Honorary degree recipients span range of experiences, professions

by Rachel Pakianathan | 4/19/19 2:00am

At the Class of 2019 commencement ceremony on June 9, Dartmouth will award seven honorary degrees to individuals in the arts, athletics, law and sciences. Three Doctorates of Humane Letters, three Doctorates of Arts and one Doctorate of Science will be awarded. 

Cellist and main commencement speaker Yo-Yo Ma will receive a Doctor of Arts at the ceremony. The other honorary degree recipients are current senior adviser to baseball operations for the Oakland Athletics Richard “Sandy” Alderson ’69, astrophysicist and director of the National Science Foundation France Córdova, executive director and co-founder of the International Refugee Assistance project Rebecca Heller ’05, environmental attorney Hilary Tompkins ’90 and architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, who were responsible for the recent renovation of the Hood Museum of Art.

“When I got the call from [College President] Phil Hanlon — which was completely unexpected — it was very similar to when I received my acceptance letter to Dartmouth back in 1980,” Tompkins said. “I had a feeling of complete disbelief and ... a sense of entering a new world or new chapter of my life that I never imagined possible.”

Once a government major at the College, Tompkins currently practices natural resources, environmental and Indian law. She most recently served as solicitor for the U.S. Department of the Interior from 2009 to 2017. Tompkins previously served as counsel to New Mexico governor Bill Richardson (D) for five years. She will be awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters. 

Heller, another government major, will also be awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters. She currently serves as the executive director of the International Refugee Assistance Project. For Heller’s work with IRAP, she received a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2018. At the College, Heller started a project called Harvest for the Hungry to address food security issues in the Upper Valley and was one of six students nationwide to win the Campus Compact Howard R. Swearer Student Humanitarian Award.

Heller said that she didn’t know what an honorary degree was when President Hanlon first called her to tell her the news, but said she was excited to learn that she was being recognized.

“When he told me Dartmouth might want to give me an honorary degree, I said, ‘I’m sorry if this is a very ignorant question, but I thought I already had a degree from Dartmouth,’” she said. “And he very patiently explained that this was a doctorate, and I was very excited.”

Tsien and Williams are a husband-and-wife duo who began working together in 1977 and co-founded their firm in 1986. In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded both of them the National Medal of Arts, and they will be designing the Barack Obama Presidential Library to open in 2020. The duo began work on the $50 million renovation and expansion of the Hood in 2016, and the doors opened to the public this January. They will both receive a Doctor of Arts. 

“We’re both really grateful and excited. In many ways, we feel like we’re part of a Dartmouth family,” Tsien said. 

Williams added that he and Tsien have a personal attachment to Hanover. 

“Coming back to Hanover is like being asked to come home,” he said. “Sure, we fought really hard to get this thing done, but now I’m sure its part of our lives forever. Not because of the honorary degree but because we left our hearts and souls there and we did the best we could.”

Alderson, a senior advisor to baseball operations for the Athletics, previously served as the team’s general manager from 1983 to 1997. During his time there, the Athletics won the World Series in 1989. At the College, Alderson was a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and Dragon senior society. At Commencement, Alderson will receive a Doctor of Humane Letters. 

Córdova, who has served as NSF director since March 2014, will be awarded a Doctor of Science. She has previously served as the 11th president of Purdue University. From 1993 to 1996, Córdova was the youngest person and first woman to be NASA’s chief scientist, and in 1996, she was a recipient of NASA’s highest honor, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. 

Speaking about the Class of 2019, Tompkins stressed the importance of striving for goals outside of one’s comfort zone, even if they appear to be intimidating.  

“Even though you might be different or feel like an outsider sometimes — be it on an Ivy League campus, in certain jobs that you hold, sitting at a conference room table and feeling like you’re different than the majority of folks sitting at that table — that you should feel like you belong and that your voice does matter,” she said. “I think it’s easy to be intimidated or fearful of change or assuming a role that might make you feel uneasy, or out of your league so to speak, and those are the kind of roles you need to go after.”

Heller added that she thinks it is important for recent graduates to take time to explore their options.  

“Don’t get too freaked out by the allure of shiny ambitious objects that you don’t spend the time now finding out what you like and what you’re good at,” Heller said. “Because otherwise you’re going to have a mid-life crisis in 20 years.”

Both Heller and Tompkins said they are excited to return to Hanover this June. 

“If heaven exists, it probably looks a little something like a tube on the Connecticut River in August,” Heller said. 

Cassandra Thomas ’22 contributed reporting.