James Freedman, the former president of Dartmouth College, wrote in his book Liberal Education and the Public Interest
that “in bestowing an honorary degree, a university makes an explicit statement to its students and the world about the qualities of character and attainment it admires most” (117). Awarding honorary degrees is an important practice of any university, as it honors a deserving recipient, adds to the prestige of the institution, and creates a bond between that recipient and the awarding institution. The University of Southern California
has shown itself to be committed to this mission by giving degrees to such distinguished people as
Antonio Villaraigosa, Neil Armstrong, John Williams, John McCain, and Frank Gehry. Many of these past recipients have been persons of great achievement in the arts, but perhaps as a result of our location in the center of the film industry, those degrees awarded have been heavily slanted towards Hollywood. Although it would be controversial, and would anger many, USC should fulfill its mission to be a leader and live up to its “entrepreneurial heritage”
by awarding an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts to Anna Wintour
, editor in chief of American Vogue
and a leader in American fashion and design.
As stated specifically by the University of Southern California, the purpose of the honorary degree at this institution
is to “honor individuals who have distinguished themselves through extraordinary achievements,” and “made outstanding contributions to the…communities of which they are a part,” as well as “elevate the university in the eyes of the world.” While very similar to what any other university’s standards and purpose are in giving honorary degrees, these are the specific criteria by which USC judges those nominated. Given these criteria, Ms. Wintour is an outstanding candidate – as Editor in Chief of American Vogue
, she is at the pinnacle of her field, and has used this position not only to advance the magazine but also to advance American fashion design.
Since so many candidates are worthy, and as USC itself notes
, "not all excellent nominees can be recognized," the question of how to evaluate a person's accomplishments and qualifications for an honorary degree becomes especially important. What makes one accomplishment more worthy than another? I do not propose to argue that Ms. Wintour's work is of more weight or worth than any other qualified nominee, but in order to thoroughly examine her qualifications, I do propose to use three specific components of personal success as the main criteria. These components were originally outlined by Mike Martin in his book Meaningful Work: Rethinking Professional Ethics
, with the three areas being craft, compensation, and moral concern. To these criteria for evaluating achievement I would like to add one more self-interested element – the promise of a mutually beneficial relationship between the honoree and the honoring university. An honorary degree is not, after all, an entirely disinterested act. Freedman philosophizes that it is “an opportunity to emphasize an institution’s values” but also admits that the practice can have more tangible benefits for the awarding institution–donations but also “enduring bonds of friendship and mutual regard between the college and the recipient” that can result in “summer jobs…career counseling…[and] professional opportunities” for students (117, 130). In USC's honorary degree statement, there is the stated motive of "elevat[ing] the university in the eyes of the world by honoring individuals who are widely known and highly regarded
," but there are other discernable motives. In the repeated emphasis on honoring alumni, those with ties to the university, or those who have committed "exceptional acts of philanthropy to the university
," USC also reveals an interest in forging ties with those who could benefit or advance the university. Since the giving of an honorary degree is meant to such a relationship that would be beneficial to the university and its students (and such relationships are vital to the health of any university), this is a valid and important criteria for evaluating candidates that I will examine in addition to Martin’s categories for personal achievement.
Most of Ms. Wintour’s most significant achievements (although by no means all of them) have been in her work at Vogue
, and show an extraordinary dedication to craft. In outlining craft motives, Martin describes
"desires to manifest technical skill, tehoretical understanding, and creativity" (22). While Ms. Wintour has demonstrated her skill and understanding to be extraordinary, the area where she has truly excelled in craft is her creativity. When she was brought to Vogue
in 1988, she had her work cut out for her. The previous editor, Grace Mirabella
, had shifted Vogue’s
focus to lifestyle (from fashion), circulation had plateaued while other, newer fashion magazines were gaining ground, and “the magazine had become boring” (Fortini
). Another editor probably would have looked into Vogue’s
past when designing a vision for its future, perhaps drawing upon Diana Vreeland
’s now revered work for the magazine. However, Ms. Wintour did no such thing. Most importantly, she refocused the magazine on fashion, and
abandoned lifestyle, returning the magazine to its core identity. She moved photo shoots out of the studio into the sunlight, let the models look like real women instead of untouchable goddesses with hair and makeup that was not perfect or too done, and most importantly, created a new fashion mix that still dominates today (Fortini
). Photo shoots and particularly covers now featured affordable clothes with the designer fashions, giving an idea of real dressing, even if most of the clothes were still much too expensive for the average reader.
She has also worked to ensure that Vogue
works with the best in everything – photographers, models, clothing, designers, and editors. As a result, during Anna Wintour’s reign at Vogue
, it has forged contracts with the biggest names in photography and fashion photography (Annie Leibowitz, Irving Penn, Stephen Meisel, Mario Testino, etc), commands exclusives from all the top designers, has featured the First Lady of the United States in its pages twice (Hilary Rodham Clinton and Laura Bush), and was the first and only magazine to be granted permission to shoot at Versailles
. Additionally, it is the only major fashion book that does not tempt its readers with improvement columns. Vogue
does not advertise on its cover that it knows ten secrets to attracting men, quick and easy ways to trim that holiday waistline, or the ten best buys of the season. There are frequently articles on relationships, on diets, on skin care, and on fashion, but as Christina Larson puts it
[presents] the point of view of the woman who has already arrived…it doesn’t purport to solve problems, to help you feel less guilty…While it surely exists to sell ads – which it does remarkably well – it does so primarily by exploiting ambition, not insecurity.” This has always set Ms. Wintour apart from other fashion editors-as early as 1984, when she was the new editor-in-chief of British Vogue
, she proclaimed to the press
that she "want[ed] Vogue
to be pacy, sharp, and sexy. I'm not interested in the super-rich or infinitely leisured. I want our readers to be energetic, executive women, with money of their own and a wide range of interests." It was a departure in 1984 (especially from the Vogue
run by Diana Vreeland) and unfortunately remains a departure today, as no other fashion magazine assumes that its reader is already a satisfied and successful woman. On the business side, Ms. Wintour has also boosted Vogue’s
circulation numbers and advertising revenue, and raised the magazine’s profile so that it is unquestionably first among the fashion books (Gray
). Essentially, she engineered a reinvention that put the magazine where it is today but also saved it from decline – a feat that no other Vogue
editor has ever been called upon to perform.
Anna Wintour’s achievement in compensation both monetary and otherwise is equally impressive. As editor in chief of American Vogue
her salary is estimated at over one million dollars per
year plus benefits that include a clothing allowance, chauffeured car, first class travel, and a suite at the Ritz in Paris (Gray
). However, as Martin defines it, compensation is more than money – it is also “power, authority, recognition, and job stability” (23). These she also possesses in spades. Her position at Vogue
, while never iron clad (as two of her predecessors were unceremoniously and suddenly removed), is secure enough that many have speculated in recent years that she might leave Vogue
for an even higher position, perhaps as editorial director at Conde Nast Publications or to run the recently acquired Fairchild Publications (the publisher of W
and Women's Wear Daily
, among others). Si Newhouse, the chairman of Conde Nast and Ms. Wintour's boss, intensified speculation when he was quoted in a New York Magazine article as
"think[ing] Anna is capable of handling anything within magazine publishing." However, Ms. Wintour has given such rumors little credence, saying that she "can't imagine anything better than Vogue
." Outside of Conde Nast she wields immense power and influence in the industry. Fashion shows do not begin until she gets there, designers that will listen to no one listen to her, and everyone in the industry (as well as many who are not, thanks to the Devil Wears Prada
) knows her name and the power that she has to either make or break a career. This is not to suggest that she is out to destroy others, merely that while her recognition and approval can boost a young designer’s prospects, lack of notice can also hurt them immensely.
Although her achievements in craft and compensation are unparalleled in her field, many would raise questions about Martin's last category, moral concern. There are lots of people who love to hate Ms. Wintour – some because they think that she is icy or bitchy, others because she wears fur
, and yet others because she is at the head of an industry that worships certain ideals of beauty. Because of all this, some would argue that Ms. Wintour is missing the moral component that is essential for any honorary degree candidate. However, Martin reminds us that “a life is more than outward events, and we understand persons only when we grasp the value commitments embedded in their motives, character, and worldview” (16). While this would clearly be the ideal, I would argue in this case that it is only valid to draw conclusions about Ms. Wintour’s value commitments from her actions, as we are unable to know her motives or worldview. Using this stated criteria by which to judge her moral concern, she has certainly demonstrated real and unrelenting care for her field, if not humanity in total. During her career as editor in chief at Vogue
, she has used her position and influence in the industry to forward the careers of several young designers, among them John Galliano, Marc Jacobs,
Proenza Schouler, and Michael Kors, all of whom have gone on to be big names in fashion (Gray
In 2003, with the support of Conde Nast and Barneys New York, she launched the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund
, a program that would give a yearly $200,000 cash prize as well as mentoring and business support for a carefully chosen emerging designer – in effect establishing a continuing method for nurturing new American design talent. In an industry where connections are everything and entry is extremely difficult, this is a priceless gift to young and unknown designers. Additionally, Ms. Wintour has raised millions of dollars for AIDS research and is a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
, where she has been behind many of the museum’s recent successful special exhibits (such as the AngloMania
exhibit this year). Finally, she is constantly looking towards and promoting new futures in fashion - such as the internet. Just as Vogue
started to focus resources on expanding its web presence at style.com, she told an interviewer from New York Magazine
that she was "very excited about [style.com]...I want to do it right. I don't want to just rush in. I'm very interested in the commerce side, how it will support itself
." Since then, style.com has won several awards and is the most popular fashion website operating today. Given her track record in pioneering new looks (the high-low fashion mix that now dominates every fashion magazine), promoting new designers, and pushing fashion towards the modern and the new, it is exciting to think about where she will take us next.
While Ms. Wintour's professional and personal achievements are certainly worthy of an honorary degree, there remains one final criterion, the desire to "advance the university in the eyes of the world
" by awarding these degrees Awarding Anna Wintour a doctor of fine arts would absolutely achieve this goal. As editor in chief of American Vogue
and the most influential person in American fashion, she could significantly benefit USC students. American Vogue
(and the larger Conde Nast Publications Inc corporation that publishes it) is headquartered in New York at 4 Times Square but also has a smaller branch on Wilshire Boulevard in West Los Angeles. The publications with satellite offices at the Los Angeles location include Vogue
, Teen Vogue
, Women’s Wear Daily
, Architectural Digest
, Bon Appetit
, and DNR
– in short, some of the most prestigious titles in publishing. Not all of these publications take on interns, and most are not looking for permanent hires in Los Angeles, but they are wonderful places for USC students to gain valuable experience that would otherwise be unavailable to them (as most magazines of this stature are based in New York and do not have Los Angeles offices). Obviously, Ms. Wintour only has direct control over Vogue
, but as it is the leading Conde Nast publication, others would likely follow her lead. Anna Wintour has shown herself to be committed to advancing the causes of those she believes in, as discussed above, and should the university forge ties with her by awarding an honorary degree, more USC students might find themselves with internships at Vogue
and other Conde Nast publications – similar to the programs that have been established with Columbia College
and Parsons School of Design
Despite Ms. Wintour’s very real achievements, she would for many reasons be a fairly controversial degree recipient. As noted above, many feel that she promotes unhealthy standards of beauty and thinness, encourages animal cruelty through her use of fur in her wardrobe and in the magazine, and is generally against feminist principles. However, as real as these objections are, I do not think that they outweigh her extraordinary achievements. The University of Southern California makes it very clear in their Code of Ethics
that it is
committed to being an “ethical institution,” and the real question to ask is this – if USC were to award Ms. Wintour an honorary degree would it be against the ethics of the university? USC’s Mission Statement
describes the mission of the university as “the development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit,” and two of the stated methods of accomplishing this mission are “artistic creation” and “public service.” Ms. Wintour, through her work in the CFDA/Vogue Fund and at Vogue and the Met has combined the two – creating art for the enrichment of society. Although some dismiss fashion as frivolous, it is an enduring part of our lives and a cultural institution that cannot be ignored. Fashion is a form of art as valid as any other, and perhaps even more relevant to our daily lives, considering that we encounter it every day. Additionally, it would be mildly hypocritical of USC to refuse a degree to a leader in fashion based on the industry's rigid standards of beauty when we frequently award degrees to members of the film industry, which certainly has similarly inflexible and unrealistic standards of beauty for its actors.
Freedman argues that honorary degrees are “an opportunity to emphasize an institution’s values" and by awarding a controversial figure an honorary degree the university would probably be questioned about its values (7). Should we refrain from giving a great honor to an extraordinary woman just because she has a reputation for being a ‘bitch’, or because some do not agree with the images in her magazine? In a time where so much of art has been reduced to things that are new or shocking for the sole purpose of being new or shocking, should we criticize someone for trying to uphold one notion of what is beautiful? For an educational institution to have true merit, it cannot simply be a follower, it must also be a leader. We cite the importance of leading specifically in our emphasis on research but cannot we also lead in whom and what we think is worthy of admiration and praise? Why resist forging ties with an extraordinary and powerful woman who has done great things because some will call her names? This cannot be right, and it is not right for a leader in higher learning to bow to critical voices simply because they are loud. It also sends an important message that we value the achievements of women in honoring achievement in a field almost exclusively made up of women.
Although it will probably not be a popular decision, it would be a brave move to award an honorary degree to Ms. Wintour. USC frequently honors members of Hollywood and the arts, but has not yet bestowed an honorary degree on a leader in fashion, which is an art just as relevant as Hollywood, if not more so, since fashion is a daily mode of personal expression. Furthermore, while there are some who decry fashion publications (and Ms. Wintour) for their dedication to rigid norms of beauty, it is important to note that Ms. Wintour herself has defied those notions. She is now 57 years old in an industry that prizes youth as much as it does beauty, and continuing to do her job without allowing anyone to make her age an issue. Additionally, awarding Ms. Wintour an honorary degree would show that we are not afraid to honor the achievements of women even when they are not in traditionally recognized fields, a goal that any person should be able to support. Ms. Wintour is a brave figure who herself has not been afraid to be different, and it has been a remarkably successful path. When considering what those around us and within our community will say if she is selected, however, we should keep this quote
in mind: “[Ms. Wintour] is variously imagined to be brilliant, stupid, an artist, a bully, a hero, a scapegoat, an empowerer and the reason why women suffer from eating disorders. The only thing everyone can agree upon is that she is above fashion because she is fashion.” Whatever the opinions of her character and her personal life are, we can judge her only upon her actions, and those lead to only one conclusion: Ms. Wintour is not only fashion, but the champion of fashion and design.