Rothblatt believes this is fast becoming a feature of British ceremonies.

He said: "As more universities are made to raise money for themselves, they are forced to look to the moneyed sector. It is interesting to look at who is getting the awards as it can tell us to what extent the university is responding to the pressures of the market. Giving them all to Nobel prizewinners and academics only shows that the university is certainly not going after the market."

Donald Witherington, a reader in Scottish history at Aberdeen University, believes that the system in place today is very much a product of this century.

"In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Scottish universities gave honorary degrees as a measure of excellence to people working in divinity, law and medicine in particular. This was the period when studies in medicine were carried out at places like the Royal College of Surgeons, so medical undergraduate degrees were not known at all. MD honorary degrees were given to doctors who had worked well for a couple of years, as a kind of a pat on the back."

A great scandal erupted at the beginning of the 19th century when it was revealed that some Scottish universities were profiting from their degree-awarding powers.

Dr Witherington said: "St Andrews made a good deal of money on the side. They granted medical doctorates knowing that they were getting money from them. The system was cleaned up soon after that time, although it will always be open to nefarious practices."

The diverse range of occupations and achievements celebrated by universities today is also representative of the broadening of the student profile.

"As education becomes a mass system, perhaps universities are forced to look to people from that area," suggested Professor Rothblatt.

Many institutions today select their honorary graduands from both academic and non-academic sectors with a view to encouraging their graduates to aim for similar goals.

Graham Upton, vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, said: "It is very important for students to have a role model. We look for people who have achieved success in their field."

As the poor man's honours list, the award-giving freedoms available to universities allow them to celebrate the unconventional, the controversial and the overlooked.

In the 1930s, Aberdeen University chose to award Jacob Epstein with an honorary degree when his work was thought to be outrageous. "It is a good way for the scholarly community to say to someone: 'We know you are having a hard time at the moment, but well done from us,'" said Dr Witherington.

Harold Silver, a visiting professor at Plymouth University, agrees that they are a useful way for universities to identify with the outside world. "If you can honour a senior politician, or a leading bureaucrat or a famous novelist, then you have constant access to them. You can almost treat them as an informal consultant," Professor Silver said.

As universities begin to rely more and more on their external links with business and industry, it seems only natural that the role of honorary degrees must change to reflect this broader academic perspective. Yet perhaps it should be remembered that it is the graduates themselves who are the real stars and that the honorary graduates, whether inspirational role models or mere in-flight entertainment, are not there to steal the show.

ACTORS ENTER LATE ON THE STAGE: Five hundred years of honour

The earliest record of an honorary degree in Oxford University's archives dates from either 1478 or 1479. Lionel Woodville, the dean of Exeter and brother-in-law of Edward IV, was offered a doctor of canon law without the usual academic exercises.

Oxford's archivist Simon Bailey thinks that this was clearly an attempt to curry favour with a man of great influence, who soon after became university chancellor.

Degrees were conferred by university representatives, who travelled to meet with the graduand, usually in London. A visit to Oxford by Elizabeth I in 1566 saw the first honorary degrees awarded at a ceremony held in the university.

Cambridge University dates its earliest ceremony back to 1493 when the poet John Skelton received an honorary degree. Elizabeth I was awarded one in 1564, as was the Prince of Wales when he visited the university in 1642. It was quite normal at that time to confer an honorary MA on visiting nobility.

In 1731, Glasgow University awarded an honorary doctorate to the "Butcher" Cumberland, son of George II and leader of the Hanoverian army that beat the Scots at Culloden. Until 1856, nominations needed only to be seconded by members of senate. Since that time, a committee of senate members has carefully considered each recommendation.

The tradition of giving honorary degrees to actors dates from the 1890s when Sir Henry Irvine received a succession of them.

HARD ACTS TO FOLLOW: The Title Collectors

With more than 1,000 honorary degrees awarded a year in the United Kingdom alone, there is bound to be a bit of doubling up. The late Sir Peter Medawar almost fulfilled his ambitious task of collecting "an alphabetic full house of doctorates".

In his autobiography, Memoirs of a Thinking Radish, the Nobel prizewinning immunologist listed honorary degrees from 23 institutions.

Hot on his heels comes naturalist and film-maker Sir David Attenborough, whose running total is already in the early 20s according to Who's Who.

This year sees a couple of additions to his entry, thanks to honorary doctorates from the Royal College of Art and Nottingham University.

Betty Boothroyd, Speaker of the House of Commons, now has nine honorary degrees, while newsreader Trevor MacDonald has ten. Sir Claus Moser had 20 at the last count.

Nelson Mandela's visit to the UK in 1996 resulted in a flurry of presentations, which culminated in a ceremony at Buckingham Place, to receive honours from eight institutions.

Selection processes differ. Some universities prefer an exclusive senate-only approach, while others will consider external nominations. Peter Scott, vice-chancellor at Kingston University, said that a "bottom up" approach ensures that each faculty can register its preferences, so the type of honorary graduand matches the predominant faculty represented at the degree ceremony. The individual's tally of honorary degrees is usually of no consequence.

He said: "A lot of time and energy goes into the decision-making process. The gender balance has to be right and they can't all be artists. A lot of it is about showing that universities are not all ivory towers."

Gathering honorary degrees is not a 1990s phenomenon, however, despite concerns that the tradition has been devalued.

By the 19th century, the giving of honorary degrees had spread to the United States to such an extent that the ministers or clerics who journeyed there from Scotland used to return home dripping with honorary doctorates.


Honorary degrees have been a source of controversy over the years. The most recent case emerged when three members of senate at St Andrews University objected to the awarding of an honorary degree to its outgoing student-elected rector Donald Findlay QC.

Mr Findlay recently resigned as vice-chairman of Rangers football club after he was filmed leading a crowd in a sectarian singalong. Every rector in the university's 600-year history has received an honorary degree, but the decision has been deferred until the beginning of the next academic year, when the senate meet again. Mr Findlay was due to receive his honorary doctorate in September.

Oxford's dons reacted angrily to proposals in 1985 to award the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher an honorary degree and refused to acknowledge the nomination. Tradition dictates that active politicians should not be considered for an award, although political bias was the reason attributed to this squabble.

A similar row broke out at John Moores University in Liverpool when students found out that local legend Cilla Black was to be given an honorary fellowship. Claiming that such an award would make a mockery of their own academic efforts, indignant students protested until Ms Black backed down.

One student at the time was reported as saying: "How can we expect people to take us seriously when Cilla has an honour from the same university?" "Surly swots snub our Cilla" exclaimed the News of the World, and the so-called Daily Mirror University of Life promptly stepped in to present Ms Black with its own version of an honorary degree.

Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl was nearly snubbed by Cambridge academics in 1998 when his name was struck off a list of nominations for an honorary law degree. A postal vote involving 3,300 dons outvoted the objections against the award.

Aberdeen University's motives behind its choice of honorary graduand were called into question in 1988 when it awarded the late Robert Maxwell an honorary doctorate of law. According to legend, Mr Maxwell held up the ceremonial procession by taking a phone-call. It is alleged that he said:

"For the kind of money I'm giving they can wait."

Playwright Alan Bennett refused an Oxford University honorary degree because he objected to the University's associations with Rupert Murdoch, who has funded a Pounds 3 million chair in communications.

Former Glasgow University rector Pat Kane walked out of an honorary degree ceremony in 1992 because he objected to the fact that former Scottish secretary George Younger was being awarded a doctorate.


"There's no such thing as a free honorary degree," says broadcaster Sue Lawley, who received her doctor of laws from Bristol University.

The Desert Island Discs presenter and Bristol languages graduate calls her degree a quid pro quo. The deal is that the recipient has a lot to give in terms of publicity and fundraising - it is a very modern business arrangement in a competitive age.

Sue Lawley has opened a new block at the university and is on-call whenever Bristol needs her. "I don't think my doctor of law is something I would ever use," she says, adding that the university is the only place where she is addressed as Dr Lawley.

Universities often exploit the home-town link. The University of East Anglia is about to confer a degree on Stephen Fry and the University of Northumbria at Newcastle gave Geordie actor and crooner Robson Green his degree last year. A spokeswoman for Northumbria said honorary degrees were "for people we feel we would like to honour" and provided a "positive spin-off for ourselves".

Leeds awarded one in 1986 to Sir Jimmy Saville, whose charity work is legendary. This year the university is giving one to current affairs supremo Jeremy Paxman. With a flair for the common touch, the University of Kent honoured Joanna Lumley and Prunella Scales received one from Bradford. Sporting prowess also makes you eligible for a degree. Northumbria honoured rugby star Rob Andrew last year, while golfer Gary Player picked up his second honorary degree from Dundee, having already carried one home from St Andrews.

The Prince of Wales has a number of degrees, from London, Wales, Aberdeen and the Open University at the last count.

There is evidence that the honorary degree is just not enough when it comes to linking a university with a star. Institutions are now giving celebrities academic posts.

The appointment of Dame Diana Rigg as a new professor of theatre studies at Oxford was widely interpreted as a publicity coup by the university over Cambridge. And there is no reason why the celebrity cannot have both an academic role and an honorary degree.

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