Allegheny announces 2017 commencement speakers

Allegheny College’s 2017 Commencement Ceremony will feature Paula Kerger, president and CEO of the Public Broadcasting Service, and Vivien Li, president and CEO of Riverlife, as honorary degree recipients.

Kerger and Li will each receive an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the college, and both will speak at the annual Honorands Dinner the evening before the Commencement Ceremony. The dinner, according to President James Mullen, is attended by the Allegheny College Board of Trustees, faculty representatives and members of student government. He said it allows the honorees to speak about their experiences with students, prior to speaking at the ceremony.

“What we are really hoping to recognize with the honorary degree is an individual who has represented the values of Allegheny,” Mullen said. “A commitment to learning throughout one’s lifetime, distinguished service to community, exceptional achievement in their profession or field, those are the kind of qualities that we look for.”

Recent honorary degree recipients have included Michael Beschloss and Vicki Lipnic in 2016, Dan and Patricia Rooney in 2015, Arnold Palmer and former Pennsylvania governor and United States Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge in 2012 and Henry and Patricia Bush Tippie in 2011.

Mullen said Kerger and Li will be regarded among these other honorees as representatives of Allegheny values.

“Both our recipients this year are exceptional national figures,” Mullen said.

The process of selecting honorees begins with nominations submitted to the Office of the President by members of the Allegheny community, according to Provost and Dean of the College Ron Cole.

“[Mullen] accepts nominations and then the faculty ultimately vote on honorary degrees,” Cole said.

After the president receives nominations or suggestions, they are initially presented to the Faculty Council, an elected body of faculty members that generally oversees other college committees, collaborates with the Office of the President and Dean of the College about policies and discusses honorary degree recipients. The Faculty Council currently consists of seven faculty in addition to Cole and Mullen.

Once honoree nominations have been discussed by the Faculty Council, the nominations are brought to the faculty as a whole for a vote and those nominations that are voted forward proceed to the college Board of Trustees for final approval, Mullen said.

Beth Choate, professor of environmental science and member of the Faculty Council, said the Council usually receives brief biographies of honorary degree candidates to drive the Council’s conversation.

“It’s generally not a contentious discussion in many cases,” Choate said. “These are people who have done really awesome things.”

The nominations of Kerger and Li stood out because of their respective accomplishments in public service, Mullen said.

“Paula Kerger has been — for many years — one of the most respected figures in public life,” Mullen said. “She has been a spokesperson for lifelong learning through PBS, for civil discussion and debate, innovative programming — in terms of the types of programs that PBS has brought forward. She’s a truly national leader in communication in this country.”

Kerger has been the president and CEO of PBS since 2006.

“[In her time leading the organization] she has made particularly strong commitments to the arts, news and public affairs, high-quality educational content for children and the classroom, diversity and the use of new digital platforms to bring public media into the lives of all Americans,” according to the PBS website.

Kerger is also the president of the PBS Foundation, a nonprofit and supporting organization of PBS. The organization focuses its funding on four main ideas — arts and culture, education and children’s programming, news and public affairs and science and nature, according to the foundation’s website.

Since 2015, Li has been the president and CEO of Riverlife, a Pittsburgh based nonprofit that works with local groups to create accessible riverfront spaces. The organization has developed Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Park System and sponsored several projects within the system since Riverlife’s founding in 1999.

Li has also served as the chair of the Boston Conservation Commission and was active in several environmental and architectural organizations in Massachusetts and New Jersey before taking the Riverlife position, according to Li’s biography on the Riverlife website.

“[Li] has had a distinguished public life in Massachusetts, and now in Pittsburgh,” Mullen said. “She is, in my mind, the consummate public servant.”

Both Kerger and Li will receive the same honorary distinction and speak at the Honorands Dinner, but Kerger will address the class of 2017, their families, friends and professors at the Commencement Ceremony, Mullen said.

“It’s very important I think, that an honorary degree recipient should inspire us all by their life example, particularly the students who are graduating,” Mullen said. “To look at an individual whose receiving an honorary degree and be able to say: that’s a life example worthy of trying to emulate.”

Weather permitting, the Commencement Ceremony will take place on the southern lawn of Bentley Hall between Bentley Hall and Schultz Banquet Hall, at 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 13.