Like many universities, Seattle University chooses prestigious individuals to receive an honorary degree each year at graduation.
Though not an actual degree, the award is generally meant to be presented to an outstanding individual that the university would like to recognize and invite to make a speech to the graduating students.
“It is a long-held tradition whereby universities recognize individuals for outstanding contributions to society or to universities by bestowing an honorary doctorate and commencement ceremony. Seattle U is one of those universities,” Seattle U Provost Shane Martin said.
Universities are free to choose recipients from a wide range of professions and accomplishments. This flexibility has allowed for other universities to grant honorary awards to many unlikely individuals, ranging from Kermit the Frog to rapper Pitbull.
Sister Helen Prejean is one of the three honorary degree recipients.
Seattle U has created more specific criteria that nominees must meet.
“It’s someone whose life and work has been distinguished and their message to graduates would be aligned with the mission at Seattle U,” Martin said.
For Seattle U, it is important that the selected individual has work or values relevant to the university as they are asked to give a speech.
Recipients may also be chosen if they are well-versed on a topic or general issues relevant to the wider Seattle community during the time of graduation.
The decision process behind who could be considered such an individual is largely up to the president of the university, Father Stephen V. Sundborg, S.J. The Board of Trustees is responsible for reviewing and approving the list of potential candidates.
“They’re there in person giving a commencement speech at graduation, so it has to be someone that’s able to receive the honor,” Martin said.
Depending on the year, the number of honorary degree recipients varies. Once the recipients have been decided upon, Sundborg then invites them to receive the award.
With an incredible line-up of social justice leaders, the university hopes to inspire students one last time before starting the rest of their lives.
The first recipient for the undergraduate ceremony will be Father James Martin, S.J., a well-known speaker and author.
“He is especially noteworthy for a number of reasons. He is the editor of America magazine, author of more than a dozen books, has multiple New York Times best sellers, and more,” Shane said.
One of James’ books, “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity,” stood out to Seattle U and made him a particularly relevant candidate in the eyes of the Board of Trustees.
In the eyes of the university, this book exemplified an issue truly relevant to students by connecting the LGBTQ+ community and the Catholic community. The goal of the book was to open up the conversation between the two communities in a respectful and productive manner.
“It was quite well-received because he was pressing for more dialogue and respect,” Shane said.
“His Jesuit university is the center of resistance. It will be symbolic and powerful to recognize him.”
The second recipient of an honorary degree at the undergraduate ceremony will be Idiaquez, the president of a fellow Jesuit university in Nicaragua.
Seattle U has also been in a formal partnership agreement with Idiaquez’s school, Universidad Centroamericana, since 2014.In the midst of violence at the hands of their own government, Father José Alberto “Chepe” Idiaquez, S.J. has worked hard to maintain Jesuit values of peace and education.
“His Jesuit university is the center of resistance. It will be symbolic and powerful to recognize him,” Shane said.
The final recipient of an honorary degree will be Sister Helen Prejean. The focus of her recent work has been to advocate for death row inmates in an ultimate attempt to overturn the death penalty. Her book “Dead Man Walking” was impactful to many as she shared her experiences from working with multiple death row inmates.
Recently, Washington unanimously ruled the death penalty unconstitutional. For the university, this makes Prejean’s work extremely relevant to the students and Washington residents as a whole.
“She’s an incredible human being who has done an awful lot as a leader of this social justice issue,” Shane said. With an incredible line-up of social justice leaders, the university hopes to inspire students one last time before starting the rest of their lives.
“It’s very impressive we’ve been able to bring this level of talent and leadership to the university for family and friends,” Shane said.
Kristen may be reached at