Honorary degrees are a university’s opportunity to recognise people who have made outstanding contributions internationally, to their nation, their community or in their field, or given exceptional service to the institution. With the University of Wollongong celebrating its 40th anniversary as an autonomous institution in 2015, NICK HARTGERINK looks back on how it has maintained the Honoris Causa tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages.

Kings, princesses, governors, prime ministers, judges, musicians, artists, captains of industry, scientists, administrators.

The University of Wollongong has honoured an extraordinary cross-section of eminent people from Australia and overseas with Honorary Doctorates since it became an autonomous university in 1975.

UOW’s Honoraries reflect outstanding achievements in many fields, significant contributions to society and exceptional service, both in Australia and internationally.

Consider some of the notable names on the list:


The world’s longest-serving monarch and Head of State his Majesty King Bhimibol Adulyadej of Thailand graciously accepted an Honorary Doctor of Science degree in 2002. UOW acknowledged Thailand’s revered monarch, who has reigned since 1946, for his distinguished leadership and humanitarianism, especially his personal involvement in more than 2,000 projects designed to encourage self-reliance and local initiative in regional areas across Thailand.

UOW’s two highest officials at the time, Chancellor Michael Codd and Vice-Chancellor Professor Gerard Sutton, travelled to Thailand in 2002 to confer the Honorary degree on His Majesty in a special ceremony.

The King’s degree followed the Honorary Doctor of Science UOW presented to his daughter, Her Royal Highness Princess Chulabhorn Mahidol in 1999. Princess Chulabhorn, an eminent scientist with a PhD in Organic Chemistry, used her scientific background and her status as a member of the Thai Royal Family to profoundly influence scientific research in her country. In 1987 she established the Chulabhorn Research Institute, which has made enormous contributions to Thailand’s economic and social development through its work in areas such as health, the environment and agriculture.

Princess Chulabhorn visited UOW in December 1999 to have the degree conferred and to sign an Education and Scientific Agreement with UOW.

These two degrees reflected the special relationship UOW has had with Thailand over many years.


UOW has three NSW Governors among its Honoraries—the two longest-serving Governors, the late Sir Roden Cutler VC AK KCVO KCMG CBE and Professor Dame Marie Bashir AD CVO, and the new Governor General His Excellency General The Honourable David Hurley AC DSC, who succeeded Professor Dame Bashir in October this year.

Sir Roden was NSW Governor when the University gained its autonomy, and gave the institution unstinting support. In fact, he became the Foundation Visitor of the University, an ancient honour which gave him “full authority and jurisdiction to do all such things and entertain such causes as may pertain to or be exercised by visitors as often as he thinks fit”.

Sir Roden was a World War II hero who received the ultimate award for bravery, the Victoria Cross, after an action in the desert campaigns of 1941 in which he lost his leg. After the war he had a successful career as Australian High Commissioner to New Zealand and later Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) before being appointed NSW Governor in 1966. He was to serve in the position with great distinction for 15 years.

Professor Dame Bashir, who had a distinguished career in medicine and medical education as a Professor of Psychology before becoming Governor, was also a staunch UOW supporter and took special interest in the Graduate School of Medicine. She received her Honorary Doctor of Science from UOW at a special ceremony to welcome the first cohort of medical students in 2007, at which she was the guest speaker. She also gave the Occasional Address at the first medical school graduation ceremony four years later.

UOW honoured Wollongong-born His Excellency General The Honourable David Hurley with an Honorary Doctor of Letters degree in 2013, to mark his outstanding 40-year military career which culminated in him becoming Chief of the Australian Defence Force in 2011. He succeeded Professor Dame Bashir as NSW Governor on 1 October 2014.


Perhaps the most spectacular Honorary degree conferral in the University’s history occurred on 8 December 1989 when UOW conferred Honorary Doctor of Letters degrees on three former Prime Ministers—Australians Sir John Gorton GCMG AC CH and Gough Whitlam AC, and Michael Somare CH from Papua New Guinea.

Former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Papua New Guinea Professor Ken Inglis summed up the importance of the occasion in the commemorative program for the event, writing: “In a time of such ferment, every public event in a university takes on a symbolic importance; and in offering Honorary degrees to Sir John Gorton, Gough Whitlam and Michael Somare the University of Wollongong is making an affirmation about higher education and nationhood. Honouring a Prime Minister is not unusual. Honouring two Prime Ministers on the one occasion is as far as I know unprecedented. Honouring three Prime Ministers is a gesture of breathtaking inspiration.”

The doctorates were conferred to mark the three Prime Ministers’ “contributions to the cultural, educational and political independence of their nations”, but they also marked a coming of age for UOW. During the 1980s the University had also established its own cultural, educational and political independence, and its growing self-belief was epitomised in this “gesture of breathtaking inspiration”.


UOW has awarded Honorary degrees to a number of prominent judges and jurists over the years, stretching from Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission President and Chief Judge Sir Richard Kirby who was awarded a Doctor of Letters in 1987 to High Court Justice Virginia Bell who was awarded a Doctor of Laws in 2013. Both had a close association with UOW, while Justice Bell also had a family connection. Her late father John Bell had been UOW’s Estate Manager when it gained autonomy and had played a key role in the design and layout of UOW’s iconic bushland campus.

In 1991 UOW honoured its Foundation Chancellor Justice Robert Hope AC CMG with an Honorary Doctor of Laws. Supreme Court Justice Hope served as Chancellor from 1975--1997, an extraordinary 22 years of exemplary service which played a pivotal role in setting the University on its course for future success.


UOW nurtured the creative arts from the beginning, producing many fine visual artists, musicians, actors and writers over the years as well as building an extensive Art Collection.

So it is no surprise that musicians and artists figure prominently in UOW’s honoraries list.

Musicians include acclaimed composer and performer Roger Woodward, who was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Creative Arts in 1992 and composer John Antill OBE CMG who was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Creative Arts in 1985. In 1998 UOW bestowed a double family honour on the Tognetti Family at the mid-year graduation ceremony. Long-serving academic, mathematician Professor Keith Tognetti was made a Fellow of the University while his son, Australian Chamber Orchestra Artistic Director Richard Tognetti received an Honorary Doctorate in Creative Arts. Richard had already been named one of Australia’s 100 Living Treasures.

Artists on the distinguished list include sculptor Bert Flugelman and Archibald Prize-winning painter Guy Warren OAM, who was director of the UOW Art Collection for many years. Warren won the 1985 Archibald Prize, Australia’s premier portrait competition, with a painting of his great friend Flugelman. He later donated the painting to the UOW Art Collection and it is hanging in the University Library.

Prominent children’s author Merrion (Mem) Fox AM, whose books included the internationally acclaimed Possum Magic, was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters in 1996.


In 2013 UOW honoured one of our own, Mining Engineering graduate Mark Cutifani, with a Doctor of Business Administration. Mr Cutifani, who grew up in Wollongong and studied Mining Engineering while working in the local coal industry, is now Chief Executive Officer of international mining giant Anglo American.

He joined a list of prominent industrialists including Transfield founder Franco Belgiono-Nettis CBE AM (1990) and two BHP chairmen Sir Ian McLennan KBE CBE (1978) and Brian Loton AC (1992), all of whom received Honorary Doctor of Science degrees.


When UOW conferred Honorary Doctor of Science degrees on Professor Mary O’Kane and Professor Tom Johansen in 2013, it was maintaining a tradition of recognising prominent scientists who have collaborated with UOW researchers. Professor O’Kane, the NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer, has assisted the University with review and development of Centres of Excellence and on critical research appointments, as well as serving on the board of UOW’s corporate arm ITC Limited (now called UOW Enterprises). Professor Johansen, from the University of Oslo in Norway, has worked closely with researchers at UOW’s Institute for Superconducting and Electronic Materials.

UOW honoured Dame Bridget Ogilvie AC, DBE’s lifetime achievement as a research scientist with an Honorary Doctorate of Science in 2008 (see Dame Ogilvie’s opinion piece, page 18).

Other prominent scientists on the Honorary list include the ‘father’ of the Bionic Ear Professor Graeme Clark AO (2002), who has a long association with UOW’s Intelligent Polymer Research Institute and Australia’s Chief Defence Scientist and UOW alumnus Dr Alex Zelinsky, who has a Bachelor of Mathematical Sciences (Honours) and a PhD from UOW to go with his Honorary Doctorate of Science awarded in 2010.


Having previously been a regional divisional college of the University of New South Wales (UNSW), UOW held its first graduation ceremony as an autonomous institution early in 1976, where the ‘Class of ‘75’ received the first UOW testamurs (although they could still elect to receive a UNSW degree if they preferred, having started their studies when the college was under UNSW control). At the ceremony, held in Wollongong Town Hall, the young institution awarded its first Honorary degrees to acknowledge the people who had guided the previous Wollongong University College, presenting Doctorates of Science to UNSW Chancellor Sir Robert Webster and Vice-Chancellor Professor Rupert Myers.

It also conferred Honorary Doctorates of Science on Professor Charles Gray, who as Warden had been the College’s chief administrative officer, and Dr David Parry, who had chaired the previous College Council and was now Deputy Chancellor of the young university.

Thus began a tradition of conferring Honorary degrees on its chief administrators.

UOW’s second Chancellor Michael Codd AC was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters when he stepped down from the role after 12 years in 2009. As previously stated, his predecessor Justice Robert Hope was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Laws in 1991.

Foundation Vice-Chancellor Professor Michael Birt AO CBE was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters in 1981, his successor Professor Ken McKinnon the same degree in 1994 and Professor Gerard Sutton AO was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science when he retired as Vice-Chancellor in 2011.

At the mid-year graduation in 2014 UOW awarded three Honorary degrees: Indigenous academic and community leader Aunty Barbara Nicholson and Virgin Australia Group of Airlines CEO and MD John Borghetti were awarded Honorary Doctorates of Laws, while eminent Chinese engineering researcher Professor Jinghai Li was awarded a Doctor of Science.

UOW has awarded 77 Honorary Doctorates. Who will be next to join this illustrious list?

UOW has two other Honorary categories: Emeritus Professorships which are awarded to academic staff who have given outstanding service over a long period; and Fellows of the University, staff and community members who have made a significant contribution to the University over an extended period. UOW recognises its Fellows at its annual University Fellowship and Alumni Awards Dinner.