By: Trevor Steele
An honorary degree is defined as an academic degree granted to recognize a particular achievement or distinction, without the recipient having to fulfill any of the institution’s typical degree requirements. Students can take some comfort in the fact that recipients of honorary degrees can’t use their degrees as a student who worked towards one could, yet the long tradition of honorary degrees still make them a prestigious award.
The practice of handing out honorary degrees originated in the 15th century at Oxford University. They were originally used to honour intellectuals and dignitaries, or as a form of bribery to obtain favour with important officials. At first glance, the criteria has changed somewhat over the years, and honorary degrees are now usually meant to recognize a person’s exceptional contributions to a particular field or to society (although a large donation to an institution, or the chance of a celebrity appearance, still guides the selection process). These practices have led to debates about the existence of the honorary degree — debates which tend to resurface when it comes out that disgraced celebrities like Bill Cosby have been awarded over a hundred honorary degrees.
SFU has mostly steered clear of the non-academic celebrity path, although Bill Nye did receive one, an honorary doctorate of science, in 2015. According to its website, SFU awards honorary degrees for outstanding scholarly, artistic or scientific achievement, as well as for public service and philanthropy.
SFU awards four types of honorary degrees: Doctorates of Letters (achievement in literature), Science, Fine Arts, and Laws (“outstanding achievement in other areas”). SFU granted five honorary degrees upon its establishment in 1965. These Doctorates of Law were bestowed upon then Premier of BC, W.A.C. Bennett; former British military commander and chief of the Scottish Clan Fraser, Lord Lovat Simon Christopher Joseph Fraser; UBC’s President, John B. Macdonald; the Lieutenant governor of BC, G.R. Pearkes; and the Minister of Education, L.R. Peterson.
Spring convocation, which takes place from June 12–15, will see honorary degrees awarded to six recipients. Fall convocation, which takes place from October 4–5, will see honorary degrees awarded to three recipients. These awards are typically accompanied by speeches from the recipients.
Spring 2018 honorary degree recipients
Michael Francis will receive the title of Doctor of Laws from the Beedie School of Business. Francis is a chartered accountant, and Chair Emeritus (another honorary title) of Simon Fraser University, as well as past director of defunct media company Western International Communications.
Dorothy Grant will receive the title of Doctor of Fine Arts from the Beedie School of Business and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Grant is a Haida fashion designer who has combined traditional Haida techniques and patterns with contemporary fashion to create her own high-end lines.
Madeleine Thien will receive the title of Doctor of Letters from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Thien is a Vancouver-born author who has won many of Canada’s top literary prizes, including the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Fiction for her 2016 novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Thien is an SFU alumna, and was the university’s English Department Writer in Residence from 2013–14.
Ashok Khosla will receive the title of Doctor of Laws from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Khosla is an Indian environmentalist and a pioneer for sustainable development. In the 1970s, he set up and headed India’s first social enterprise for the environment, which also sought to eradicate poverty through innovation and business opportunities. Since then, he has served as chair of numerous environmental organizations, and is currently president of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Crystal Pite will receive the title of Doctor of Fine Arts from the Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology. Another BC native, Pite is a successful ballet choreographer and dancer who has produced works for The National Ballet of Canada, among many other companies around the world.
Stanley Zlotkin will receive the title of Doctor of Science from the Faculty of Education and the Faculty of Health Sciences. Zlotkin works as a pediatrician and professor in Toronto. Through his research with UNICEF, he has developed a micronutrient powder, which has helped combat micronutrient malnutrition among infants and children around the world.
Fall 2018 honorary degree recipients
Mariana Mazzucato will receive the title of Doctor of Laws from the Faculty of Applied Sciences, the Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology, and the Faculty of Health Sciences. Mazzucato is the chair of the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London. She serves as a policy advisor to a number of governments and international organizations, and she has also authored multiple successful books on economics and sustainable growth.
Jane Goodall will receive the title of Doctor of Science from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Goodall is a well-known primatologist and environmentalist, who has observed chimpanzees and worked to promote their conservation. Today, Goodall works primarily as a speaker, and holds the title of UN Messenger of Peace.
Alison Gopnik will receive the title of Doctor of Laws from the Faculty of Education and the Faculty of Environment. Gopnik is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and a leading researcher in the field of cognitive science. Her research focuses on childhood learning and development. She pioneered the ‘theory theory’: the theory that children, like small scientists, develop theories about how the world around them works and test them.