ONE of Scotland's most prestigious universities is cracking down on the abuse of honorary degrees amid growing concern over awards held by celebrities, serving politicians, "serial" degree collectors, and unsavoury characters.
Edinburgh University is even planning to introduce unprecedented powers to strip honorary degree holders of their titles, with Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe believed to be top of the target list.
Papers released by the university under Freedom of Information legislation reveal that extensive discussions have taken place about how candidates are selected and vetted, and about the type of people honoured.
In recent years, celebrities including Michael Douglas, Annie Lennox and Billy Connolly have been honoured by Scottish universities. Last year, Midge Ure received an honorary degree in music from Edinburgh.
Papers from Edinburgh's Honorary Degrees Committee, marked "strictly confidential", show that "the question of removing honorary degrees from individuals would be considered as soon as possible".
If new powers are introduced, Mugabe is almost certain to be stripped of his honorary degree, which was awarded in 1984 amid euphoria over his country's transition to independence. Subsequent, widespread human rights abuses in the country led to protests at the university that Mugabe should lose his award.
Other moves to be examined include:
• Stopping the award of degrees to people who have already collected large numbers of awards.
• Banning serving politicians from receiving awards. Chancellor Gordon Brown received a degree from Edinburgh in 2004.
• Giving serious consideration to whether degrees should be awarded to nominees from countries with poor human rights records.
• Greater scrutiny at the nomination stage between the degree committee and the university senate which rubber stamps awards. The papers reveal that two nominations were recently withdrawn amid "unwelcome publicity".
One senior source at the university said: "This process to allow honorary degrees to be removed has already started and it is a good thing. It's a very positive development. I just wish there was something said against awarding degrees to celebrities."
Eric Williamson, professor of education at Glasgow University, said: "They are certainly going down the right road. If Edinburgh is becoming more circumspect then it is a good thing. Let's hope more follow."
Green MSP Robin Harper, formerly Edinburgh's Rector, said: "This move is excellent news. I do think that honorary degrees are devalued when their recipients then go away and then behave in a way that would never allow them to have an honorary degree in a million years.
"I hope Mr Mugabe will be the first person to be deprived of his award for becoming an anti-democratic tyrant and no longer be able to flaunt his degree. The episode has been embarrassing for the university which gave the award in good faith and which, rightly, celebrates its connections with Africa."
Mugabe was described as "one of the great figures of modern Africa" when he received the degree of doctor honoris causa in 1984, in recognition of educational programmes he instigated in the country.
Five years ago Edinburgh granted a degree to Sheikh Dr Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah, one of the United Arab Emirates, a country whose human rights were recently described by the US State Department as being "problematic", with no free elections and restrictions on religious freedom.
The papers also reveal some of the behind-the-scenes deliberations as Edinburgh academics discuss to whom they should award honorary degrees, including efforts to get more women and ethnic minorities.
David McCrone, professor of sociology, wrote in an e-mail to the principal, Tim O'Shea: "I've taken some soundings about the possibility of adding a (preferably female and non-white) nomination."
In another exchange, the principal attempted to head off objections to an award for Olympic medal-winning cyclist Chris Hoy. One e-mail, whose author's name was blacked out, said: "I am not so sure about this one. I accept that his achievement is great for Edinburgh and Scottish sport. But I think I would like to see a bit more for the University before granting an honorary degree."
O'Shea advised to a colleague involved in the nomination: "You might let [name blacked out] and any other colleagues with similar reservations know that Chris Hoy supported a lengthy all-evening alumni event in Athens just two days after he won his gold medal despite tremendous pressures on him to participate in other publicity and promotional events and to join various other celebrations that evening."
The minutes have emerged in the wake of concern about the "dumbing-down" of honorary degrees, with several awards being granted to celebrities. Edinburgh's 2007 honorary degree list, which Scotland on Sunday has obtained, is relatively showbiz-free, with the only celebrity on the list being Monty Python star Michael Palin.
In terms of honorary degree "hogs", broadcaster Sir David Attenborough has 19 such awards, and the veteran American comic Bob Hope picked up 58. Their awards pale in comparison with King Bhumiphol of Thailand who has 136.
An Edinburgh University spokeswoman said: "The University of Edinburgh continually reviews its policies and procedures in a wide variety of areas and the rules by which honorary degrees are awarded as part of the process."
In 1996 an American college awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters to the muppet Kermit the Frog.
From Python to politics: Edinburgh's new nominations revealed
Edinburgh University's list of nominations for honorary degrees in 2007 has been obtained by Scotland on Sunday months before it was due to made public.
The list of the great and good includes comedian and writer Michael Palin, of Monty Python fame.
Palin was nominated by the university's students, who will known him as much for his writing and his travel programmes as for the comedy shows which he recorded before many of them were born.
The university released details of its list for 2007 among papers issued in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act. Lists of honorary degree recipients are normally published in the immediate run-up to the graduation ceremonies.
In addition to Palin, two political heavyweights dominate the more serious side of the nominations. They are George Reid, the presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament and the Irish president, Mary McAleese.
Reid is seen as having worked to bring the costs of Holyrood under control and to bring more openness to the workings of devolution in Scotland.
Edinburgh University also plans to honour the Scotland rugby player Tony Stanger with a doctor of education, and the senior judge Lord Gill, the lord justice clerk, with a doctor of laws.
Catherine Lockerbie, the director of the Edinburgh Book Festival since 2000 and former Edinburgh University graduate, will receive a doctor of letters.