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University awards Prince with honorary doctorate

The Board of Regents showed unanimous support of the award after decades pending.

He went by Prince, then an unpronounceable glyph, and now another moniker has been added to the mix: Dr. Prince. 

On Friday, the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents unanimously voted to award an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters to Prince. The preeminent Minnesota-born singer, songwriter, actor, producer and multi-instrumentalist passed away on April 21. 

William Tolman, chair of the University Senate’s All-University Honors Committee, said although the award is being conferred posthumously, the final process for honoring Prince began in fall 2015. 

The approval process requires many documents, such as nominations, letters from University heads, and a list of outstanding accomplishments. The Honors Committee then reviews this package to assess the candidate, Tolman said. 

There was support for awarding Prince the doctorate from the beginning, Tolman said. The final review package for approval arrived after Prince’s untimely death. 

Michael Kim, University School of Music director, said Prince was a unique combination of sheer talent, intelligence and persona — among the ranks of Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Luciano Pavarotti. The honorary doctorate recognizes both his musicianship and his influence, he said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if other universities followed suit [in awarding him],” Kim said. 

Even though the doctorate was awarded after his death, attempts to honor Prince began 24 years ago. Prince was first considered for the award in 1992-93 in efforts led by Regent Darrin Rosha. 

Rosha, who joined the board in 1989, discussed the idea of commemorating Prince with former Board member Alan Page, Hall of Fame football player and retired Minnesota Supreme Court judge. 

With the cutting-edge, sometimes controversial nature of Prince’s music and performances, Rosha said he was concerned that the Honors Committee and some regents might question the nomination. 

Nonetheless, Rosha, along with the College of Liberal Arts, began collecting documents for submission, he said. 

Rosha said despite the secretive nomination process, he contacted Prince’s representatives at Paisley Park and asked if Prince was interested in accepting such an honor from the University. 

His management responded, Rosha said, with Prince’s one-word response to the inquiry — “Cool.” 

Near the end of 1992, as the nomination process continued, Sting — lead singer of the band the Police — was awarded an honorary doctorate from Northumbria 

University in England. Around the same time, Prince changed his name to a symbol. 

Worried that the University’s commemoration of Prince would bear resemblance to Sting’s award, and unsure of how a committee would react to nominating a “symbol” for a doctorate, Rosha set the project aside.

In 1995, Rosha left the Board for 20 years. When he returned in 2015, he decided to revitalize the operation — and this time there was even a Northrop ceremonial concert in the works, Rosha said. 

“The intent was to use the resources to establish a scholarship fund in Prince’s name to benefit kids from his old neighborhoods in north and south Minneapolis,” Rosha said.

Unfortunately, by the time the documents and package were ready for approval, Prince had passed away, he said. 

Although an honorary doctorate cannot be given posthumously, University President Eric Kaler reviewed the rules and decided to honor the award because the nomination process began while Prince was alive, Rosha said. 

“It means a lot that Prince knew how much we respected his accomplishments and how much he meant to Minnesota,” he said.

When Rosha inquired about Prince’s interest in the award 20 year later, Prince again replied with one word — “Cool.”

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