Here’s your pub quiz question for the day. What connects Hilary Mantel, Dickie Bird, Robert Winston and Geri Horner? The answer, of course, is that they have all received honorary degrees from Sheffield Hallam University. Whilst I don’t recommend playing your joker on the pub quiz round on ‘recipients of honorary degrees from UK universities’, it is interesting to look back through lists of honorary graduates at the names of those who have been honoured. Each year, we make about a dozen awards, and we are doing the same this year. We acknowledge and celebrate outstanding achievement in academic endeavour, industry or public service. As a university which is proudly part of its city and region, we are also keen to ensure that we recognise those with a strong connection to, or achievement in, south Yorkshire. Increasingly, and rightly, we have been eager to broaden the diversity of our honorary graduate community.
There are stories, some of them apocryphal, about the experiences of making honorary awards in universities. It’s rumoured that a world-famous rock star was so enamoured of his graduation ceremony gown at one UK university that he waltzed off to his waiting chauffeur wearing it. Such was his fame that no-one felt brave enough to stop him. It was never seen again, though maybe it turned up at one of his gigs. The University of East Anglia reportedly made an award to Norwich City Football Club, an award which was presented in the centre circle at half-time in a home game by senior academics in full academic dress – largely drowned out by predictable chanting from the crowd. It was probably the most entertaining period of the game. Here at Sheffield Hallam, the creative team behind the hit musical Everyone’s talking about Jamie upped the ante on acknowledgement speeches in graduation ceremonies by performing a number from the show, whilst the honorary award to the Dr Who team made a proper doctor of the Time Lord for the first time.
At Sheffield Hallam, I’m determined that, to coin a phrase, an honorary graduate is for life and not just for ceremony. Each year I spend some time building relationships with our honorary graduates and trying to draw them into the life of the University. It’s a difficult balancing act: most of our honorary award recipients are themselves very busy people with multiple commitments, and it’s important not to assume too much. But in practice most are keen to engage with the University and its life – talking to students and providing informal advice. They all want to understand the University, its mission, values and purpose, and to play their part in promoting all three. We are a university which places particular emphasis on community, and it feels important to draw our honorary graduates into our community as far as they are comfortable with. And those conversations I have to build relationships are always very rewarding: I get to talk to such interesting people, from such diverse walks of life and with such fascinating back stories, about their lives, motivations, achievements, frustrations and, yes, their communities too.
Decisions on who to make awards to are made by an honorary awards committee which I chair and which is made up of staff, students and governors. There are clear criteria for award, and some firm exclusions: we will not, for example, make an award to a serving politician, however eminent they might be. The committee works hard not just to make judgements about who to make individual awards to, but to ensure that each year’s list is a balanced one: a mix of honorary graduands representing the different subject areas of the university, a range of achievements, a mix of local, national and international names, a list which is diverse in as many respects as possible, a list which says something about the sort of university we are and the values we espouse. And – very important – a little bit of glitzy glamour too. It is one of the most engaging and enjoyable committees I chair, but everyone brings to it seriousness of purpose and hard work.
As I write this we are in the midst of this year’s graduation ceremonies, but preparation for next year’s awards has already begun. We actively encourage nominations from across the University and one purpose of this blog is to repeat our request for nominations for next year’s honorary degree recipients. The collective suggestions of the university community are always an important part of the process, even if we cannot take all of them forward. Our honorary graduates are a valued part of our work. Although they do bring focus and a different perspective to degree ceremonies, far more important are the relationships we build with them in, around and after graduation. These relationships augment and amplify the university’s impact and effectiveness. So do, please, help us in shaping a 2023 list.