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Honorary doctorates for American professors Kessler and Alexander

The list of recipients of Masaryk University’s doctor honoris causa has grown by two new names. 

The award ceremony took place in the Karel Engliš Auditorium at the Faculty of Law.

The management decided to award this title to Professor Herbert Leon Kessler in the field of medieval art history, and to Professor Jeffrey Charles Alexander in the field of sociology.

The honorary academic degree of doctor honoris causa is awarded by the University on the basis of a decision of the Scientific Board of Masaryk University to outstanding personalities whose extraordinary creative contribution to the development of science, culture and art is internationally recognised. “I appreciate the fact that Professor Kessler and Professor Alexander, who are world-class scholars and have had a long and fruitful cooperation with our University, have accepted this honour from Masaryk University today. I sincerely hope that our cooperation will continue for the benefit of Masaryk University and for the further development of the fields of art history and cultural sociology,” said Radim Polčák, Vice-Rector for Development, Legislation and Information Technology and also the deputy rector of Masaryk University.

The two American scholars (Jeffrey C. Alexander on the left, Herbert L. Kessler on the right) have been collaborating with MU for a long time.

The honorary doctorates were awarded during an academic ceremony held in the Karel Engliš Auditorium of the Faculty of Law on 26 October. During the ceremony, Professors Kessler and Alexander took a solemn oath in which they pledged their loyalty and friendship to Masaryk University, which they will support to the best of their abilities, to continuously strive “for the development of human knowledge, so that truth may spread and its light may shine brighter”, and also to “always be what they have shown themselves to be”, as the text of the oath reads. With the proclamation spondeo ac polliceor (“I pledge and promise”), the two new honorary doctors concluded their vows with the usual Latin words, touching the university insignia. They then received a diploma with a seal and a gold commemorative medal from the deans of the faculties that nominated them for the honorary degree, i.e. Irena Radová of the Faculty of Arts in the case of Herbert L. Kessler and Stanislav Balík of the Faculty of Social Studies in the case of Jeffrey C. Alexander.

Jeffrey C. Alexander (left) received his diploma and the gold commemorative medal of Masaryk University from the Dean of the Faculty of Social Studies, Stanislav Balík.

“It is a great honour for me that Masaryk University has awarded me this honorary doctorate, not only in general, because of the scientific reputation of Masaryk University, but also specifically because I have worked closely with sociologists at this university for many years. The focus of our work together has been the development of cultural sociology, a non-reductive approach to the study of collective meaning, known as the ‘strong programme’ because modern cultural sociology is not an isolated or new field, but is deeply rooted in classical sociological traditions. And by delving deeper into these traditions, we can better understand how culture influences and shapes contemporary social life,” said Jeffrey C. Alexander, who began working with the Faculty of Social Studies twenty years ago. “He soon became not only a collaborator, but also a supporter and a kind of an ambassador for our Department of Sociology,” recalled Adéla Souralová, sociologist and vice-dean of the faculty.

Jeffrey C. Alexander during his lecture in the Karel Engliš Auditorium.

She praised Professor Alexander’s accommodating approach to the students who asked for his assessment of their seminar papers. “He would send them detailed comments from the United States within a day, often within hours of receiving the email. The interest and support from a world-renowned sociologist was an important, inspiring and motivating life experience for many students,” she explained, adding that Jeffrey C. Alexander’s contribution meant that top sociologists came to Brno and young MU scholars were involved in international projects, including cooperation with the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University, which the new MU honorary doctor co-directs.

Herbert L. Kessler also made it clear that he regards the honorary doctorate from Masaryk University as a great honour. “Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk has been my hero since my childhood in Chicago; I studied at the University of Chicago at the faculty where Masaryk had taught,” said Dr Kessler. He also mentioned an interesting connection, including direct contact with members of the Czech community in this American city. “I went to school with children named Bartůšek, Hruška and Novák. As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I walked past a bronze and granite monument commemorating the achievements of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, erected by the Moravian sculptor Albín Polášek,” said Kessler about his formative relationship with extraordinary Czech personalities, which – as he likes to say – stood at the beginning of his biography, since Masaryk lectured at the university just after the turn of the century and Polášek taught for three decades at the Art Institute of Chicago, where Kessler’s mother studied at the time.

Herbert L. Kessler taking the solemn oath.

His interest in the then-dominant Chicago architect Mies van der Rohe, the creator of Brno’s Villa Tugendhat, led him directly to Brno. “Since I first visited Brno ten years ago, Masaryk University has become my European academic home. I have taught there and participated in seminars and conferences. Now, with an honorary doctorate, I have truly become what my friends from a Midwest school, Joe Bartusek, Gale Hruska and Jimmy Novak, called ‘Czechcogoan’,” said Herbert L. Kessler.

“He is one of the greatest living medievalists and also an incredibly intellectually generous person. As well as training generations of top scholars in the US, he is a man who for decades has encouraged young colleagues around the world to pursue art history. He has an unparalleled passion for the subject and was personally instrumental in the founding of the Centre for Early Medieval Studies, which I have the honour of directing,” said Ivan Foletti of the Faculty of Arts, who nominated Professor Kessler for the honorary doctorate and delivered the celebratory speech (laudatio) dedicated to him at the ceremony. In the speech, he described how “many a budding scientist has been surprised to find a letter from one of the biggest names in the field in their inbox. These letters often start with the words: ‘I read your excellent article and would like to meet you’. Through these contacts with younger generations of scholars, Professor Kessler has managed to build a unique scholarly platform in America and Europe, from which almost all of the world’s contemporary art historians benefit in one way or another,” Ivan Foletti added.

A toast after the academic ceremony.

The academic ceremony was hosted by the Vice-Rector of Masaryk University Jiří Hanuš. Among the participants were members of the Scientific Board of MU, deans of faculties and representatives of other Czech universities, as well as many former and current students of sociology and art history. At the end of the ceremony, the singer Kateřina Naučová, a student of the Faculty of Education, performed an impressive rendition of the arietta Amor, fammi goder, composed by an unknown Italian composer from the second half of the 17th century.