Honorary Degrees: Howard Newby (1967-1988): Response

Response by Professor Sir Howard Newby

Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, Mr Mayor, graduates, ladies and gentlemen.  First of all, it is an enormous honour which the Senate of the University has conferred upon me, especially of course from this University where as you have heard I have spent so many happy years.  I do thank the Senate and I thank all of you for sharing your happiness with me.  I listened with great interest to the words of the Public Orator and I would simply ask my friend and former colleague, Peter Frank,  to introduce me to the person he spoke about – he really did sound very interesting, but not someone I can altogether recognise !

As you have heard I spent 21 years in this University and in that respect it has fashioned my life;  and I am sure for many of those graduating today, it will fashion your lives as well – in ways you cannot possibly predict today.  I actually came to this University to read Sociology intending to be a probation officer and look what happened to me !

It has been responsible, as I said at my leaving party twelve years ago, almost for my entire intellectual biography. So I owe this institution far more possibly than any other institution that I have been involved in throughout my life and it therefore does hold a very dear place in my heart.

Its a University which has consistently over the years upheld the highest academic standards.  It has placed a premium on excellence in everything that it does, in its research and of course in its teaching.  I have been delighted to observe that in recent years that excellence has been recognised and indeed celebrated, not only locally here in the county of Essex but also nationally and even internationally.  I know that there are other people in the audience who have contributed over the years far more than I have to that developing reputation. It has been an absolute delight to see this university consolidating its position as a leading university not just in the UK but also in Europe.

I do feel a bit of a fraud.  I mean I already have two degrees from this institution, it seems a bit greedy to have three.  Its not only that I now have a third,  its one of course for which I have done no work.  I am actually the only graduate here today who has actually done no work for my degree –  at least I think I am !  I won’t question the real graduates too closely about this.

I read recently a newspaper article on the subject of honorary degrees which said that they were as ancient as the universities themselves and that they arose out of, and I quote here, “granting dispensations from academic requirements.”  I suspect that money was involved in this somewhere along the line and no doubt our Chancellor will be able to comment on that on any other occasion.  But I do wonder in this day and age, and here I am addressing my former colleagues on the university staff here,  how long this granting of dispensations can really last under the new quality assurance regime.  I simply observe that there are no benchmark standards for honorary graduates, there are no reporting formats and I am sure that the QAA will be after us all soon.  So this may well be the very last honorary graduate that the University of Essex has,  which will,  I suppose, give me some degree of immortality.

Finally I really can’t understand for the life of me why the University should see fit to grant an honorary degree on a vice-chancellor.  I read recently of a comment that was made at the time when Hong Kong was handed over from the British to the Chinese government and in the press there was a comment from one of the candidates for the new chief executive position in Hong Kong, about which it was said of him, and I quote here “he has ducked every challenge that has come his way, he is conservative, uninspired and frankly uninspiring – he would be much better off being a vice-chancellor of a university”.

I am sure that many of you have heard that famous comparison between a vice-chancellor and a supermarket trolley which is that you fill them both with food and drink but its only the supermarket trolley which has a mind of its own.

If this sounds bad enough you should be at a meeting of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and see what we have to say about each other.  I did hear recently about one colleague that had to go into hospital for a minor operation and another colleague said behind his back “I assume it was to remove his conscience”.

Anyway enough of this.  On a more serious note, the conferment of this award really does mean an awful lot to me, more than any of the other degrees which I have received.  Its one which I will cherish, I know my family will cherish,  but finally at the very end this is not a day for me its really a day for our graduates.  It is their day and I do hope you enjoy the rest of your day.  You will all have  worked very hard and I am sure you all deserve your success.   I am sure you played hard too, but I know you do work hard these days. You will have earned your success,  and from one honorary graduate to real graduates I do wish you all the very best success in the future.  Thank you very much.

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