I’m a celebrity, get me an honorary degree


September 12, 2004

Are university awards being cheapened by handouts to soap actors and pop stars, asks Judith O’Reilly

A degree these days costs three years of a student’s life and up to £20,000 by the time tuition fees and living costs are taken into account. For a fortunate few, however, there is a way round investing large amounts of time and money — appear in a reality TV show, manage a football club or tell a couple of funny jokes. Welcome to the world of the honorary degree.

Musicians were in particular favour at this year’s graduation ceremonies. St Andrews had the headline act, awarding Bob Dylan an honorary doctorate of music. The American rock icon, who has only ever accepted one other honorary degree, from Princeton, was seen to stifle yawns during the ceremony.

Bee Gees Robin and Barry Gibb also became doctors of music, sharing the award with their late brother, Maurice. They received their degree from the University of Manchester. Their musical careers began in the city before the family’s emigration to Australia.

Dylan and the Bee Gees join a growing band of popular musicians to be honoured in this way. The list encompasses some unlikely names. In 2002, for example, the University of Wolverhampton awarded honorary degrees to glam rockers Slade, whose creative approach to spelling was displayed on 1970s hits such as Mama Weer All Crazee Now and Gudbuy t’Jane.

For an academic institution, such populism would once have been unthinkable. Traditionally an honorary degree was a university’s way of marking excellence and achievement. Cambridge claims it only awards them to “members of the royal family, British subjects who are of conspicuous merit or have done good service to the state or to the university, and foreigners of distinction”. The roll call of those deemed sufficiently worthy by the university includes Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa and, this year, jazz musicians John Dankworth and Dame Cleo Laine.

The reason universities are willing to confer honours on celebrities is that both sides win. The university gets publicity by reaching out an academic hand of welcome to someone famous, while the personality gets to wear scarlet gowns with silk facings and soft black velvet bonnets — sometimes with a golden tassel.

Sometimes nobody is more surprised by the award than the recipients themselves. When the Bee Gees received their honorary degree, Barry Gibb commented: “People who do what we do don’t expect something like this.”

According to Mark Griffiths, professor of psychology at Nottingham Trent University, a famous personality can find an honorary degree immensely validating. “It can be a big boost to the person’s self-esteem to get a degree, particularly if they didn’t go to university. After all, people give to society in different ways. If somebody has made you laugh or made you feel good with a concert, why should they have less precedence that someone who designs a building, for instance?” The way the awards system works is that nominations from the university community are put before a committee of academics, who consider whether the nominees meet the criteria for their institution’s award. (The most famous rejection was of Margaret Thatcher, who was snubbed by Oxford academics while she was prime minister.) The nominee is then approached to see if he or she is willing to accept the honour.

The first occasion an honorary degree was awarded was in 1478 or 1479, to Lionel Woodville, dean of Exeter and brother-in-law of Edward IV. Oxford made him a doctor of canon law in a blatant bid to win the favour of a powerful man.

Universities may be interested in the power of publicity these days but they also seek to acknowledge their communities at the same time. One example of this trend is the honorary degree awarded by London Metropolitan University to Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger. As Roderick Floud, vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan, said: “Arsenal is very close to our north London campus and is very important to the community in which we work.”

Wenger is not football’s only honorary degree holder. This year Jack Charlton was honoured by the University of Leeds, and Italian football referee Pierluigi Collina by the University of Hull. Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson beat them both to it. He was awarded a degree jointly by Umist and Manchester Metropolitan in 1998.

Dr Tim Stibbs, secretary to the University of Manchester’s honorary degrees committee, defends the practice. “You don’t honour someone just because they are famous. There are many things we do in the local community to demonstrate we are not an ivory tower, and this would be one way of showing that.”

Writers are popular at graduation ceremonies. This year Joanne Rowling was honoured by the University of Edinburgh, while Bill Bryson was recognised by Durham University — which was only fair given the glowing comments about the city in his Notes from a Small Island.

Scriptwriter Andrew Davies, famous for adapting classics of English literature for television, was dubbed a doctor of letters by the University of Warwick. Davies also has degrees from Coventry, Cardiff, De Montfort and the Open University. He has now decided that his collection is all but complete. “It would be rude to turn them down, but I have enough now — except if University College London offered me one, because I was a student there.”

Davies’s son Bill spent three years working for a PhD in acoustics at Salford. He is less convinced about his father’s academic credentials.

“My son is quite sarcastic about it and says, ‘I had to work really hard for mine and they are just giving you them,’ Davies says. But he admits that “when you are at the ceremony you are also very aware that all the other poor buggers slogged their guts out for theirs.”

Davies’s five doctorates appear quite modest next to Sir David Attenborough’s tally, which is believed to be at least 19.

Universities are keen to capitalise on their local heroes, too. Warwick awarded an honorary doctorate to one of its graduates, Jennie Bond, the former royal correspondent for the BBC and star of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! Liverpool John Moores honoured Cilla Black and actress Sue Johnston, star of Brookside and The Royle Family, with honorary fellowships.

For traditionalists, it has all gone a bit too far. Alan Smithers, professor of education at the University of Buckingham and himself holder of an honorary degree from Manchester, believes degrees should not just be a way of brightening up graduation ceremonies.

“The criterion these days is often that the honorary graduate is well known rather than they have made a distinctive contribution in their particular academic field,” Smithers says. “Now that particular public relations genie is out of the bottle, it can’t be stuffed back in. And that is all right — providing nobody takes it too seriously.”


[EDLIS Notes]

The Sunday Times broadens the subject to the advisability of the current crop of honorary degrees at universities.

Bob Dylan Gets Degree and Makes Getaway

By Natalie Finn

Thursday June 24, 2004 12:00 PM EDT

Bob Dylan Gets Degree and Makes Getaway | Bob Dylan


Until his abrupt departure, Bob Dylan looked more like a resting stone than a rolling stone on Wednesday, as he was awarded an honorary doctorate in music from Prince William's alma mater, Scotland's St. Andrew's University.

Dressed in a traditional, full-length graduation gown, Dylan, 63, sat heavy-lidded through an a cappella performance of "Blowin' in the Wind."

This was followed by opening remarks from English professor Neil Corcoran, an academic expert on Dylan's lyrics and editor of Do You, Mr. Jones?: Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors.

"It goes without saying that his acceptance of our invitation deeply honors us," Corcoran said. "I feel incapable when I'm asked to say what Bob Dylan means to me in a few minutes. ... He keeps on keeping on."

The accredited Dylan fan went on to call the musician "one of the great writers of the drama of human relationship," noting such hits as "Lay, Lady, Lay" and "Tangled Up in Blue."

After hearing 20 minutes' worth of faculty members singing his praises, Dylan knelt down to accept a tap on the head from Chancellor Sir Kenneth Dover, making the degree official. The iconic musician bowed and took his seat without comment -- and soon after, slipped out through a side door.

A rep from the university press office had no comment on Dylan's reaction to the ceremony, saying it was a private affair.

Dylan has accepted only one other honorary degree before, from Princeton University in 1970. He was in Scotland to perform two concerts in Glasgow.

[EDLIS Notes]

So it takes four articles to get the full photo gallery of Dylan at St Andrews.

BBC NEWS | UK | Scotland | Dylan receives honorary degree

Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 June, 2004, 18:47 GMT 19:47 UK
Dylan receives honorary degree
Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan was made a Doctor of Music
American folk-rock singer Bob Dylan has been awarded an honorary degree by Scotland's oldest university.

The University of St Andrews made Bob Dylan a Doctor of Music at this year's summer graduation ceremony on Wednesday.

Dylan has only ever accepted one other honorary degree - from Princeton University in 1970.

A garden party which was planned for after the event had to be held in doors because of the bad weather.

University principal, Dr Brian Lang, described Dylan as an "iconic figure for the 20th Century".

Mr Lang added: "His songs, and in particular his lyrics, are still part of our consciousness.

"We are very pleased to take this opportunity of honouring such a major artist."


The St Salvator's Chapel Choir performed its version of the Dylan classic, Blowin' in the Wind, before he stepped up to receive his degree.

The singer-songwriter knelt on the stage before the university's chancellor, Sir Kenneth Dover, who performed the ceremony in Latin.

Dylan was tapped on the head with the university's graduation cap, a late 17th Century doctor's birretum, which is thought to have been in use for the last 300 years.


Graduation ceremony
Bob Dylan has only accepted one other honorary degree
He turned and bowed after receiving his degree, to cheers and applause from the audience.

Professor Neil Corcoran of the university's school of English said he was "deeply honoured" that Dylan had accepted the university's invitation.

"For many of us Bob Dylan has been an extension of our consciousness and part of our growing up," he said.

After the ceremony 23-year-old Jennifer Laurens, a graduate in social anthropology, said: "This is a very special day for St Andrews.

"Considering that this is Bob Dylan's second degree and that he had agreed to travel to Scotland, it makes it an achievement for us all."

Some Dylan fans were able to secure tickets for the event, while others waited outside in the rain in the hope of catching a glimpse of the star.

Glasgow dates

However, he left through a side door after the ceremony.

Best known for classic hits such as Like a Rolling Stone and Mr Tambourine Man, the singer-songwriter is credited as being one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.

Fusing rock, country, folk and blues, Dylan's unique sound and political lyrical content made him a poetic spokesman for the 1960s generation.

He remains as much an influence amongst current rock musicians as he was to the Beatles and the Stones in the sixties.

The singer is currently on tour in Europe and, after receiving his honorary degree, will play the first of two nights in Glasgow.

[EDLIS Notes]

Here we have an image that is reminiscent of Dylan bowing before the Pope in the Vatican City.

Bob Dylan gets honorary degree from Scottish university

Originally created 06/24/04

By Associated Press




"Many members of my generation can't separate a sense of our own identity from his music and lyrics," professor of English Neil Corcoran said in an awe-struck address.

Dylan's fusion of folk, blues, country, rock and poetry, Corcoran said, "moved everything on to a place it never expected to go and left the deepest imprint on human consciousness."

"His magnificent songs will last as long as song itself does," he added.

Founded in 1413, St. Andrews, northeast of Edinburgh, is Britain's third-oldest university and one of its most prestigious. Its current students include Prince William, second in line to the throne.

The university also awarded honorary degrees to Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam and Cheryll Tickle, one of Britain's leading biologists, along with degrees for 180 graduating students.

Dylan has accepted only one other honorary degree, from Princeton University in 1970.

[EDLIS Notes]

Another nice image of Dylan in his academic gown.

Speechless Dylan accepts honorary degree

David Cheskin  /  AP
Rock legend Bob Dylan waits on the stage of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, Wednesday, where he received an honorary degree of Doctor of Music from Sir Kenneth Dover, chancellor of the university, left. The American icon, whose hits include "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Mr. Tambourine Man," has only ever accepted one other honorary degree, from Princeton University in 1970.
The Associated Press
updated 6/23/2004 5:30:59 PM ET 2004-06-23T21:30:59

Bob Dylan’s lyrics have been taught in universities and debated at academic conferences. Not bad for a college dropout who railed, in “Tombstone Blues” against too much “useless and pointless knowledge.”

Well, the times they are a-changin’.

Dylan, dressed in a black academic gown, was awarded an honorary doctorate Wednesday by Scotland’s oldest university.

The University of St. Andrews said it was making Dylan, 63, an honorary Doctor of Music in recognition of his “outstanding contribution to musical and literary culture.”

“Many members of my generation can’t separate a sense of our own identity from his music and lyrics,” said professor of English Neil Corcoran in an awe-struck address.

Dylan’s fusion of folk, blues, country, rock and poetry, Corcoran said, “moved everything on to a place it never expected to go and left the deepest imprint on human consciousness.”

“His magnificent songs will last as long as song itself does,” he added.

Dylan, who received his doctorate alongside Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam and biologist Cheryll Tickle, arrived 50 minutes into the 90-minute ceremony and did not address the audience of 180 graduating students and their relatives. But his silent — and sometimes yawning — presence onstage brought a strong dose of star power to the university’s wood-paneled Younger Hall.

Dylan sat motionless and showed no reaction as a university choir performed a version of his early classic, “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Founded in 1413, St. Andrews, northeast of Edinburgh, is Britain’s third-oldest university and one of its most prestigious. Its current students include Prince William, second in line to the throne.

Announcing the honorary degree earlier this month, university chancellor Brian Lang called Dylan “an iconic figure for the 20th century, particularly for those of us whose formative years were in the 1960s and ’70s.”

The university also cited Dylan’s long-standing interest in Scottish culture. Corcoran said Scottish folk songs and border ballads influenced his early work, while a later song, “Highlands,” is based on a poem by Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet.

The musician has many fans among postwar and baby boomer academics. Last month Christopher Ricks, author of the critical analysis “Dylan’s Visions of Sin,” was elected Oxford University’s professor of poetry.

Corcoran said Dylan was “a supremely interesting and significant figure in modern culture.”

“I think he’s akin to Pablo Picasso in many ways — his staying power, his resilience, the metamorphoses of a very long career,” he told BBC radio.

Dylan, who is touring Britain, is due to play the first of two concerts in Glasgow on Wednesday night.

Dylan has accepted only one previous honorary degree, from Princeton in 1970 — a commencement ceremony memorable in part because of a noisy invasion of cicadas.

Dylan seems to have had mixed feelings about the event, which inspired the song “Day of the Locusts”:

“I put down my robe, picked up my diploma,
“Took hold of my sweetheart and away we did drive,
“Straight for the hills, the black hills of Dakota,
“Sure was glad to get out of there alive.”

[EDLIS Notes]

Of the many articles about Dylan receiving his honorary degree from St. Andrews, this one has the best photo. The Chancellor of the university is clearly enjoying himself immensely, while Dylan seems to be just hopin' he'll get out of there alive.