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Prince and what it means when the U of M confers an honorary degree

Prince will finally receive his degree from the University of Minnesota, an honor in the making years before his death.

Prince will finally receive his degree from the University of Minnesota, an honor in the making years before his death. Star Tribune

If Prince were alive today, he wouldn’t just be able to call himself an artist who defined a generation. He’d be able to call himself a college graduate.

The honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, which Prince is supposed to receive on Sept. 26, is considered the University of Minnesota’s highest award.

Prince never went to college, but the fact that he’ll have a degree is just as much an honor for the school -- if not more.

Prince is not the only great added sans-matriculation to the university’s tally of recipients. He joins the ranks of Madeleine Albright, the first woman to become Secretary of State. And Maya Angelou, the celebrated poet and writer behind I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

And Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the Supreme Court. And Charles Schulz, who created the Peanuts comic strip. And Jane Goodall. And Walter Mondale. And His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

Every one of these choices, according to the university, was selected for having “achieved acknowledged eminence in cultural affairs, in public service, or in a field of knowledge and scholarship.”

Prince’s nomination process began several years ago while he was still alive, says School of Music director Michael Kim. The artist’s response, Kim says, was one word:

“Cool.”

No one could have anticipated that it would be posthumous. After Prince died, Kim says they felt an obligation to make good on their promise.

Kim doesn’t see the honorary degree as a legitimization of Prince’s greatness, or an attempt by the university to claim him in some way. He sees it as a “gesture of thanks and appreciation.”

“When you’re dealing with someone of Prince’s quality and stature, it makes and justifies what we do,” he says.

Kim is a classical pianist and self-described “nerd.” He still remembers the first time he heard Prince’s music, when he was about 15. Even then, he was awed by the raw musicianship, the way Prince inflected certain words, the way he phrased certain passages. He counts Prince among one of his musical inspirations, and as one of the “greatest musicians of all time.”

He’s just sad he won’t get to meet him.

Conferring the honorary degree wasn’t necessarily about giving Prince the right to say he graduated from the University of Minnesota. It was more about conferring love and thanks the only way an institution can: institutionally.