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Hello from Helsinki

UF Biology Professor Bob Holt Receives Honorary Degree from University of Helsinki

Robert "Bob" D. Holt, professor of ecology in the Department of Biology, has received an honorary doctorate in biological and environmental sciences from the University of Helskini. In celebration of the centenary of Finland’s independence as well as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the university awarded a number of honorary doctorates at three conferment ceremonies during spring 2017. This year's doctor of philosophy conferment was the 97th year of the tradition and took place on May 26.

Holt attended with his wife, Lynne, a policy analyst in the Bob Graham Center for Public Service.


The Finnish word for conferment, promootio, derives from the Latin verb promovere: to promote, to move forward. Beginning in the Middle Ages, universities have conducted elaborate ceremonies for the bestowment of academic titles. In the mid-20th century, many European universities ceased these traditions, which are still kept alive in Finland and organized largely by the students.


The conferment included traditional dress, including custom-made silk top hats. The hat has symbolized freedom since ancient Rome and gained an association with academia upon the arrival of the medieval capo or corner-cap, the ancestor of the modern-day graduation cap. Since then, variants on this type of hat have represented freedom to conduct scientific study.

Heads of academic masters are also adorned with laurels, another tradition connoting academic accomplishment.

Since 1640, the University of Helsinki has included ceremonial swords and hats, with a specific color for each discipline, among its regalia. The sword represents knowledge and the hat, truth as well as freedom.

At the rehearsal. Photo credit: Bonafide Creatives.
Holt at dinner with his ceremonial top hat. Photo courtesy Bob Holt.
At the sword sharpening ceremony with Lynne. Photo courtesy Bob Holt.
At the university, in these times of renewal of study structures, you can easily get the impression, that a doctorate is measured in how many study credits you take and how many articles you write. In nominating honorary doctorates the university, however, turns its attention to the most central aspect: value.
– Speech delivered to honorees
Holt departs the stage holding his ceremonial sword. Photo credit: Bonafide Creatives.

conferment rationale

Robert D. Holt of the University of Florida is one of the foremost pioneers of theoretical ecology (in Finnish, ekology!). His work concentrates on the theoretical and conceptual problems of populations and biological communities as well as the relationship between ecology and evolutionary biology. He is especially fond in extending the modern ecological theories to the applied research purposes, particularly in nature conservation.

endless festivities

We had a Aktiharjoitus (rehearsal) on Thursday the 25th, with the Miekanhiojaispäivälliset (sword-sharpening ceremony) that evening. The next day there was the formal conferment, Promootioakti, which started at around 9:30 a.m., ending with a service in the cathedral about 3 p.m. That evening, there was the formal dinner, Promootiopäivälliset, in Finlandia Hall. A representative of the new doctors gave a speech, aimed at the honorary doctors. I was asked to give the speech in response, on behalf of all the honorary doctorates. On the last day, there was a boat tour around the harbor for all the master's and doctorates, ending at a fancy outdoor restaurant. Finally, that evening there was a Tanssiaiset (formal ball), and the party lasted until dawn.
– Bob Holt
Holt in ceremonial attire at the podium. Photo credit: Bonafide Creatives.
We call our species “Homo sapiens”, but it might be more accurate to call us “Homo docens” – for we are foremost the teaching and learning species. This educational endeavor is a collective activity, extending from the past, to the celebrations of today, and we hope far into the future.
– Bob Holt, in remarks given at the Promootioakti
The formal dinner. Photo credit: Bonafide Creatives.
Photo credit: Bonafide Creatives.
Photo credit: Bonafide Creatives.
Photo credit: Bonafide Creatives.
Photo credit: Bonafide Creatives.
Holt in the processional. Photo credit: Bonafide Creatives.
The collective intellectual enterprise has many separate disciplines within it, such as mathematics, linguistics, neurobiology, and literary criticism. At times, these can seem like solitary islands isolated in the Baltic sea. But like the islands in the Finnish archipelago, where dispersal among islands sustains biodiversity and ecosystem stability, the interconnections among disciplines is a very important source of strength and creativity. I believe that the natural and social sciences, the humanities, and the arts all are – or should be – mutually supportive strands of our collective intellectual endeavors.
– Bob Holt, in remarks given at the Promootioakti

external links

Footnote: Content curated by Rachel Wayne. Photos courtesy Robert Holt and Bonafide Creatives.