Commencement 2014: Three alumni receive honorary degrees
By John Brhel, Steve Seepersaud and Eric Coker
Binghamton University celebrated the achievements of three alumni with honorary degrees from the State University of New York during Commencement weekend.
Carol C. Harter '64, MA '67, PhD '70; Eric P. Schwartz '79; and Deborah Gray White '71, were honored at the Doctoral Hooding Ceremony on May 16. Harter and White received the doctor of humane letters, while Schwartz received the doctor of laws.
Translating Dante Alighieri's epic poem "The Divine Comedy" for a class taught by Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Italian and Comparative Literature Aldo Bernardo was difficult, said Carol Harter. But it was challenges like this that made her education at the then fledgling Harpur College so enriching.
"Every class I took was hard," said academic administrator and English language educator Harter. "It was hard in the best way. They were really trying to build this first-class institution that had a core curriculum that was extremely challenging and wonderfully broad."
The education she received at what was then just a "little dream school" was the springboard for what would become a long and illustrious career for the honorary degree recipient, and one of many firsts. Along with being the first female to earn three English degrees from Binghamton University – and the second female to earn her PhD from Binghamton – she was also the first female vice president at Ohio University, the first female president of the State University of New York College at Geneseo and the first female president of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV).
But back before she increased enrollment at UNLV from about 18,000 to 28,000 students, or had a day declared in her honor by the governor of Nevada, Harter was a struggling young student in debt, and a new parent at that. She's immensely thankful for faculty like Bernardo, Mario DiCesare, John Hagopian and Bernie Huppé, who took her under their wing and gave her the motivation to pursue advanced degrees.
"The real reason I stayed and did the PhD was because of the wonderful faculty I had there," said Harter. "They were just terrific, and they kept encouraging me along and saying 'Yes, you can get a master's' and then, 'Yes, you can get a PhD.'"
While Harter didn't go on to a career as an English professor or another more in line with her academic background, she said that her time at Binghamton helped shape her worldview, which in turn had a large impact on her career as an administrator.
"That great education that I had, while of course it doesn't help you do major budgeting or fundraising, it certainly is part of who you are as a human being," said Harter. "Part of the way you think of the world comes from your academic background, and I had such a good one and such a rich one. I think all of that made me the kind of person the people wanted to have as a president."
Now that her days as president are behind her, Harter is getting the chance to explore literature on an in-depth level again as executive director of the Black Mountain Institute at UNLV, an international center for creative writers and scholars. She credits her education at Binghamton University, where she did her dissertation on the American writer William Faulkner, with giving her the strong background in literature necessary to assume such a role.
"Much of my career has been administrative," said Harter. "To be able to come back to my literary roots for the last eight years and have the kind of depth and breadth of knowledge that I still have is because of the education I got at Binghamton. I had an absolutely first-rate education. I'd put it up against what anybody else would have had."
See a video of Carol's speech at Commencement.
In a public service career that spanned more than 25 years, Eric Schwartz has held positions at the White House and the United Nations, and traveled all over the world. Schwartz said he owes much of his success to what was then a smaller university that was just beginning to make its name known far beyond the Southern Tier.
Schwartz, now dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, was excited to return to campus to receive his honorary degree.
"My experiences at Binghamton were so rich and rewarding, and set me on a career in public service that has been so gratifying," Schwartz said. "I cannot think of an honor that would give me more joy."
From 1993 to 2001, Schwartz was at the National Security Council in the White House, ultimately as senior director and special assistant to the president for multilateral and humanitarian affairs. He managed responses on international humanitarian, human rights and rule of law issues, as well as United Nations affairs. He later served as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's deputy special envoy for tsunami recovery. And, prior to his arrival at the University of Minnesota, he was U.S. assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration, managing a $1.85 billion budget, as well as State Department policy and programs for U.S. refugee admissions and U.S. international assistance worldwide.
"As a still-new dean of the Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota, I appreciate keenly the value of an extraordinary public institution in promoting the ideal of academic excellence, and access and mobility for all American young people, and it only strengthens my sense of appreciation for my years at Binghamton," Schwartz said.
The Commencement ceremony was his second visit to campus within the past year. Last September, Schwartz gave a presentation at the Watters Theater focusing on the role of the United States and the international community in responding to crises, promoting peace and saving lives. His audience of nearly 100 included students, faculty, staff, alumni and members of the local community. The event was co-sponsored by the Binghamton University Alumni Association, Department of Political Science and the student group Dorm Room Diplomacy.
In addition to policy development on humanitarian intervention, Schwartz discussed U.S. overseas humanitarian assistance policy, and commended members of Congress for their support, noting that the U.S. provides a huge percentage of the world's humanitarian aid.
"They always gave us more than we asked for, [and] our track record of providing humanitarian assistance is something that Americans can feel pretty proud of," he said.
Ben Sheridan, a senior majoring in political science, and vice president of Dorm Room Diplomacy International, worked with Schwartz to organize the September event. He said the two bonded over world politics, and that Schwartz is a worthy recipient of an honorary degree.
"Eric has set the bar quite high for Binghamton students who are committed to public service," Sheridan said. "He has dedicated himself to his work and has a wealth of leadership experience in some of the world's most unstable regions. Not only do his accomplishments as a diplomat and policymaker feature some of the world's most prestigious institutions and think tanks, he also takes on the role of educator and remains devoted to his alma mater. Working to bring him to Binghamton with Dorm Room Diplomacy in 2013 remains one of my prized experiences in college."
See a video of Eric's speech.
Deborah Gray White
For historian, professor and writer Deborah Gray White '71, being a part of the first class of Binghamton's Special Admission program "made all the difference in the world."
"Had it not been for Special Admission, I probably would've gone to one of the city universities," she said.
In 1967, White was one of a half-dozen students to enter the school through the program that would later become known as the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). The students soon demanded an expansion of the program, White said.
"The first thing we did was protest for more students," she said. "We wanted more of us. We were urban, city kids and we never thought of Binghamton as a real city. The environment was so different from anything we had experienced."
The program added more students the next year and continued to grow in numbers and stature over the next five decades.
"It made a difference in bringing people to campus who looked like, thought like me and were urban like me," White said of the students' actions. "It made me feel more comfortable."
Like many college campuses, protests were not uncommon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, at what was then called SUNY Binghamton. Classes were often shut down because of Vietnam War demonstrations, White said.
"Besides the diploma and an ability to play tennis, what I took away from Binghamton was a sense that if you demonstrate and protest enough, things happen," said White, who graduated from Binghamton with a degree in history. "There were no African-American history courses. I was in the cohort that demonstrated for them. Lo and behold, we got African-American history courses. When you're 18, 19, 20 and 21, I'm not sure you know what you know. When I look back now, I'd say that I learned to speak up."
White, who received her master's degree from Columbia University and her doctorate from the University of Illinois at Chicago, would go on to a career in which she would highlight African-American and American women's history. Her 1985 book, "Ar'n't I A Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South," was designated by the Organization of American Historians as one of the 100 most admired history books.
Now the Board of Governors Professor of History at Rutgers University, White's latest project is called "''Can't We Get Along': The Cultural Awakenings of the 1990's." The book will examine the history of the 1990s by looking at mass marches and outdoor gatherings. White is finishing the last chapter of the book, which she expects to be released in 2015.
"I see the 1990s as a postmodern period where Americans are searching for a new identity and they are expressing it in all kinds of ways," she said. "I'm looking at all of the marches: Promise Keepers, Million Man March, Million Mom March – and showing just how alienated people were. They were so alienated that they had to come together in these great big outdoor gatherings looking for some new identity."
White said she sees her honorary degree from Binghamton University as a recognition for the work she has done in the historical profession over the past quarter century.
"Certainly, Harpur College gave me that foundation," she said.
See a video of Deborah's speech.
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