By Matthew Gulick
This year the University will grant four individuals honorary degrees: a former student, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, a landmark civil rights litigator and a local indigenous rights activist. A tradition of each academic year, Puget Sound awards these honors to the commencement speaker and individuals who embody, in word and in practice, the University’s ideals.
Though the convention is to award three doctoral degrees, this year the University decided to make an exception and honor Elizabeth Ann Breysse, class of 2017, with a posthumous honorary bachelor’s degree. Breysse passed away on Dec. 31 2015. In a campus-wide email announcing the degrees, President Isiaah Crawford wrote that “Liz was a bright star among her student, faculty, and staff colleagues and friends on campus, and will be remembered for her academic contributions, life in Pi Beta Phi, love of music and sports, and more.” Her family will be presented with the award at the ceremony.
“When I think of Liz in the context of UPS, I think of an insanely loud athletics supporter, an enthusiastic friend-maker, and a passionate member of every club and organization she was a part of, and she was a part of a ton. Liz’s contagious laughter and spirit reached every corner of campus and if anyone deserves an honorary degree, it’s her. Liz was a Logger through and through,” said Mary Brehove ‘17, a close friend of Breysse.
Commencement speaker Timothy Egan will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. Egan, a lifelong journalist and author of eight books, shared the 2001 Pulitzer with a team of New York Times journalists for their series “How Race is Lived in America.” His non-fiction book on the Dust Bowl, “The Worst Hard Time” won the 2006 National Book Award. He currently contributes to the New York Times with an online opinion column on politics and life as seen from the West Coast. The author and journalist is a graduate of the University of Washington and lives in Seattle.
Egan told The Trail that it is a “huge honor” for him as a Northwest native “to get a chance to say a few words at one of the great universities in our corner of the world.”
“We’re living in historic times, and may not even realize it. I hope my remarks will touch on some positive ways to get through this period when so much of what had been taken for granted seems to be at risk,” he said.
Another degree recipient, Fred D. Gray, will be named an honorary Doctor of Laws. Born in Montgomery Alabama in 1930, Gray grew up in the segregated American south.
In addition to being a licensed preacher, he studied law at Case Western Reserve and went on to represent Rosa Parks against the City of Montgomery in the landmark desegregation case, Martin Luther King Jr. against the state of Alabama, and plaintiffs of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study v. the federal government in 1972. Gray was one of the first African-American members of the Alabama legislature since reconstruction and the first African-American president of the Alabama State Bar Association. Currently Gray serves as the senior partner in the law firm Gray, Langford, Sapp, McGowan, Gray, Gray & Nathanson in Montgomery, Alabama. He is the author of two books, his autobiography Bus Ride to Justice and The Tuskegee Syphilis Study.
Georgiana Kautz, natural resources manager of the Nisqually Tribe, will receive an honorary Doctor of Science. She is a longtime member of the Nisqually Council for the reservation, located about 25 miles away from the University of Puget Sound. Her office of natural resources led a massive estuary restoration process — 410 acres at the Nisqually Estuary and 750 acres of the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.
Kautz grew up as one of 11 children in a two-room house with no electricity or running water. Steeped in the fishing tradition of her tribe, when the salmon runs became diminished she fought as an activist alongside her family to ensure the traditional treaty rights of their people. The efforts of Kautz and her tribe affirmed their fishing rights and position as co-managers of the salmon run in the 1974 Boldt decision, granted in accordance with their ceded land in the Medicine Creek treaty. Kautz comes to campus as a guest lecturer to teach Environmental Policy students of this case in social justice and natural resource management.
“Honorands Fred D. Gray and Georgiana Kautz have made indelible contributions to the advancement of civil rights and environmental justice. Moreover, they have provided noteworthy leadership and service to their local communities,” said professor Susan Owen, a faculty member of the selection committee.
Puget Sound gives out honorary degrees every year as voted on by the Committee on Honorary Degrees. Nine members constitute the committee: two faculty members, two trustees (appointed by the chair of the Board), two students (one of whom must be the senior class senator) and two alumni appointed by the Alumni Council Executive Committee.
Senior class senator and committee member Kyle Chong stressed that “these degrees are the highest honor the University can bestow.”
“The honorands fulfill the University’s mission statement through their deeds and actions. It’s not just that they’re famous or influential or that they’re political, but rather that they do something substantive to further the goals of the University,” Chong said. In this way, the University recognizes outstanding individuals for their achievements and re-emphasizes the values of the institution. Puget Sound’s mission statement can be found on the University website.
The committee’s bylaws, also accessible online, sketch the process by which they select honorands. Beginning in the fall of the academic year, the committee will meet and assess proposed candidates based on the bylaw guidelines, giving each candidate a thorough review as they narrow down the prospective field. The committee will meet multiple times over the course of the year before making their final decision.
Honorary degrees for 2017 will be conferred at the University’s 125th Commencement Ceremony on May 14.