Student Life Archives (2001-2008)

Six to receive honorary degrees at Commencement

Courtesy of WUSTL Photo Services

Six scholars, each with expertise in a different field, will receive honorary degrees at Washington University’s 147th Commencement Ceremony on May 16.

The recipients include Chris Matthews, a political commentator on MSNBC who will also give the Commencement address; Quincy Jones, a music composer and film and television producer; Lee Seng Tee, a business executive and philanthropist of the arts; Washington University Professor Egon Schwarz, an expert in 19th and 20th century German literature; Jessie Ternberg, a professor emeritus of pediatrics and pediatric surgery at the University who helped open the door for women into the medical profession; and Phyllis Schlafly, a national leader of the conservative movement.

Schlafly’s distinction in particular has received attention, causing some to criticize the University for what they see as implicit support of her views, some of which have aroused controversy.

In response to her impending award, more than 780 students have joined a Facebook group entitled “No honorary doctorate for anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly.” The group targets Schlafly’s stances on feminism, marital rape and sex education, saying that they do not “fit with the future [of] the men and women of Wash. U.’s graduating class,” and that her presence at Commencement will be “incongruous at best, offensive at worst.”

Chancellor Mark Wrighton, however-who confirmed the selection of the recipients-says that Schlafly’s accomplishments and fame merit the honorary degree.

“Her contributions have inspired women and she certainly is a leader,” Wrighton said. “She is well known on a national level for the conservative movement.”

Wrighton added that though many-including himself-may disagree with Schlafly’s views, her writings have value in that they serve to enliven the national political discourse.

“I would not myself agree with her political views,” he said. “When you step back from it you have to admire her for working for the great democracy that we enjoy. She’s a prominent leader and a prominent woman, and she happens to be a conservative.”

In selecting the honorees, Wrighton said, the University Board of Trustees pays more attention to the success of a candidate’s career than to the reactions that the candidate’s work has elicited.

“[What is] most important is to select people who have made a difference in the world, who have accomplished vision and distinction in the world,” Wrighton said.

While there are many criteria that the Board examines in the selection process, Wrighton said that special attention is paid to honoring a group whose contributions have touched many areas of life, academic and otherwise.

“When you look at the people being honored, we are spanning a wide spectrum of intellectual activity,” Wrighton said. “We are privileged to be honoring all of these individuals because they made contributions in different areas. Each person has a special element in their contribution that distinguishes them.”

A factor that holds less weight in the Board’s calculus when determining the recipients, however, is their past relationships with the University. Three of this year’s six awardees-Schwarz, Schlafly and Ternberg-come from the University, and Schlafly is a native of St. Louis.

Ternberg, who received a medical degree from the University School of Medicine in 1953, was the first female surgeon on the University’s faculty and the first woman to be head of its faculty council. She was also the first female surgical resident at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

Ternberg credits the University for her success as a female pioneer in the field of medicine.

“[The University has] been my career,” she said. “The opportunities that it afforded me were unique. When I was trying to get into another surgery program, they were all closed to women.”

By that same token, Ternberg hopes that her impending award will inspire other women to break barriers and help them in doing so.

“For women of my generation it was a wonderful thing,” she said of her work at the University. “For women of today I hope it opens the way for them a little better than when I started off.”

Although she is now retired, Ternberg maintains a connection with the medical school.

“I’m not separated totally [from the school],” she said. “It’s your life, it’s what you enjoy. People are much happier when they get up in the morning and they know what they’re doing. For me it’s been that way the whole time.”

Wrighton hopes that the graduates will see Ternberg and the other recipients as examples of how to lead careers that help them and those around them.

“The most important message is that the work of single individuals can have a profound and positive impact on the lives of many people,” Wrighton said. “Each of the graduates has enormous talent. I hope that talent will be applied to benefiting people.”

For information about the protest against Phyllis Schlafly, see this article

Print This Post Print This Post

No Comments Yet

You can be the first to comment!

Student Life is the independent student newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis. Keep in touch with Washington University by subscribing to an RSS feed of our stories or an RSS feed of our comments. Privacy Policy | Comments Policy | Web Policy