Nancy Rothwell

July 21, 2006

A sigh of relief may have been heard in universities across the country this month as hundreds of degree ceremonies were completed. Not so long ago, it seemed that some might never go ahead.

I am now feeling guilty that I didn't attend any of my own, all held at the Royal Albert Hall in London. I seem to remember that for my BSc I was in some other part of the world, for my PhD I was too busy doing experiments and for my DSc I had long since moved North. I am sure I was a great disappointment to my mother, who never got the photo of me in a cap and gown to hang on the wall. But I've made it up to her as she watched me receive an honorary degree in Oxford this summer. Honorary degrees have a lot going for them. You don't have to revise or take exams, and you are part of a very small cohort (in this case eight) of highly esteemed individuals, all of whom seem much more deserving than you. In this case, one was a Nobel laureate. The Encaenia (Greek, meaning festival of renewal) has changed little in Oxford since 1760 and is indeed a grand and colourful occasion. The ceremony, preceded the evening before by a dinner in a college with much fine wine, begins mid-morning with a gathering to take champagne and strawberries, all in flowing academic dress. The chancellor's glorious black-and-gold gown has a train held by a pageboy - whose shoes obviously don't quite fit. The procession of several hundred is ushered into order and proceeds through Oxford, attracting observers and tourists who take snaps. Protesters objecting to the new animal labs are kept at bay by an army of police, and I (just) manage to recover my cap each time it is taken by a gust of wind.

The Encaenia is held in the spectacular Sheldonian Theatre, which has been used for similar purposes since 1699. The list of "officials" processing is bewildering. In addition to the chancellor, there are proctors and bedels, the university marshall, the high steward, the public orator (who is responsible for the Latin citations and the Creweian Oratory), the assessor and a cast of hundreds. To a fanfare of trumpets, the honorary graduands enter the theatre. Each citation is read (in Latin, naturally) and we then climb what is almost a ladder to reach the chancellor to receive our awards. After a splendid lunch with more wine there is a garden party at Trinity College, with champagne and afternoon tea. By now I am wondering how Oxford academics stay sober enough to get anything done. My mum spends most of the party assessing the colour and flamboyance of the gowns. The chap in the pale turquoise silk cape and matching pillbox hat with tassel has a clear lead. I wouldn't mind an honorary degree from wherever he got his.

Conversation inevitably involves the proposed reforms to the governance of Oxford University. To those at other universities, such as myself, the suggestion that the governing body should include a (very small) majority of external members hardly feels like a radical change, or indeed anything that we would even notice. Most of the organisations I've been involved with (government, charity and commercial) have fully independent outside boards or governing bodies that bring great value, and they seem to do pretty well. To be fair, I didn't hear the arguments against the suggested changes voiced fully, so maybe I have missed some fundamental reason why they should attract such vehement concern. One objection seems to be the loss of a great "Oxford tradition". The university does have a rich history and culture but I don't see why its management can't be updated while retaining those great values. My merest suggestion that citations for honorary degrees might move to English from Latin at some stage was met with a response of horror so I don't think there is any danger of the ceremonies losing any of their splendour or tradition.

An interesting comparison is with the Royal Society - an institution of great tradition held in worldwide esteem. Over the past five years it has undergone radical changes to its activities and outlook, most fundamentally to the rules of election. All, in my view, are much for the better. Yet it has lost none of its magic for scientists or its great history. Surely Oxford can also update its management without losing any of its great traditions and clear academic excellence. If it can't, I fear it will face more serious problems than animal-rights protesters or internal disputes over governance.

Dame Nancy Rothwell is MRC research professor in the faculty of life sciences at Manchester University. She is standing down as a Times Higher columnist due to work commitments.

Next week: Ruth Scurr, a politics lecturer at Cambridge University, writes her first column

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