Honorary Degrees and the Star Figure

Michael Douglas received an honorary degree in 2006.

The University of St Andrews will soon celebrate its 600th anniversary. Throughout its long history the University has established a tradition of awarding honorary degrees to notable scholars, writers, scientists, athletes, and actors and actresses. Entertainment stars such as Dame Helen Mirren (1999), Dame Judi Dench (2008), Sir John Cleese (1971), Dirk Bogarde (1985), Sir Sean Connery (1988), Joanna Lumley (2006), Siobhan Redmond (2000), Dame Maggie Smith (1971) and Michael Douglas (2006) have all received honorary degrees within the last 40 years.[1] Conferring an honorary degree on an influential figure pays tribute to that person’s accomplishments and makes a powerful statement about university values.

The guidelines for submitting a nomination state that:

  1. the nominee has public distinction, relevant to Scotland and particularly to St Andrews; and
  2. the award would contribute to an appropriate image of the University and reinforce a continuing beneficial association with the University.

The University has selected award winning and talented actors and actresses, and their election depicts a certain type of prestige that coincides with the university’s educational standards. It can be determined that these stars offer an attraction, something for both students and the general public to talk about, and also recognition on an international level. In examining the honorary degrees handed out to these actors, the prevalence of British aristocracy is evident. Among the names lie some of Britain’s most notable theatre and film actors, many of whom also have the selective title of Dame of Sir and received countless awards including BAFTAS and Academy Awards. These selections are thus a way for the University to acknowledge its British roots and recognise British talent. Also of significance, the fame of these stars stretches beyond the United Kingdom onto an international level. Inevitably, the proliferation of such degrees to celebrities draws media interest.

It is important for the university to choose wisely as it is a risky decision that has at points lead to criticism by the press. Such was the case in 2006 when American actor Michael Douglas was awarded a degree. The University faced criticism for populism, however, Niall Scott, director of corporate communications at the university, stood by the decision stating, ‘the critical reception misrepresented the institutions intentions-to celebrate Douglas’s work with golf and charity’.[2]

Upon receiving her honorary degree Dame Judi Dench noted: ‘I feel very excited and I’m absolutely delighted to have an association with St Andrews. I had never been to St Andrews before, so I’m very pleased and I’m going to boast about it a lot…it is a huge day of celebration and I’m frightfully pleased to have been asked’.[3] The star and the University seem to share an admiration for each other. Almost all of these stars who have received honorary degrees from the university have continued to hold a link to the university. For instance, Dame Helen Mirren, Dame Judi Dench, and Sir Sean Connery have all since become patrons of the student run On the Rocks Arts Festival and Dame Mirren was named the first patron of the University’s Institute for Capitalising on Creativity.

Kylie Jeunette


[2]The Good, The Great an the Ugly’, Times Higher Education Online (7 August 2008).

[3] Dowie, Mark, ‘St Andrews University Confers Honorary Degree on Oscar winner Dame Judie Dench’, The Press and Journal  (25 June 2008 ).