The ceremonies will see nearly 4,500 students graduate in total.

Former Home Secretary, legendary journalist and record-breaking female rower among University of Exeter honorary graduates

A former Home Secretary, an LGBT campaigner, the leader of the first all-female crew to cross the Pacific and a legendary journalist are among those being given honorary degrees by the University of Exeter.

The Right Honourable Alan Johnson, Ruth Hunt, Chief Executive of Stonewall, rower Laura Penhaul and John Simpson CBE, the BBC’s World Affairs Editor, will join leading figures from the world of science, sport, health and literature whose achievements will be recognised during graduation ceremonies in Exeter and Truro.

They include Performance Director of the Lawn Tennis Association Dr Simon Timson and Professor Sir John Savill, the former chief executive of the Medical Research Council.

Also being honoured are Professor Sir Simon Charles Wesseley, Professor of Psychological Medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry, Felix Barrett MBE, the founder and artistic director of the theatre group Punchdrunk, the former Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Robin Nicholson and Professor Raymond J. St. Leger, an expert on understanding and combatting infection.

Five honorary graduates will also be honoured during degree ceremonies in Truro for students at the University of Exeter’s Cornwall campuses – the novelist, associate editor and former literary editor of The Observer Robert McCrum, the former US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, Chair of the Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust Dr Barbara Vann, the leader of the first all-female crew to cross the Pacific ocean Laura Penhaul and wind energy pioneer Dr Andrew Garrad CBE.

The ceremonies, presided over by the University Chancellor Lord Myners, will see around 4,500 students graduate in total. The graduates join an alumni community of well over 144,000, who live in 183 countries.

Alan Johnson was General Secretary of the Communication Workers Union before entering Parliament as Labour MP for Hull West and Hessle in 1997. He had a number of cabinet positions in both the Blair and Brown governments, including Health Secretary and Education Secretary.

The former MP, who has written award-winning memoirs and led Labour’s EU referendum campaign, said: “I have long been an admirer of Exeter University and worked closely with Steve Smith when I was Higher Education minister. I am particularly delighted to be receiving an honorary degree because, having left school aged 15 I never got anywhere near a university qualification of any sort”.

John Simpson has reported from 140 countries and interviewed around 200 world leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev and Vladimir Putin, Margaret Thatcher and every other British prime minister since Harold Wilson. He has covered 46 wars on four continents, not to mention the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania.

Laura Penhaul set two world records in 2015/16 when she led the first all-female crew to row across the Pacific Ocean. Prior to this Laura worked in elite sport for over 12 years having lead physiotherapy support to different teams through their cycles for Rio 2016, London 2012 and Vancouver 2010. Currently she is working with the British Sailing Team in Weymouth, alongside setting up her own company: Adaptive Performance.

Natasha Trethewey served two terms as the 19th Poet Laureate of the United States from 2012 to 2014). She is the author of four collections of poetry: Thrall (2012); Native Guard (2006), for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize; Bellocq’s Ophelia (2002); and Domestic Work (2000).

Dr Barbara Vann, a former headteacher, became Chair of Cornwall NHS Partnership Foundation Trust in 2015. She said: “I was astonished but very proud to be awarded this Honorary Degree by the University of Exeter. As an educationalist, my focus has been children and young people’s learning, their health and wellbeing. It has been a privilege to work with and for them.”

Sir Robin Nicholson said: “My working life has been the study of science and its application to economic, environmental and societal issues. Science has become truly multi-disciplinary and global in its development and application, and I am delighted to be joining today’s Graduands who have had the excitement of studying science in one of the UK’s world-leading universities with the thrilling pledge of “Making the Exceptional Happen”. 

Professor Raymond J. St. Leger said: “It is a great honour and privilege to be receiving an honorary degree from my alma mater. I remember with huge fondness the very bonded community I was part of at Exeter. I am also very grateful to the strong foundation I got from the biology program; it taught me how to think-to really question and analyze. Thank you Exeter.”

Dr Garrad has been professionally involved in wind energy for 35 years and built his first wind turbine in 1971. He was Chairman of the British Wind Energy Association in 1989. From 2013 to 2014 he was President of European Wind Energy Association. He co-founded the Garrad Hassan Group which grew to become the world’s largest renewable energy consultancy.

Dr Garrad said: “It is a great honour to receive the honorary degree of Doctor of Engineering particularly in this national Year of Engineering. I received my PhD from Exeter 39 years ago when renewable energy was just a twinkle in the eye of a few eccentrics.”

Dr Simon Timson studied Physical Education at the University of Exeter before competing as part of the British Bobsleigh Team in 1990, winning a European Cup silver medal a year later. He was Director of Performance at UK Sport from 2013 to 2016 and is now responsible for the coaching, science, medicine and technology programmes that support the country’s best players.

Mr Felix Barrett, a graduate and Honorary Fellow in Drama of the University of Exeter, said: “My time at Exeter University gave me the confidence to push the boundaries of what was thought possible theatrically and set me firmly on the road towards forming my own company. I benefitted hugely from studying in an intensely creative environment that was both supportive but was constantly challenging us to take risks. I’m extremely proud to be accepting this honorary award, if a little jealous of everyone graduating today.”

University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Steve Smith, said: “It is always a very proud moment to see our students graduate and we feel privileged to be part of this big moment in their lives. We wish them well for the future and have no doubt they will go on to do great things. I am also extremely pleased to welcome this year’s honorary graduates and to celebrate their outstanding achievements in the fields of science, politics, journalism and health.”

For more information on graduation, including how to watch live streaming of the ceremonies, visit the University’s website.

Date: 13 July 2018

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