Three outstanding individuals, including a current and a former SMU professor, will receive honorary degrees at the University’s 99th Commencement ceremony Saturday, May 17, in Moody Coliseum.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson and Methodist historian Richard P. Heitzenrater will receive honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degrees. SMU law professor Joseph W. McKnight will receive the honorary Doctor of Laws degree.
Each of the honorary degree recipients will be featured in symposia scheduled for Thursday, May 15 and Friday, May 16. All are free and open to the public.
SMU expects to award more than 2,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees to students at May Commencement.
“Conferring honorary degrees is an important and time-honored Commencement tradition,” said SMU President R. Gerald Turner. “This year’s recipients’ achievements are outstanding examples of what we hope our students will strive to accomplish when pursuing their professional endeavors.”
While writing for The New York Times, Wilkerson became the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism and the first African-American, male or female, to win the Pulitzer for individual reporting. Her award-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns, is a definitive history of the Great Migration of African-Americans from the rural South to urban centers in the North and West. For her achievements as a journalist and contributions to understanding of the African-American experience, SMU will confer upon Wilkerson the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.
Heitzenrater is recognized as the world’s leading authority on John Wesley and early Methodism. His book,Wesley and the People Called Methodists, has been translated into seven languages. He served on the faculty of SMU’s Perkins School of Theology for 16 years and in 2010 retired from the faculty of Duke University Divinity School. He is best known for breaking the secret code of Wesley’s personal diaries, making them available to the world. For his scholarly achievements and his service to SMU, the University will confer upon Heitzenrater the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.
McKnight has made historic contributions to scholarship in legal history and to law reform in Texas. He retires this year from SMU’s law faculty after serving for six decades. The author of six books, he directed the Texas Family Code project, which achieved important reforms, and was principal drafter of the Texas Matrimonial Property Act, recognizing property rights of married women. For his dedicated service to SMU, his distinguished scholarship and his leadership in the legal community, the University will confer upon McKnight the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.
The honorary degree symposia
• McKnight will be featured in a symposium from 3-5 p.m. Thursday, May 15, in the Underwood Law Library. “A Celebration of Joseph Webb McKnight, his Contributions to Texas Law, to Legal History, and to the SMU Dedman School of Law” will include speakers Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht; Chief Justice for the Fifth District Court of Appeals Linda B. Thomas; Josiah M. Daniel, III, Esq., of the law firm of Vinson & Elkins; Professor Joshua C. Tate of the SMU Dedman School of Law; and Peter Winship, the James Cleo Thompson, Sr. Professor of Law in the Dedman School of Law. Dedman Law Interim Dean Julie Forrester will serve as emcee for the event.
• Wilkerson will participate in a symposium from 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m., Friday, May 16, in the Pavilion of Annette Caldwell Simmons Hall. The symposium, “Literature for Real: Journalism, the American Canon, and the Evolving American South,” will include keynote speaker Farah Jasmine Griffin, professor of English/Comparative Literature/African American Studies, Columbia University, and author of Who Set You Flowin’? and Harlem Nocturne. A discussion will include remarks from Wilkerson and feature panelists Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly and author of The Beautiful Struggle; Brittney Cooper, assistant professor of women’s and gender and Africana studies, Rutgers University, and columnist for Salon.com; Daina Ramey Berry, associate professor of history, University of Texas at Austin, and author of Swing the Sickle for the Harvest is Ripe; Walton Muyumba, associate professor of English at the University of North Texas and author of The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism; and moderator Karen Thomas, SMU professor of practice in journalism and Dallas Morning News writer.
• Heitzenrater will be featured in a symposium at 3 p.m., Friday, May 16, in the Great Hall of Elizabeth Perkins Prothro Hall. The symposium, “Grace Works: Reflections on Divine Grace, Human Works, and John Wesley – Celebrating the Scholarly Contributions of Richard P. Heitzenrater,” will include remarks by SMU Perkins School of Theology Dean William B. Lawrence and will feature panelists Ted A. Campbell, associate professor of Church History, Perkins School of Theology, and an ordained United Methodist minister and clergy member of the Texas Annual Conference; Sharon Grant, adjunct faculty in the Religion and Philosophy Department at University of the Incarnate Word, San Antonio, and an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church; Tamara Lewis, instructor in Church History, Perkins School of Theology, and an ordained United Methodist minister and clergy member of the Tennessee Annual Conference; and Andrew C. Thompson, assistant professor of Historical Theology & Wesleyan Studies at Memphis Theological Seminary and an ordained United Methodist minister and clergy member of the Arkansas Annual Conference. Heitzenrater will bring a response to the panel. In addition, an exhibition honoring Heitzenrater will be featured in the Entry Hall of Bridwell Library.