2017 Honorary Degree recipients include new faces, former Columbia leaders

By Ariana Portalatin, Campus Editor

The Honorary Degree Recipients for this year’s commencement ceremonies were revealed in an April 12 collegewide email from President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim.

The recipients include theater director David Cromer; Mark Kelly, Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events commissioner and former Vice President of  Student Success; renowned painter Kerry James Marshall; and founders of the Matthew Shepard Foundation Judy and Dennis Shepard. The late Board of Trustees Chairman Dick Kiphart will also be honored with a posthumous degree, received by his widow Susan Kiphart.

Kim said the process for choosing the recipients, who will deliver a speech during the commencement ceremonies, was different than previous years because it was the first year without Kelly at the college. Kelly  was previously part of the

process of choosing the recipients before becoming the DCASE commissioner.

“In other schools, it is a very long, multi-year process, and people make recommendations, but ours is thinking more about the speech, the personality and what will work for our students and who we believe are deserving of the degree,” Kim said.

Kelly, who worked at Columbia for 32 years and was responsible for planning the commencement ceremony for more than 15 years before leaving the college in July 2016, said the offer to be an honorary degree recipient “floored” him. 

“It is a very important moment for me and possibly the last time I will be speaking publicly at Columbia,” Kelly said. “It is going to be one of the most special moments in my professional life.” 

The commencement ceremonies are both a celebration for graduates and the Columbia community, Kelly said.

“It is an event that captures the spirit of Columbia,” Kelly said. “You get a sense of the power of our graduates, and that they are ready to go out into the world, and the ceremony reflects all of that.” 

Both Judy and Dennis Shepard said they were surprised and honored to be chosen as recipients. The couple started the Matthew Shepard Foundation after their late son was a victim of an LGBTQ-related hate crime in 1998, according to the foundation’s website. The foundation currently works to continue Matthew Shepard’s passion for facilitating a more caring world. 

“I want them to realize that [students] are our future and they need to work, live and enjoy their lives as they go through it,” said Dennis Shepard, a Nebraska native. “Being an old country boy, to receive an honor like this from a place like Chicago is a thrill to me. I can’t wait to see all the happy faces.” 

Susan Kiphart said she was thrilled to hear Columbia wanted to honor her late husband and said she will enjoy speaking on his behalf. She added that she is looking forward to speaking to students who may not have known about his work with the college, a place he loved. Dick Kiphart served as the chairman of the board of trustees from 2013 to 2016. He died Sept. 10, 2016, as reported Sept. 19, 2016, by The Chronicle.

“He was very impressed by Columbia and the students,” Susan Kiphart said. “He went to many commencements, and he would come home and tell me stories about the students and people he’d met and he loved it, so it’s wonderful.”

Cromer and James Marshall could not be reached for comment as of press time.

It is important that the degree recipients reflect the ideas of the college and have experience with engagement in the world, Kim said.

“Columbia has that really strong focus on issues of social justice and community involvement and engagement,” Kim said. “I try to find people whose work furthers that idea; that what is important is for young creatives to think about their role in the world and how that active engagement with the world becomes part of their practice.”

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