One of the best jobs: choosing and conferring honorary degree recipients

The conferring of honorary doctorates (Doctor of Laws, honoris causa) at convocation is a satisfying duty for a University of Calgary chancellor. An honorary degree is the highest honour awarded by our institution. It is our way to profile extraordinary individuals as well as the level of excellence to which we all aspire.

Our Senators have the responsibility to solicit nominations and approve candidates for honorary degrees. I regularly meet with Senate colleagues to confidentially evaluate nominations that have been submitted from our university community and the public. We seek nominations for individuals whose achievements – whether in high profile roles on the world stage or quietly out of the spotlight – have made a significant difference. It is not enough to have simply had a good career; a suitable honorary degree candidate is an exceptional role model who has moved societal yardsticks in some significant fashion.

I’m pleased that our selection criteria for honorary doctorates are not prescriptive. Human judgment rightly plays a role in our evaluation process. Debates around the table with my Senate colleagues have been engaging and thoughtful. Although all nominees are remarkable people, not all are approved as candidates.

I suppose each senator has her/his own opinion of the ideal candidate. While not an explicit criterion, I personally assert that all honorary degree recipients must also be good communicators. I would have failed in my duty as chancellor if a convocation address was not memorable or inspiring for our graduands.

Once endorsed by Senate, the nominees’ names are added to the approved list. Dr. Elizabeth Cannon, president of the University of Calgary, and I met last week to review the list and assign honorary degree recipients for each of our upcoming June 2017 convocation ceremonies. In doing so, we considered professional backgrounds, diversity, campus initiatives and current world affairs.

I am now phoning prospective honorary degree recipients and inviting them to attend next June’s convocation. It has been an honour to speak with them since I have admired all of them from afar. Each were gracious and humble on the phone, attributing their success to family and colleagues – exactly the kind of people I like to be around.

In addition to accepting the honorary degree, I also ask each recipient to deliver the convocation address. Our graduands are in an academic/career transition, so words of wisdom from the honorary degree recipients as well as stories from their rich life experiences will be timely.

The convocation addresses during my term as chancellor have all been notable. In 2015, Sheldon Kennedy gave a stirring account. Margaret MacMillan eloquently explained why lessons from history are vital for society to analyze and continually re-visit.

Dr. Sheldon KEnnedy spoke fervently from his heart and experiences for the benefit of our graduands.

Dr. Sheldon Kennedy spoke fervently from his heart and experiences for the benefit of our graduands.

When I invited Pinchas Zukerman to accept an honorary degree last June, he asked if he could perform a classical music piece (Dvorak’s Dumky Trio) for our audience. Yes, of course! Pinchas and his colleagues enthralled our guests and clearly demonstrated to our graduands what we mean by the pursuit of excellence.

The performance by Dr. Pinchas Zukerman and his trio demonstrated the difference between good and great.

The performance by Dr. Pinchas Zukerman and his trio demonstrated the difference between good and great.

Following the conclusion of last month’s fall convocation address by Calgary Opera’s CEO Bob McPhee, the audience was delighted by a flash mob of singers from Bob’s Emerging Artist Development Program.

I look forward to next year’s convocations. In addition to congratulating our graduands as they cross the stage and head off into the world, I cherish the opportunity to meet stellar individuals who bring honour to our university.

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