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Honorary Degrees: The Rush to Revoke

With universities everywhere continuing the stampede to revoke honorary degrees, Paul argues that universities should start being more careful about whom they bestow the honour in the first place.
This article is more than 8 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

We’ll have that Honorary Degree back, please

Universities often take a long time to decide to award an honorary degree. First there is a call for proposals, then an initial sifting and consideration of a long list by a committee. Following that, there is often a further approval stage, perhaps by Senate, before contact is made and the offer of an Honorary delivered. Assuming an acceptance (and very few are turned down in my experience) then arrangements are made for a suitable date for the award at a future graduation (or possibly a special event).

Until quite recently it really was very unusual for honorary to be revoked although, as I’ve previously noted there is the classic case of Robert Mugabe’s degree being withdrawn by Edinburgh University back in 2007.

Other shining examples:

  • Jimmy Savile’s Honorary was rescinded by Bedfordshire in 2012
  • Fred Goodwin did not have his revoked by St Andrews but Constance Briscoe’s Honorary was revoked by Wolverhampton
  • Cardinal Keith O’Brien was fortunate that his Honorary Degree from St Andrew’s was not revoked despite a call from at least one member of staff
  • More recently, Lord Sewel, who made the headlines for all the wrong reasons, faced calls for his Honorary, from Aberdeen University, to be revoked.

The new Cosby showHe used to have a few more of these

Bill Cosby is reckoned to have nearly 60 Honorary Degrees and quite a few have now been revoked. helpfully reports on what many of these universities are now thinking.

It does rather look that he will be spending quite a lot on postage in returning most of these and there does seem to be a new revocation letter arriving chez Cosby every day.


From Robert Gordon University newsletter, Nexus, Winter 2011/12

From Robert Gordon University newsletter, Nexus, Winter 2011/12

What has changed though in the past few years is the speed of revocation. Arguably, some Honorary Degrees are being withdrawn with what might be regarded as almost indecent haste. Robert Gordon University awarded an Honorary (some might think unwisely) to Donald Trump in 2010 but after he made a speech recently calling for Muslims to be banned from entering the US an online petition was launched to have it revoked. Within a few days it was:

A spokesman for RGU said: “In 2010 Robert Gordon University awarded an honourary DBA to Mr Donald Trump, in recognition of his achievements as an entrepreneur and businessman.
“In the court of the current US election campaign, Mr Trump has made a number of statements that are wholly incompatible with the ehtos and values of the university.
“The university has therefore decided to revoke its award of the honorary degree.”
The degree was awarded when Mr Trump had been building his £750 million golf course in Menie and RGU said it had chosen to confer the honour in recognition of his business acumen, entrepreneurial vision and the long-term future his company had planned in the north-east.

A very rapid reaction.

Kicking Honoraries out of football

De Montfort recently withdrew the Honorary degree it awarded to Sepp Blatter

Sepp Blatter has been stripped of an honorary degree by De Montfort University, it has been revealed.
The university in Leicester awarded the Fifa president, 79, the honorary doctorate in Arts and Humanities in 2005 for being “forthright, visionary, ethical and, above all, professional”.

On Monday he was suspended for eight years from all football-related activities following an ethics probe.
De Montfort said it had “long been concerned” by allegations against him.

Indeed, it seems the award was revoked in October but has only just been made public. And Strathclyde University, which awarded an Honorary Degree to Oscar Pistorius back in 2012 for his sporting prowess has recently revoked it following Pistorius’ conviction. Rescinding and revoking really is becoming much more common.

The message from all of this? Universities really do need to be more careful with the award of Honorary Degrees. Otherwise, we’ll soon be in a position where as many are being revoked as awarded.

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