Every graduating student is special, but members of the class of 2017 had extra reason to feel proud: They graduated during Willamette University’s 175th year.
On May 14, the university held three commencement ceremonies to recognize the graduates of the Atkinson School of Management, the College of Law and the College of Liberal Arts (CLA). The ceremonies were held in a large tent on the Quad — the same location where, generations ago, earlier Willamette students helped dig clay to fashion bricks for the construction of Waller Hall.
Family members and friends packed the tent to celebrate their students’ achievements. Carrying sunglasses and umbrellas, attendees were prepared for summer or fall, sunshine or rain — and the Oregon weather didn’t disappoint. Occasional downpours gave way to blue skies and sunshine by the end of the day.
Cheers, claps and whistles filled the tent as gown-clad students paraded in, accompanied by bagpipes and drums from the Clan Macleay Pipe Band of Portland. Music students in the Willamette University Commencement Band, the Male Ensemble and the Tandem a capella group also performed during the CLA celebration.
CLA commencement speaker and Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist Leonard Pitts Jr — also the recipient of a honorary degree this year — earned a standing ovation.
Talking about the “lost art of thinking” in a world where “alternative facts” increasingly hold sway, he urged the new graduates to make full use of their liberal arts education in order to think critically and to reject assumptions and “situational ethics.” Without consensus on basic facts, he noted, it is impossible for people to find common ground and a way forward past disagreements.
“Class of 2017, I honor your excellence not simply for the hard work and perseverance it represents,” he said, “but for what it affirms about the primacy of facts.”
Citing Willamette’s motto, “Not unto ourselves alone are we born,” Pitts told students, “We are all bound to each other, and we owe a debt of service to each other. … But most of all, offer yourselves as an example of what it means to be a thinking human being. The goal is not to win the argument; it’s to find the truth and then the courage to live it.”
After the College of Liberal Arts students walked onto the stage to accept their degrees in the final commencement ceremony, President Steve Thorsett offered a valedictory address in which he thanked them for their efforts to improve Willamette and encouraged them to challenge and change the wider world in the same way.
In addition to honoring Pitts, the university also conferred honorary degrees on longtime public servant, entrepreneur and author Gerald “Gerry” Frank and Delores Pigsley ‘90, chair of the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz. President Thorsett also conferred emeriti diplomas upon retiring faculty members Todd P. Silverstein (chemistry), J. Gary Tallman (biology), Cathleen L. Whiting (economics) and David A. Douglass (civic communication and media).
The College of Liberal Arts conferred 374 degrees, with 370 students receiving a Bachelor of Arts and four receiving a Bachelor of Music. The Atkinson Graduate School of Management graduated 82 students from the Early Career and Career Change MBA on Sunday and 51 students in August and January from the MBA for Professionals program. The College of Law graduated 109 students, with 100 receiving a Doctor of Jurisprudence, three receiving a Master of Laws and six receiving a Master of Legal Studies. Some of the law degrees were conferred in August and January.
The College of Law welcomed Michael D. Levelle JD'90, president of the Oregon State Bar and special counsel at Sussman Shank Attorneys, LLP as its commencement speaker. The Atkinson Graduate School of Management presented its annual Glenn L. Jackson Leadership Award to Sandra McDonough, president and chief executive officer of the Portland Business Alliance, who also gave the commencement address.