Seven honorary doctorates all at once: a great publicity stunt or more than that?

13 Jan 2023

In honour of its centennial, Radboud University is handing out no less than seven honorary doctorates this year. What does such an honorary award entail and what does it provide, besides great publicity?

Michael Sandel, Mary Beckman, Geert Corstens, Fabiola Gianotti, Stella Nkomo, Marc Van Ranst and Sandra Graham have in common that all seven of them are receiving an honorary doctorate from Radboud University this year. During the anniversary in October, when Radboud University is celebrating its centennial, the award ceremony will take place.

By handing out an honorary doctorate, the university expresses its appreciation for the ‘exceptional scientific or societal contribution’ of a person. Irreverently, you could call it a fancy business gift – the person in question becomes a member of the ‘academic community’ of Nijmegen. Because of the anniversary, the deans and the Executive Board thought it was a good idea to have each faculty nominate a person for the honorary title.

Armed professional soldier

To the general public, Marc Van Ranst is the most well-known of the seven names. The Belgian ‘Jaap van Dissel’ frequently appeared in the media during the pandemic as a key adviser to the Belgian government. In addition, the virologist from Leuven had to go into hiding after an armed professional soldier had targeted him.

‘Again and again, Van Ranst engaged the debate in a good manner’

‘He is a great example of a person who interprets current affairs based on his scientific knowledge’, says internist-infectiologist Chantal Rovers, who will act as his honorary promoter in October. During the ‘storm’ that was the covid crisis, Van Ranst fiercely held his own against virus sceptics and conspiracy thinkers. ‘Again and again, Van Ranst engaged the debate in a good manner. Especially in a time where social media play such a big role, it is important that there are people who separate facts from fiction.’

Third honorary doctorate

At Radboud University in October, Van Ranst will receive his third Dutch honorary doctorate in one year. The VU Amsterdam and Leiden University preceded Nijmegen. Van Ranst personally thinks that appreciation from the Netherlands mainly stems from his criticism of Willem Engel, he previously told AdValvas. Van Ranst warned Dutch media to not give Engel too much speaking time in the public debate. He called him a ‘lunatic’, a ‘virus denier’ and ‘far-right’, among other things. The dreadlocked dance instructor subsequently took Van Ranst to court in Belgium – unsuccessfully – for libel and slander.

Although Rovers points out that the person Willem Engel plays no part in awarding the honorary doctorate to her Belgian colleague, she does view the honorary award as a statement by the university against spreaders of misinformation. ‘This way, we show: it is important for science to speak out against this.’

Therein, according to Rovers, lies an important symbolism. So is that the greatest added value of awarding an honorary doctorate? Rovers does not want to take it that far. ‘We also organise meetings during the award ceremony, so that students, doctors, and researchers can learn from him.’ According to Rovers, that is just as important.

Emancipation battle

On behalf of the Nijmegen School of Management, Stella Nkomo, professor of Human Resource Management at the University of Pretoria, will receive an honorary doctorate. Nkomo is an authority on racism, gender, and diversity within organisations. She is an advocate of emancipation.

‘When it comes to emancipation, Nkomo has earned her spurs’

Radboud University, which attributes the same mission to itself, wanting to be associated with her is therefore not surprising. Business professor Yvonne Benschop sees the symbolism of that alone as adding great value. ‘We are an emancipatory university that has been around for a hundred years. Substantively, it fits really well to award Nkomo an honorary doctorate. She has more than earned her spurs when it comes to emancipation. By doing so, we show that we share the same goals. That is very important.’

Moreover, Nkomo coming to Nijmegen offers the university the chance to talk to a renowned expert about difficult topics such as racism, gender inequality, diversity, exclusion, and inclusion within its own organisation. Benschop: ‘Nkomo has done essential studies on this and can really inspire and help us further in that area.’

Translated by Jan Scholten.

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