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Saint Mary’s begins search for 2021 commencement speaker, honorary degree recipients

| Thursday, January 30, 2020

The office of Interim College President Nancy Nekvasil is beginning to plan for honors to be given at commencement for the class of 2021.

In an email sent to the junior class Jan. 14, the Office of the President announced it is accepting nominations for a commencement speaker and honorary degree recipients for commencement 2021. The email included a link for students to submit their nominations, which are due Monday.

Cristina Interiano | The Observer

A direct connection to the College is not necessarily required in order for a person to be awarded an honorary degree.

“Criteria for awarding an honorary degree include recognized intellectual and professional attainment, significant contributions to the enhancement of Saint Mary’s College, and/or contribution to other recognized organizations in the city, state or world,” the email said.

Once the names of nominees have been collected, research is conducted by several organizations within the College, according to Michelle Egan, special assistant to the president.

“Nominees are researched by the President’s office,” Egan said in an email. “A list is then sent to the College’s full academic leadership council for its membership to review.”

Once this list has been generated and analyzed by the academic leadership council, a committee within the Board of Trustees is given the opportunity to weigh in.

“Based on their feedback, the list of recommended candidates is then sent to the trusteeship committee of the Board of Trustees,” Egan said. “The trusteeship committee reviews the list and may add additional candidates.”

Following the trusteeship committee’s review and potential additions, the matter is then passed on to the full Board of Trustees.

“The Board of Trustees then approves candidates for honorary degrees during their April board meeting,” Egan said.

Though nominees can begin from student suggestions and are then reviewed by these institutions, the final decision lies in the hands of one person.

“The final selection of upcoming honorary degree recipients [and] commencement speaker is ultimately made by the president of the College.”

Although the process for 2021 selection has begun, the commencement speaker and honorary degree recipients for 2020 have not yet been announced.

“An announcement is traditionally made following the February Board of Trustees meeting,” Egan said.

In 2019, the College presented commencement speaker Kelly Grier — a 1991 alumna — and Sister Maureen Grady — a senior lecturer of nursing science — with honorary degrees.

The College awards a variety of honorary degrees, choosing them according to each recipient’s field.

“Differing honorary degrees are conferred depending on the focus of the person’s profession [and] life work,” Egan said. “For instance, over the years, Saint Mary’s has awarded doctorates of letters, doctorates of humanities, doctorates of law, doctorates of fine arts … just to name a few.”

According to a press release announcing the degrees Grier and Grady received, the College’s “highest honor” is an honorary doctor of humanities degree.

“Saint Mary’s has honored so many impressive women and men (lay and religious) who have made significant contributions to our society and our world,” Egan said.

Other recipients of honorary degrees from the College include fiction author Lois Lowry in 2010, former board of regents member Patricia George Decio in 1996 and Bruno P. Schlesinger, who established the department of humanistic studies at the College in 1994.

Junior humanistic studies major Sarah Catherine Caldwell said she believes Schlesinger was particularly deserving of an honorary degree for his contributions to the College.

“I think that he has changed so many Saint Mary’s women’s lives,” she said. “I come alive in my humanistic studies classes, and I have him to thank for that.”

Junior Brynne Volpe said she didn’t know about Lowry’s honorary degree but is pleased to know a writer she admires so much received the award, especially as an English literature major.

“Her work was a huge part of my childhood and was really formative for my love of reading,” Volpe said.

As for the commencement speaker nominations for 2021, there are students with strong opinions about who should be chosen. Caldwell said she submitted a nomination and knows of several other students who named the same person.

“Personally, I would like to have Greta Gerwig be our commencement speaker, specifically for her work in ‘Little Women,’” Caldwell said.

The 2020 honorary degree recipients will be announced following the February Board of Trustees meeting.

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