Honorary doctorate for two idealists

UM honours Michael Ignatieff and Amitav Ghosh


The one is devoted to freedom and democracy, the other seeks a genuine climate policy. This characterises the two laureates who will receive honorary doctorates during the university’s foundation day ceremony. Michael Ignatieff has been active in particular as rector of the Central European University (CEU) in the last few years, while writer Amitav Ghosh calls upon everyone to fight against climate change. 

The Maastricht honorary doctorate is not his first. Far from it. Michael Ignatieff has twelve to his name. They are from a number of universities in Canada, where he was born and bred, and from institutes in the United States and Scotland. And from Tilburg. His curriculum vitae is also adorned with other distinctions with resounding names: the George Orwell Prize (University College London) and the Hannah Arendt Prize (City of Bremen).

Ignatieff made a name for himself as a historian, novelist, politician (as leader of the Liberal Party in Canada) and in recent years in particular as rector of the Central European University (CEU). This university, founded by philanthropist George Soros, was (in part) driven from Budapest to Vienna by the Orban regime. Ignatieff said that he regards the Maastricht honorary doctorate as political support for the entire CEU.  

“Great, as far as I'm concerned,” says honorary supervisor Monica Claes, professor of European and Comparative Constitutional Law. “That was the intention of our distinction. We esteem Ignatieff for his academic work, but also as rector of CEU, defender of academic freedom and advocate of open debate. The UM was one of the first universities to endorse the slogan: I stand for CEU.”


The recommendation came from the Faculty of Law, which is not so strange, says Claes. “Ignatieff writes a lot about issues that are dear to lawyers, such as human rights and the foundations of open societies and liberal democracies. He forces you to think, he makes you question common wisdom. What I also find interesting are his pieces on democratic backsliding, about the phenomenon that, after the fall of the wall, Eastern European countries would automatically adopt the liberal democratic course of the West.”

Ignatieff gave the Schuman lecture in Maastricht in May of last year: Open Society’s New Enemies and The future of Europe. “In doing so, he gave his views on on current challenges that are threatening open societies from without, but more importantly from within, through polarization and populism.”

Ignatieff is also a novelist, and not without merit, because his second novel Scar Tissue (1993) was on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize. Scar Tissue is about a woman suffering from Alzheimer, from her son's perspective.

Opium Wars

The other laureate also had a book on the Man Booker Prize's shortlist. Still praiseworthy, but for Amitav Ghosh (1956, Calcutta) it is core business: he is a writer. Ghosh grew up in India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka and studied – his father was a diplomat - cultural anthropology in Oxford. After that, he lectured at the universities of Delhi and New York, among others. Until 2004, when he started to write full-time.

His most famous books are The Circle of Reason (1986), The Shadow Lines (1988) and The Glass Palace (2000). He won the French Prix Médicis for The Circle of Reason. The book that made the Man Booker's shortlist was called Sea of Poppies (2008). It is the first part of his Ibis Trilogy, about the Opium Wars between the British Empire and China in the middle of the 19th century.

The trilogy is a superb illustration of his writing style, says Valentina Mazzucato, professor of Globalisation and Development at FASoS. “It is partly the reason why the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences put Ghosh forward for a honorary doctorate. He often describes a phenomenon from all possible perspectives. With these wars: from the British merchants, who sold opium to China; from Indian soldiers, who fought for the British; from Armenian traders, et cetera. Based on research in archives, he shows what the wars meant to various groups and how they actually influenced their lives.”


This multi-perspective, says Mazzucato, is exactly what we need these days to deal with complex problems such as migrant flows, human rights and climate change. Ghosh also raises the question: How is it possible that we take so little action when all climate reports point in the same direction?

“The cause, according to Ghosh, is a lack of imagination,” says Mazzucato. “Literature has the task to discuss social issues, to stimulate our imagination, to present possible worlds. But literature is failing: there is hardly any fiction about climate change. In his book The Great Derangement (2016) he argues that this can be attributed to the Enlightenment, to the divide between man and nature, to the focus on the individual, to the psyche. This is no good to us when it comes to a common issue such as climate change.”

The honorary doctorates will be awarded during the Dies on 25 January (15.30), in the St. Jan’s

On Thursday 24 January (16,30) Michael Ignatieff holds a lecture in the Statenzaal of the Faculty of Law, Bouillonstraat

Honorary doctorate for two idealists
Ignatieff and Ghosh
Categories: Science

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