Like Christmas, graduation comes but once a year, and, like Christmas, never fails to be engaging in all sorts of ways. It is, of course, an enormous logistical exercise designed to produce flawless occasions: it is essentially a two-week run of performances to full houses at Sheffield City Hall with a shifting repertory cast. I’m always awed by the organisation and professionalism of our events teams, and all the other groups across the university who work together to produce memorable graduation ceremonies for our nearly seven thousand graduands.
We are now half way through this year’s ceremonies. As ever, there are minor changes and adaptations from last year. There is a complex process of analysis and review which shapes each year’s ceremonies. Last year the music became just a little jazzier: the excellent Silver Strings perform Elbow’s One Day Like This as we enter, and American Authors’ Best Day of My Life as we depart the hall . Both catch a spirit of lively engagement. Almost everyone leaves the ceremony wanting to skip along to American Authors.
In the course of the first week of graduation we conferred honorary degrees on a varied and distinguished group: the eminent economist Sir Paul Collier who has looked hard at how the economies of both very poor and rich countries could work better, the banker and former government minister Shriti Vadera, who steered the UK’s banks through the financial crash and who now chairs Santander Bank. We also recognised the chief executive of the Hong Kong Vocational Training Council, Carrie Yau, and, a departure for us, Sheffield Forgemasters. This was an award for the entire company which has two centuries of innovation experience in Sheffield and we welcomed a diverse group of employees to the graduation stage. Next week the list is more varied still. We will welcome to our community of honorary graduates Daniel Gordon, the Sheffield-based documentary filmmaker who uses sports documentaries to probe challenging social questions and Matthew Bannister, the Sheffield-born broadcaster and radio executive who overhauled Radio 1. We will recognise local achievers, with an award for Ken Dunn, founder of the charity Africa’s Gift and Kim Streets, Chief Executive of Sheffield Museums, and herself a Hallam History graduate. And we will award honorary degrees thee influential national figures: Ann Limb, formerly Chief Executive of the University for Industry and the first LGBT+ chair of the Scouting Association, Laura Wade, one of the UK’s most exciting contemporary playwrights, whose play Posh was filmed as The Riot Club, and Robert Macfarlane, the nature writer whose books including The Wild Places and Underland, I, for one, think are magnificent.
And there is one other, quite novel award to Doctor Who. Our intention was to make an honest doctor of the time lord after five decades on the screen, most recently with a strong Sheffield setting, and so we will formally confer an honorary degree on Chris Chibnall and the creative team behind Dr Who. In each year’s honorary awards we are trying to capture something of the spirit of the university: celebrating place, innovation, impact and distinction. I was delighted that one of the first week’s honorary graduands, no stranger to awards, described the ceremony as the most uplifting of the ones he’d experienced.
But students are the heart of each ceremony, as they should be. I love the fact that our student body is so diverse, in gender, race and age. Before and after the ceremony they cluster outside city hall and you don’t need to be there for long to be moved. Someone texted me during last week and said “Just walked through crowds of your graduands and families. All so smart and proud. It was lovely. Obviously included some families where a parent was the graduand and their smart young child with them. Lovely”. And that’s right: graduation is simultaneously a performance and a personal experience; we celebrate individual achievement and group success; it is about graduands and their peers, families and friends.
Graduation is one of the most important things the university does, and it is important that we do it well: a rite of passage and a moment of transition, whether for relatively young new graduates or older students. I particularly like the way we celebrate doctoral graduations, reading out the thesis title for each successful graduand – I invariably want to stop each of them to say ‘tell me more….’: the brief question I do ask about their research or what enthused them about it doesn’t even scratch the surface.
‘Tell me more’, of course, could be a motto for the entire fortnight: each of our graduands, whether an undergraduate, masters’ student or doctoral student, whether a Hallam graduate or one of our honorary award recipients has a story to tell. In the ceremonies, in the way they are designed, in the way they are conducted, we try to capture something of the stories of our always fascinating students.