While Stony Brook celebrates its 63rd Commencement ceremony this May, the University has only been presenting honorary degrees since 1983. Here is a short list of some of the luminaries who have received that honor over the course of the past forty years:
American scientist and cytogeneticist Barbara McClintock was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Stony Brook, for her contributions to biology. Later that same year she was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery in the 1940s and ’50s of mobile genetic elements, or “jumping genes,” work she did while at nearby Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
The famed artist received her only honorary degree, in fine arts, in 1984. She agreed to be present at the May 20 ceremony, but was unable to attend due to ill health. Special arrangements were made for her to receive the degree in absentia. She died a month later, on June 19. Terence Netter, the founding director of the Fine Arts Center, who was a longtime friend of Krasner’s, nominated her for the award. He would also receive an honorary degree from Stony Brook in 2012.
When writer and feminist Betty Friedan was bestowed with an honorary doctorate in humane letters, her commencement remarks made The New York Times as she accused the Reagan Administration of regressing from the gains made in democracy “over the last 20 years.”
The author of The Feminine Mystique and longtime activist for women’s rights received her honor for enabling women to ”present effective opposition to the political, legal and social barriers that stood in the way of equality.”
Author Umberto Eco, professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna in Italy and a major contemporary philosopher, received an honorary doctorate of humane letters. He wrote The Name of the Rose, a worldwide best selling work of fiction, later turned into a film with Sean Connery and Christian Slater. Eco participated in Stony Brook’s 1985-86 Distinguished University Lecture Series.
Long Island’s Piano Man, William Martin Joel, received a Doctor of Music in honor of his, of course, legendary contributions to music, but also for his commitment to the New York State and the people of Long Island. Joel has had a long relationship with Stony Brook, dating back to the 1990s where he once donated pianos to our fine arts program following the loss of ours in a flood.
Michael J. Fox
Beloved actor Michael J. Fox received an honorary doctorate in fine arts for the impact he has made on the world as an actor and as a humanitarian through the creation of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. He was lauded for how he faced challenges with optimism and humor, and how through his courage, inspired a generation to do its part to make a difference.
World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma received an honorary doctorate of music at a special ceremony in March 2022, prior to his appearance at the Staller Center’s annual gala. He received the award for the indelible mark he has made on our society and for his passion for music and commitment to arts education.