St. Olaf College presented an honorary degree to playwright, actress and educator Anna Deavere Smith on Thursday, April 4. The ceremony, which took place in Boe Chapel, followed two presentations by Smith on Wednesday, April 3.
“[Smith’s] work embodies the academic, literary, artistic, and humanitarian mission of St. Olaf College in deep and meaningful ways,” Professor of Theater Karen Wilson ’77 wrote in a nominating letter for Smith.
Honorary degrees are awarded to non-alumni of St. Olaf College whose academic, literary, artistic or humanitarian work embodies the mission of the College, Associate Professor and sitting chair of the Faculty Life Committee Adam Berliner said.
The Faculty Life Committee oversees the honorary degree nomination process, where individual faculty members, departments or programs that wish to nominate an individual submit a letter of nomination, the candidate’s curriculum vitae, one or more confidential letters of recommendation and other supportive material to the committee for review.
Berliner presented the committee’s recommendation of Anna Deavere Smith to President David Anderson ’74, who approved the nomination and presented it to the St. Olaf faculty for a set of two votes. After successfully passing the two votes, the Board of Regents confirmed Smith’s recommendation and agreed to present her with the honorary degree.
Smith is an actress, playwright, teacher and author who has written and performed many pieces of theater, television shows and films. The most recent play written by Smith, “Notes from the Field,” received accolades from The New York Times and Time Magazine as one of the best pieces of theater of 2016.
Smith has received numerous individual accolades throughout her career. She was named the Jefferson Lecturer in 2015, received the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for achievement in the arts in 2013 and was awarded the National Endowment for the Humanities Medal by former President Barack Obama in 2012.
As an educator, Smith is the founding director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at New York University, where she is also University Professor at the Tisch School of the Arts.
Smith gave two presentations to St. Olaf on Wednesday, April 3 before her award ceremony the following day.
The first event was a student workshop titled, “The Art of Listening.” Students worked with Smith directly, learning how to listen and engage with others in more meaningful and constructive ways.
During the second event, a 50-minute performance by Smith in Boe Chapel titled “Engaging the World,” Smith presented her unique theatrical style to members of the St. Olaf community. Recounting discussions she has had with activists, politicians and artists, Smith acted out the role of each subject by mimicking their unique intonations and dialects. She shared the stories of these individuals to highlight the importance of civic engagement in the world. Smith received a standing ovation after her performance.
Smith received her honorary degree in a brief ceremony in Boe Chapel on the morning of Thursday, April 4. The ceremony and presentation of the degree was an affirmation of Smith’s exceptional embodiment of the unique mission of St. Olaf College.