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The Honorary Degree: A Question of Gratitude

University Of Bologna

In 1985, the University of Bologna, of which I was the rector for 15 years between 1985 and 2000, restored the inauguration ceremony of the Academic Year, which had fallen into oblivion at the end of the 1960s, and at the same time, instigated the Honorary Degree. Among those honoured in 1987, I would especially like to recall the Degree given to Mother Teresa of Calcutta, in the dark about everything–or so it would seem–but endowed with an extraordinary personality and immense magnetism.

In 1998, it was King Juan Carlos, who was conferred with the Degree to celebrate the relationship between Italian and Spanish universities, and to emphasise the great importance of the Royal Spanish College in Bologna, from the 14th century to the present day. In 1988, among others, Amartya Sen, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Andrzej Wajda and Nelson Mandela (standing in for him was his plenipotentiary representative, Johnny Makatini) were also awarded Honorary Degrees. This was the year in which the Magna Charta Universitatum was signed on September 18 in Piazza Maggiore. On that exceptional occasion, after a long and arduous battle, Alexander Dubcek came to Bologna and thanked me for having plucked him from the “trashcan of history” in which his comrades wished to banish him. The celebration of the signing of the Magna Charta Universitatum lasted all through 1989 and Andrej Dmitrevic Sacharov and Norberto Bobbio were honoured in Bologna, as well as Claude Simon, Paul Ricoeur, Jean-Marie Lehn and François Jacob, all French Nobel Prize winners, who came with 100 or so professors and the rectors of the major French universities. 
 
It culminated with François Mitterand graduating in Bologna, as well as Luigi Aloe, fisherman and mason, who did not have a university degree but who, under the guidance of Rita Levi Montalcini, had become a renowned researcher in the Department of Neuroscience. Each of these men and women offered up unforgettable and unforgotten words to the University of Bologna about the role it has played over the centuries. In the years that followed, among others, Ralf Dahrendorf, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Jacques Delors, Bianca Pitzorno, Enzo Biagi, Jerzy Grotowski and Federico Zeri were all given Honorary Degrees; in 1999, Lucio Dalla and Pina Bausch each received one.
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The academic lesson held by Dalla was a wordless–yet intense and reciprocal–interview with the large audience present. For more than 30 minutes, he used the clarinet as an instrument of dialogue, adapted to the purposes of his discussion and extraordinarily effective. In 2000, we conferred the degree to Indro Montanelli and Mark Fumaroli–extraordinary personalities, just like that of Aung San Suu Kyi who had left an indelible memory of elegance and refinement. 

Many have questioned the meaning of the Honorary Degree. I believe that this solemn gesture is a particularly effective way of showing gratitude on behalf of the professors, researchers and students of such a prestigious university as Bologna to colleagues from other universities for their contribution to the development of learning and for the gifts they have bestowed upon all of humanity.

Article by Fabio Roversi Monaco Photos by Carlo Orsi, Gabriele Maria Pagnini, Steve Pyke, Alexo Wandael

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