A Primer on Honorary Degrees

An honorary degree or honoris causa (Latin: “for the sake of honour”) is an academic degree, typically a doctorate, conferred by an institution without the usual requirements like exams and graduation. Degrees are awarded to individuals for exceptional achievements or general contributions to society that bring merit and credibility to the institution.

According to Oxford University, the earliest honorary degree was offered to Lionel Woodville, brother-in-law of Edward IV, around 1478. The university presented Woodville, who likely held a bachelor degree of Canon Law, with a doctorate in Canon Law, resolving him from any academic requirements. The conferral, though, was supposedly unsolicited. Rather than an act of goodwill, the degree is interpreted as an attempt to curry favour from a man who was subsequently elected chancellor of the university. Woodville would later became the Bishop of Salisbury.

The first time an honorary degree was revoked took place in World War I. Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, German ambassador to the United States, had been bestowed a law doctorate by the University of Chicago in 1911 for his contributions towards cross-cultural exchange. When the U.S. entered the war in 1918, the university president William Faunce annulled the earlier conferral, saying that von Bernstorff was “guilty of conduct dishonourable alike in a gentleman and a diplomat,” even while the two nations were “still at peace.”

More recently, in 2007, protestors from the Edinburgh University Students’ Association demanded the university rescind an honorary degree granted in 1984 to Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe for human rights violations and political corruption. After two years of campaigning, the university stripped Mugabe of his degree. In 2008, students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst similarly asked their university to revoke a degree awarded to Mugabe 20 years prior, which was unanimously repealed. Michigan State University followed suit soon after. U of T has a 56-page list of its honorary degrees. “The university has been granting honorary degrees going back to 1850,” says Henry Mulhall,
Secretary for the Committee of Honorary Degrees. The committee aims to reflect both U of T and Canada’s character and diversity, while striving to balance scholarly endeavours and other societal contributions.

“There is a call for nominations to the university and external community, usually in the spring of each year. The nominations are considered confidentially by both the Committee for Honorary Degrees as well as its Sub-committee for Nominations, and a list of individuals is recommended by the Committee to the Governing Council for approval each year, usually in December,” says Mulhall. “Those approved for honorary degrees usually receive them at convocation ceremonies in June or November the following year,” Candidates must attend a ceremony within two years of the offer in person in order to be deemed to have received their honorary degree.

The selection committee is chosen during in-camera, or private, sessions of Governing Council meetings, with the last taking place June 23.

According to the Terms of Reference of the Committee, GC appoints committee members on the recommendations of the Academic Board. Mr. Mulhall says that although there are no specific criteria for selection, appointed members are “generally distinguished and prominent persons,” represented across a variety of academic disciplines from the university’s three campuses. The committee includes two student positions and four teaching staff positions.

–Akihito Tse

alt text

On June 6, the High Commissioner of Singapore to Canada, Koh Yong Guan, received his honorary doctorate of laws from the University of Toronto. Guan holds a degree in engineering from U of T and a masters in business administration from the Catholic University of Leuven.

He is a well-known public servant in Singapore, having served as governor of its central bank before becoming a diplomat. As a U of T student, he spent his free time exploring Canada, by hitch-hiking from coast to coast, having his canoe capsize and seeking shelter from strangers — once in a morgue. In this interview, Guan discusses his time as a stu- dent at U of T, his role as High Commissioner, and his advice to students.

SES: How was your experience as a student at U of T?

KYG: I remember more about what I did during the summer vacation months than what I studied. But I am pretty sure I mastered well what I was required to study.

I was fairly active and adventurous. I did quite a bit of canoeing and portaging in Algonquin Park during long weekends. We would camp out for several days. There is nothing more soothing than to watch the sun setting over the lakes, and the loon calling in the Canadian wilds.

One Thanksgiving weekend, I was almost drowned when my canoe which was heavily loaded with camping gear, capsized in a small lake far from anywhere. The water was pretty cold during thanksgiving, and it was sometime before a motorboat came and pulled me and my friend out of the water.

I spent another summer hitch-hiking across Canada with a friend, starting from Toronto, all over northern Quebec, on to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, and then across to the prairies and over the Rockies to Vancouver.

My most memorable experiences included sleeping in a church in very cold Deep River, Ont. and having to get up in the middle of the night in Banff when we were disturbed in the night by bears.

Most memorable was our accepting an invitation from a kind gentleman who offered us a place to sleep for the night in Calgary. It turned out the gentleman was a mortician, an undertaker, and the place where we slept was where he stored the coffins for his business. We did not sleep well that night!

Another summer, I volunteered with a group of young Canadians to build a church and community hall in a Cree native reserve in Montreal Lake in Manitoba. We lived in tents, and the mosquitoes were like small black clouds some evenings. The pike we caught from the lakes were excellent eating, but the smoked moose meat was not so memorable.

SES: Tell me about your role as the High Commissioner of Singapore to Canada.

KYG: I spent almost seven years as a student at the U of T on a Canadian government scholarship. I then worked 33 years in the Singapore public service.

Since Singapore and Canada established diplomatic relations in 1965, our ambassador at the United Nations had always been jointly accredited as the High Commissioner to Canada. I am honoured to be the first High Commissioner who has responsibility for only Canada.

The bilateral relations between Singapore and Canada are warm and friendly. My role is to help deepen those relations on three levels: political, trade and economics, and people-to- people relations.

SES: What was your first reaction to receiving an honorary degree from your alma mater?

KYG: Because U of T is a great and well-regarded institution, not just recognized as such in Canada but outside as well, the honorary degree is a great honour to me. There are many who have passed through its doors who merit consideration for such an honour.
We have many alumni who have distinguished themselves and are leaders in many fields and areas. For me to be considered, and awarded the degree, is a singular honour indeed

SES: What advice would you give to recent graduates and current students?

KYG: I find it useful to remind myself that everyone has weaknesses and strengths. Some people manifest their abilities very quickly, others may take a longer time with the right opportunities. It is useful to try and develop early the ability to identify them in people.

To be able do this, it is important to learn to listen to people, to listen with an open mind. Listening is probably the one skill that we give the least attention to. Without the ability to listen, you will not be able to judge or assess people fairly, or understand their aspirations.

My second suggestion relates to problem solving. The engineering undergraduate year had ingrained deeply in me the problem solving instincts. In the engineering courses, I remember that almost everything must end with a solution. This is an important discipline because it is fruitless to go on talking about a problem unless solutions are proposed. But there is another very important aspect. This is to be able to define a problem clearly.

This is important, but not so obvious, because problems involving people are often complex, and can be interpreted very differently by different people. Unless a problem is clearly defined, unless we can see clearly what the real problem is, the solution may be irrelevant or ineffective. It is fruitless for a group to sit around trying to solve a problem, when each person understands the problem differently.

This leads me to my third suggestion, on the importance of decision making. After having clearly defined a problem, you need answers, solutions. It took me some time in my working life to learn that no solution is perfect, and therefore no decision can be perfect.

It is better to make an imperfect decision than not to make any decision, because having made a decision, refinements and corrections can always be made along the way so that outcomes to that decision can be enhanced, or made more effective. It is important to learn early not to be afraid to make a decision, because the ultimate error and biggest mistake may be in not making any decision than in making the wrong decision.

For foreign students in particular, I like to urge them to take advantage of their stay in Canada to live and experience as many life experiences as possible whilst they are at the U of T.

It is not just the degree that you will be getting that will be important for your growth, it is also the totality of life experiences that you gather that will equip you to deal with the many challenges that will come your way.

SES: Tell me something surprising about yourself.

KYG: Nothing comes to mind, other than the fact that I can sleep at will almost anywhere. It surprises even my wife. I can tell her I am going to sleep and within a minute I am asleep.

I have learnt to tell myself not to worry about anything that I cannot do anything about. And if I can do anything about it, then go and do it. With that I have been able to put things out of my mind, and learnt to sleep at will.

—Semra Eylul Sevi

alt text

On June 15, George Brown College President Anne Sado received a University of Toronto honorary doctorate of laws for public service and philanthropy. Sado graduated from U of T in engineering in 1977, and received her MBA from Rotman School of Business in 1981. She worked at Bell Canada for 25 years, taking on several roles from business planning to customer service. She also served as a president of YWCA of Metropolitan Toronto and chair of the Trillium Health Centre.

Last year, the Women’s Executive Network named her one of Canada’s 100 most powerful women. Among other awards, she has received the Ontario Professional Engineers Gold Medal in 2007 and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal for her work with the YWCA of Greater Toronto. She also received the U of T Arbor Award and was inducted into the university’s prestigious Engineering Hall of Distinction.

Because of her success in the corporate and non-profit worlds, many see Sado as a role model for women in engineering and management. A day after she collected her honorary degree and gave a speech to graduating students, she sat down for an interview with The Varsity.

YT: How do you remember your undergrad days at U of T?

AS: I became a part of a community very quickly because there were so few women in engineering at the time. I was one of the four women in my class, and there weren’t that many more throughout the faculty.

I remember I walked in the first day and I was in line to register for something and another woman came up to me and said, “Welcome and when you finish here you can sign up for volleyball, basketball and hockey.” The way she said it, I can’t remember exactly how she said it, it sounded like I had to do it and that I didn’t have much choice.

So I found out later that if most of us in engineering didn’t sign up, that we didn’t have enough women to fill up the team. So I played basketball, I played volleyball and I played hockey.

YT: In your view, what makes college education different from university education?

AS: The two systems are different but they can also be complimentary. For me, it’s about a continuum of education. Right now, in fact, 20 to 25 per cent of our students at George Brown have some university credentials. If they had taken very general studies, which are wonderful for building knowledge and critical thinking, they find that they don’t necessarily have the ability to find the job that they want so they come back in some cases for our graduate studies or they come back for another program or focus. So it’s very complimentary but we definitely focus more on a broader range of applied skills and the university has more theoretical knowledge-based programs.

YT: Last year, the Women’s Executive Network named you one of Canada’s most powerful women. Why do you think you’re powerful?

AS: The speech I gave yesterday at U of T was around the movie The Matrix. Because I was speaking to a computer and electrical engineering graduating class for the most part, I thought, “Ok, I bet these guys will have watched The Matrix because the main character in the movie, Neo, was a computer hacker. Morpheus had risked his life to make sure Neo was safe, but all of a sudden Morpheus is in great danger and Neo decides to go back in the non-real world to save him. And the reason for doing that is the power of the relationship that they had built in the time that they’ve known each other. I talked about that and I said, “In my world, relationships trump power every time.”

YT: Many people see you as a leader. What does that word mean to you?

AS: A leader definitely has to set the tone. A leader has to walk the talk. The things a leader has to do are the same no matter what area you’re working in because one of the key things you have to do is you have to help set a vision. Then you have to get people engaged, they need to want to work with you to achieve that goal with you. You want to set an environment where people are inspired to want to achieve that vision.

YT: Would you say it was hard to break the glass ceiling to get where you are?

AS: Yes and no. When I started working at Bell, I felt there’s no reason I shouldn’t have the same opportunity for growth and development as a young male engineer. I had the opportunity to keep growing because I met the results. But when you get to the more senior level of the organization, it was still very male-dominated. You always had to sort of think about how you were perceived, how you were presenting yourself and if your ideas were going to be heard in the same way as your male colleagues.

Many of my peers and I, and other senior women leaders in the company, often talked about the fact that we would say something in a meeting and it wouldn’t be understood and one of your male colleagues would say the same thing three minutes later, and everyone is like, “that’s a good idea!” Is it a matter of how you communicate? Is it the words you use? Is it a different level of assertiveness? I don’t know. So it’s a challenge from that point of view. But at the end, it’s about producing results. So you have to open your mind and say, “OK, let me not think about the many reasons why I can’t do this and think about what I want and how to achieve it.” Another key thing is to define success on your own terms.

YT: How do you define success?

AS: For me, right now, success is being in a role meaningful to me and makes a difference in the community. You should always ask yourself, “What’s important to me?” And if you could do that well, then you’re successful.

YT: What was your reaction when you found out about your U of T honorary doctorate?

AS: Actually, David Naylor called me just before Christmas last year. He left a message asking if I could please call him and if possible before Christmas. So I called him, and he told me and it was just, you know, sitting there in awe of all this, feeling hugely honoured. I realize that honorary credits are something very special. I just sat there for 10 minutes after the phone call going, “wow” and called my husband and said, “Guess what?” It was very special.

YT: We have a provincial election coming up. What do you think are some of the pressing issues that deserve attention in Ontario right now?

AS: Funding for post-secondary school continues to be key. We need to ensure access to post secondary education for our population. The government has said right now, and I believe it’s a conservative estimate, that we need 70 per cent of our population to have a post-secondary credential. Right now, we have about 62 per cent. I think if you look even further ahead, it needs be 80 per cent, not 70 per cent. And post-secondary credentials include apprenticeships, diplomas, degrees and post-graduate education as well. If we don’t have access to post-secondary education, we will not be able to meet the needs of the labour market. Because our economy has restructured, our traditional manufacturing base is significantly smaller than it used to be. We’re moving to a knowledge-based economy that needs different skills.

—Yeamrot Taddese

alt text

From continuing his education in Italian concentration camps, uncovering his passion for physiology during summer trips in Vienna and Amsterdam, and finally solidifying his dedication to diabetes research at the University of Toronto — Professor Emeritus Mladen Vranic has led an academic career like no other.

A celebrated expert in diabetes, the Croatian-born professor has carved his own path toward the forefront of Canadian medical re- search, receiving prestigious awards such as the Order of Canada, the Order of Ontario, Fellow of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, and honorary doctorates from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, the University of Saskatchewan, and most recently, the University of Toronto.

Since 1963, after being offered a post-doctoral fellowship by Dr. Charles Best, the co-discoverer of insulin, Vranic has been a source of pride for the university. His groundbreaking work has transformed the landscape of diabetes research and opened many doors for individuals suffering from the disease. Among his achievements are developing a precise tracer method, discovering the existence of extra-pancreatic glucagon and pioneering research that links exercise, stress and diabetes.

ST: How do you feel about being awarded a University of Toronto honorary degree?

MV: It’s the greatest honour that an academic can receive from his own university. It is definitely a good feeling to know that my work is valued.

ST: Why did you choose to study medicine and specialize in diabe- tes research?

MV: One of the reasons was that when I was choosing my career, people feared at that time that there could be a new global conflict. I felt that if I was a medical doctor, I would heal people rather than shoot them. In a way, I didn’t choose diabetes, it chose me. Our Department of Physiology was small and exclusively focused on diabetes and carbohydrate metabolism. I also took summer jobs working in laboratories in Zagreb, Vienna and Amsterdam, concentrating in the same area.

ST: Why have you chosen to stay at U of T for almost 50 years?

MV: It’s a very strong university that allows a lot of collaboration, which my whole existence in science depends on. A lot of scientists specialize in one field and they become experts in that field, but I moved around a little bit and this is why most of my work was possible only because I teamed with experts who knew many things that I didn’t know.

ST: How has the university changed since you first joined it in 1963?

MV: Enormously. It’s become, scientifically, a very strong university. What’s happening here in science is fantastic. When I came to Canada, there definitely wasn’t enough money for research. The philosophy at that time was that if you wanted to be well-informed about research, there is the United States. They have more money and they’re a huge country, so go and train there.

But now, we wish to be leaders — and are leaders — in many fields in the world. The university’s medical school is 17th in the world, just behind the Ivy Leagues. Ten years from now, we would be the leading country in biomedical research.

ST: Do you have other passions?

MV: I am greatly interested with classical literature and when I was In Croatia, I was very much influenced by Russian literature like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Gogol. Those are still my favourite books, although I also like Shakespeare.

Music is another passion. I started to take piano lessons when I was 10, just before WWII started. That was probably the only good thing about the war that I was forced to stop piano because I can’t translate the music, which is in my head, to my fingers.

When I was younger, I also tried different sports but wasn’t tall enough for real competition. The only sport where I was able to compete was boxing in the light category. I trained for a year but I knew that I wanted to become a physiologist — I needed to protect my brain.

ST: You advised graduates at convocation to “take the road less traveled” when faced with major decision. What exactly do you mean by that?

MV: What it really means is that in science you shouldn’t follow the crowd. For example, when somebody discovers something very important, the whole flock follows. But if you really want to be original then you have to choose the road that’s not heavily traveled, or in other words, choose your own path. It is the key to making a difference in any discipline.

—Sarah Taguiam