Sesquicentennial Memories

Commencement Speakers: Now and Then

By Michael Smith

Those who were fortunate enough to be present at either The Murray Center or at one of the remote on-campus viewing locations for the College’s Undergraduate Commencement on May 17, 2003 heard what is already being touted as one of the most impressive principal commencement addresses in recent memory. Lieutenant Colonel Martha E. McSally, USAF, in twelve short minutes, had the 5,000 live attendees alternately laughing, on their feet cheering, listening with tightened throats and, most importantly, thinking.

I was fortunate enough to obtain for the College archives the text of the remarks our speaker delivered from the podium. Perhaps I should characterize them as notes. They were jotted on a 2 _ by 4-inch scrap of paper. One side. And two-thirds of the notes consisted of a list of dignitaries I wrote down for her the night before at the Commencement Gala, since it had been quite a while since Lt. Col. McSally had been in her home state, and many of the distinguished platform guests were unknown to her.

Since its earliest years, the College has featured a principal speaker at its commencements, and these illustrious individuals have represented a broad scope of professions and viewpoints. Not all were honorary degree recipients; the practice of awarding honorary degrees was begun in 1926 and has been a continuous tradition only since 1941. Indeed, it has been just since the 1950’s that the principal speaker was also likely to be an honorary degree recipient, although for a variety of reasons – to this very day – it is not a prerequisite that the principal speaker also be a recipient of an honorary degree.

At Rhode Island College, the honorary degree process is highly formalized. While nominations are accepted throughout the year, a widely publicized open call is held throughout the month of October. The Honorary Degrees Committee, established in the By-Laws of the Council of Rhode Island College, accepts the nominations from all members of the College community and deliberates on the respective merits of each nominee. A ballot consisting of the names and biographies of individuals recommended by the Honorary Degrees Committee is then presented to Council, which casts a vote on each recommendation. Candidates receiving a plurality of votes are then submitted to the President of the College, who selects from among these individuals a number to be presented to the Board of Governors for Higher Education. Because the honorary degree is held in all respects to be the equivalent of an earned degree, the faculty (represented by Council) and the Board of Governors must grant approval for each individual.

[Author’s note: Council By-Laws call for the President of the College or designee to serve as the non-voting Chair of the Honorary Degrees Committee. It has been my privilege to serve as President Nazarian’s designee since 1995. During that time, the President has forwarded all recommendations approved by Council to the Board of Governors which has, in turn, approved each of the nominees. For several reasons, frequently involving scheduling conflicts, not all approved nominees are actually conferred their degrees in the year they are approved – and not all honorary degree recipients are prevailed upon to speak.]

In my continuing role as Chair, may I invite all readers of What’s News at Rhode Island College – in effect, the College community – to submit recommendations to me for honorary degree nominees and potential commencement speakers at the College’s Sesquicentennial Commencement. Be assured, it is by no means too early.

Although we have not yet completed our historical inquiry into the full roster of Principal Commencement Speakers at the College (it is one of our Sesquicentennial projects), we have developed enough of a list that we feel may be of interest to our alumni and to the members of the College community. (Additional information is gladly solicited.) Here then, is what we have determined to date:

  • 1899 The Rev. E.H. CAPEN, D.D., President of Tufts College
  • 1902 EDWARD HOWARD GRIGGS, Author of The New Humanism; Chair of the Department of Ethics at Stanford University, and noted Humanist Scholar
  • 1915 WILLIAM H.P. FAUNCE, President of Brown University
  • 1919 JOHN G. THOMPSON, Principal of the Normal School at Fitchburg, Massachusetts
  • 1920 Professor DALLAS LORE SHARP of Boston University
  • 1922 Professor HIRAM BINGHAM of Yale University
  • 1927 SARAH LOUISE ARNOLD, Dean of Simmons College
  • 1929 JOSEPH ASBURY PITMAN, Principal, Salem State Normal School
  • 1930 CORNELIUS EDWIN BROOME, Superintendent of Schools, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • 1932 CHARLES SWAIN THOMAS, Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education
  • 1933 FRANKLIN W. JOHNSON, President of Colby College
  • 1934 Dr. AMBROSE L. SUHRIE, Professor of Teachers College and Normal School Education, New York University
  • 1935 Dr. CLARENCE A. BARBOUR, President of Brown University
  • 1936 EDMUND W. FLYNN, Presiding Justice of the RI Superior Court
  • 1938 JAMES F. ROCKETT, Rhode Island Director (formerly known as Commissioner) of Education
  • 1942 Dr. PATRICK J. SULLIVAN, Director, Division of Elementary & Secondary Education and State Teachers Colleges, Massachusetts Department of Education
  • 1943 Dr. DONALD D. DURRELL, Dean of the School of Education at Boston University
  • 1944 IMRE KOVACS
  • 1945 Dr. STEPHEN C.Y. PAN
  • 1946 Governor JOHN O. PASTORE
  • 1947 Dr. LESLIE PINCKNEY, President of State Teachers College, Cheney, Pennsylvania.
  • 1948 Ms. BONARO WILKINSON OVERSTREET, author, poet, and psychologist
  • 1949 Dr. ETHEL J. ALPENFELS, Professor of Anthropology at New York University
  • 1950 ERNEST O. MELBY, Dean of the School of Education, New York University
  • 1951 Miss CORMA MOWREY, President of the National Education Association
  • 1952 Dr. JOHN H. FURBAY, Educational Director, Trans World Airlines
  • 1953 Dr. TIMOTHY M. STINNET, head of the National Commission on Teacher Education and Professional Standards of the NEA
  • 1954 HAROLD R. MEDINA, Judge, US Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit (New York City)
  • 1955 HENRY STEELE COMMAGER, Educator, Author, Historian; Professor of History at Columbia University
  • 1956 WILMA ANDERSON KERBY-MILLER, Dean of Instruction, Radcliff College
  • 1957 DORA VALENTINE SMITH, Professor of English Education, University of Minnesota
  • 1958 NORMAN COUSINS, Historian, Journalist, Author; editor of Saturday Review
  • 1959 LOUIS MARTIN LYONS, Curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, Harvard University
  • 1960 ROBERT J. SLAVIN, President of Providence College
  • 1961 United States Senator JOHN O. PASTORE
  • 1962 JOHN EDWARD FOGARTY, Member, US Congress
  • 1964 ANTHONY J. CELEBREZZE, Secretary of the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare
  • 1965 KENNETH B. KEATING, Former United States Senator, State of New York
  • 1966 JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH, Economist, Author, former Advisor to President Kennedy
  • 1967 JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN, Professor of History, University of Chicago
  • 1968 DAVID H. SUSSKIND, Nationally Broadcast News Reporter and Anchor
  • 1969 ARTHUR MEIER SCHELSINGER, JR., Historian, Author, Professor, former Advisor to President Kennedy
  • 1971 WILLIAM F. FLANAGAN, First President of Rhode Island Junior College, former Graduate Director at RIC (Graduate Commencement)
  • 1971 ROBERT F. DRINAN, S.J., Member, United States Congress (Undergraduate Commencement)
  • 1972 HOMER D. BABBIDGE, JR., President, University of Connecticut (Graduate Commencement)
  • 1972 D. HAROLD TAYLOR, Former President, Sarah Lawrence College (Undergraduate Commencement)
  • 1973 SIDNEY P. MARLAND, JR., Assistant Secretary for Education, United States Department of Health, Education & Welfare (Graduate Commencement)
  • 1973 JOSEPH R. WEISBERGER, Newly appointed Presiding Justice of the Rhode Island Superior Court (Undergraduate Commencement)
  • 1974 DANIEL J. BOORSTIN, Senior Historian, Smithsonian Institution; Professor of American History, University of Chicago (Graduate Commencement)
  • 1974 HARVEY G. COX, JR., Victor S. Thomas Professor of Divinity, Harvard University (Undergraduate Commencement)
  • 1975 MARTHA PETERSON, President, Barnard College (Graduate Commencement)
  • 1975 JAMES A. HOUSTON, Author and Artist (Undergraduate Commencement)
  • 1976 GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB, Professor of History, Graduate School, City University of New York (Graduate Commencement)
  • 1976 CARL BRIDENBAUGH, Historian, Author, Teacher (Undergraduate Commencement)
  • 1977 EVERETT I. MENDELSOHN, Professor of the History of Science, Harvard University (Graduate Commencement)
  • 1977 ALAN SIMPSON, Historian, Author, Educator; President, Vassar College (Undergraduate Commencement)
  • 1978 VIRGINIA B. SMITH, President, Vassar College, Attorney (Graduate Commencement)
  • 1978 WILLIAM H. MCNEILL, Milliken Distinguished Service Professor of History, University of Chicago (Undergraduate Commencement)
  • 1979 JULIAN JAYNES, Author, Teacher, Lecturer, Department of Psychology, Princeton University (Graduate Commencement)
  • 1979 CATHY GUISEWITE, Cartoonist, Comic Strip “Cathy” (Undergraduate Commencement)
  • 1980 ALBERT SHANKER, President, American Federation of Teachers (Graduate Commencement)
  • 1980 ROBERT P. STRAETZ, Chairman of the Board and CEO, Textron (Undergraduate Commencement)
  • 1981 WILBUR J. COHEN, Former Secretary, US Dept. of Health, Education & Welfare (Graduate Commencement)
  • 1981 CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, Correspondent, The MacNeil-Lehrer Report (Undergraduate Commencement)
  • 1982 RONALD E. STENNING, Director, US Program for Church World Service (Winter Commencement)
  • 1982 JAMES HADLEY BILLINGTON, Director, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (Spring Commencement)
  • 1983 ARLENE CROCE, Dance Critic, The New Yorker (Winter Commencement)
  • 1983 PAULINE M. HARTINGTON, Commander, Naval Training Center, Orlando, RIC ’53 (Spring Commencement)
  • 1984 GENE I. MAEROFF, Education Writer, New York Times (Winter Commencement)
  • 1984 CLARA B. HEIRONYMOUS, Chair, American Theater Critics Association (Spring Commencement)
  • 1985 THOMAS R. PETERSON, O.P., President, Providence College (Winter Commencement)
  • 1985 CHARLES V. WILLIE, Professor of Education & Urban Studies, Harvard University (Spring Commencement)
  • 1986 ALICE B. GIBNEY, Associate Judge, Rhode Island Superior Court (Winter Commencement)
  • 1986 JAMES SCHEVILL, Poet and Playwright (Spring Commencement)
  • 1987 DAVID MACAULAY, Author, Architectural Illustrator, Graphic Designer (Winter Commencement)
  • 1987 ALEXANDER W. ASTIN, Director, Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA (Spring Commencement)
  • 1988 EUGENE M. LANG, Businessman, Founder, I Have a Dream Foundation (Winter Commencement)
  • 1988 REATHA CLARK KING, President, Metropolitan State University (Spring Commencement)
  • 1989 MARTIN HABERMAN, National Authority on Teacher Education Standards (Winter Commencement)
  • 1989 JOHN O. PASTORE, MD, Secretary, Int’l Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (Spring Commencement)
  • 1990 AMERICO W. PETROCELLI, Rhode Island Commissioner of Higher Education (Winter Commencement)
  • 1990 RICHARD M. OSTER, President and CEO, Cookson America; Chair, Rhode Island Convention Center Authority (Spring Commencement)
  • 1991 GILBERT M. GROSVENOR, President and Chairman, the National Geographic Society (Spring Commencement) [NOTE: There was no Principal Speaker at the 1991 Winter Commencement]
  • 1992 DIANA GOLDEN, Disabled Olympic gold-medal ski racer (Winter Commencement)
  • 1992 JOHN COLLINS QUINN, Providence-born retired Editor-in-Chief of USA Today (Spring Commencement)
  • 1993 ROBERT DeBLOIS, A quadriplegic, founder of the Urban Collaborative Accelerated Program (Spring Commencement)
  • 1994 LT. COL. SPANN WATSON, Aviation pioneer, helped develop integration plan for armed forces (Graduate Commencement)
  • 1994 THE MUIR STRING QUARTET: STEVEN A. ANSELL, BAYLA KEYES, MICHAEL PATRICK REYNOLDS, PETER A. ZAZOFSKY (Undergraduate Commencement)
  • 1995 JUDITH K. SWEENEY, Curator of Education, Museum of Natural History, Roger Williams Park (Graduate Commencement)
  • 1995 HARM J. DEBLIJ, Noted Geographer, Geography Editor for ABC’s “Good Morning America” (Undergraduate Commencement)
  • 1996 JAY G. LINDGREN, JR., Director of the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families (Graduate Commencement)
  • 1996 IRVING R. LEVINE, Retired NBC News Economics Editor and foreign correspondent (Undergraduate Commencement)
  • 1997 JOSEPH A. ALMAGNO, School Administrator, Public Servant, Teacher (Graduate Commencement)
  • 1997 JUSTIN DART, JR., Crusader for those with Disabilities, Father of the ADA (Undergraduate Commencement)
  • 1998 PAUL LEWIS BINDER, Founder and Artistic Director, The Big Apple Circus (Graduate Commencement)
  • 1998 SPAULDING GRAY, Monologist, Performance Artist, Writer, Actor (Undergraduate Commencement)
  • 1999 ALAN SHAWN FEINSTEIN, Philanthropist; Founder, World Hunger Campaign; Service Learning Advocate (Graduate Commencement)
  • 1999 JOHN F. REED, United States Senator (Undergraduate Commencement)
  • 2000 MILLARD DEAN FULLER, Founder and President, Habitat for Humanity International (Graduate Commencement)
  • 2000 GORDON M. AMBACH, Executive Director, Council of Chief State School Officers (Undergraduate Commencement)
  • 2001 MICHAEL STEVEN HARPER, Renowned Poet, Author, Brown Professor; Rhode Island’s First Poet Laureate (Graduate Commencement)
  • 2001 STEPHEN ALLEN JANGER, Founder, President, and CEO, Close Up Foundation (Undergraduate Commencement)
  • 2002 LORNA DUPHINEY EDUMNDSON, President, Wilson College; Rhode Island College Class of 1964 (Graduate Commencement)
  • 2002 JAMES R. LANGEVIN, United States Congress, Rhode Island College Class of 1990 (Undergraduate Commencement)
  • 2003 JEREMIAH S. JEREMIAH, JR., Chief Judge, Rhode Island Family Court; established Drug, Truancy, and Domestic Abuse Courts (Graduate Commencement)
  • 2003 MARTHA ELIZABETH McSALLY, Lt. Colonel, USAF; A-10 pilot; first American woman to fly in combat over enemy territory; successfully challenged “abaya” rule with unanimous vote of US House and Senate (Undergraduate Commencement)

In each edition of What’s News at Rhode Island College during the course of the College’s Sesquicentennial observance, Michael Smith, Assistant to the President, presents a brief glimpse of an historic College event that occurred at some point in the institution’s history corresponding to the publication date of that particular edition of What’s News. This is the sixth installment. The author gratefully acknowledges the contributions of Marlene Lopes, Special Collections Librarian, for her assistance with the research. Much of the information for this series is available from the College Archives, located in Adams Library 416.


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