Honorary doctors 2019. Photo: Thor Brødreskift, UiB

Your excellency, Sir, honorary doctors!

Welcome to this ceremony in the honor of the University of Bergen’s new doctores honoris causa!

The honorary degree doctor honoris causa is the highest form of recognition given by any institution of higher learning. It is a recognition of outstanding scholarly achievements, or for achievements in the arts, or for society.

Honoris causa is a latin phrase meaning: for the sake of the honor. Also the phrase ad honorem, to the honour, is commonly used. The term doctor is derived from the ancient formalism licentia docendi, meaning license to teach. So, today it is my pleasure to honor you with the license to teach. Perhaps it sounds less impressive, phrased in the English language, rather than in Latin. I suppose that is why we still are fond of a few Latin phrases at occasions like this. Even in a modern academic world.

Since most of you have been teaching – in the very broadest sense of the meaning of the word – for many years, you should regard the honorary degree conferred upon you, here today, as our university’s highest recognition of your achievements in your respective lines of work.

The tradition for awarding honorary doctorates in the academic world is an old one. It likely dates back to medieval times. As the earliest known honorary degree was granted to Lionel Woodville, later Bishop of Salisbury, by the University of Oxford in the late 1470s. In the 16th century granting honorary degrees became common on the occasion of royal visits to Oxford.

The very first honorary doctoral degree at the University of Bergen was conferred upon Olav Dahl in 1952, an engineer and air-pilot who started his career as a crew member of Roald Amundsen’s Maud Expedition, through the North-East Passage. From being a polar explorer in the early 19th century, he later became instrumental in the preparations for the establishment of CERN in Geneva. For his achievements he was given the highest recognition by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He also became Commander of the Norwegian St. Olav order and the Dutch Oranje-Nassau order.

In later years, to name a few, the former Prime Minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland, former US Vice-President Walter Modal, world acclaimed pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, the internationally renowned author Jon Foss, and the Nobel Laurates in medicine or physiology, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser, have all been given the same honor.

This week we not only honor outstanding achievements, but also celebrate the re-opening of the University Museum after 6 years of renovation.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Minister of research and higher education Iselin Nybø – both alumni from our university – took part in this event and with the honorary doctors as guests of honor. It was an extraordinary day, at least for the University of Bergen. Because we did not just reopen any museum, it was not just another exhibition – yesterday we celebrated the very roots and soul of the University of Bergen.

When the Norwegian Parliament in 1946 decided to establish Norway’s second university in Bergen, they pointed to the scholarly activities that had been ongoing at the Bergen Museum since its opening in 1825. It was here that Fridtjof Nansen, the later internationally acclaimed polar explorer, diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize laurate, conducted his neurobiological studies in the hagfish. And it was here that Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen discovered the bacteria causing leprosy 8 years before Robert Koch discovered the bacteria causing tuberculosis.

To pay respect to what Bergen Museum has represented, the crest of the University of Bergen is inspired by the crest of the museum – with the owl, symbolizing wisdom, at the center. Already from the very beginning, the founding fathers of the Bergen Museum with the first President of Norway’s Parliament Wilhelm Friemann Koren Christie in lead, realized that the museum should be more than a collection, more than an exhibition.

They were truly inspired by the ideas of the age of Enlightenment in Europe. Consequently, they wanted to contribute to the education of the public, to the building of a nation.

In the essay “Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?” the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, underlines the importance of people being given the freedom to use their own intellect. Kant argues that it is not the lack of intellect that hampers the Enlightenment, it is the lack of necessary preconditions created by ruler and by those in power.

One might think that with the massification of higher education and a highly educated public, the goals and vision of the Enlightenment must surely have been met, long ago.  However, according to Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard University – it is not so. In his book “Enlightenment Now!” he argues that the values of the Enlightenment are under threat, even in modern societies. He makes the case for the values of reason, science and humanism. According to Pinker these are the three core values of the Enlightenment.

Yes, the book has received mixed critiques. But, when we see the growth of populism in politics, alternative facts and fake news. And at the same time a decline in trust, in expertise and in research, it is easy to support Pinker in defending the three values: reason, science and humanism.

In september 2017, at Sorbonne University in Paris, surrounded by young and inspired students, President Emmanuel Macron outlined his vision for the future of Europe. In his speech, he also made the case for the same values, when he argued that what Europe need is trust in and respect for independent research in guiding and informing policy-making. “Science must provide information on the dangers, but also independently and transparently indicate scientifically proven alternatives”, he said about the role of research related to societal challenges.

Today, on this occasion, in the university aula, we pay tribute and we honor our new doctores honoris causa, the ideals of the founders of the Bergen museum, and those who have defended and fostered critical thinking and reasoning – the very core to any institution of higher learning.

Your excellency, Sir, honorary doctors – congratulations!

Thank you for your attention.