Birmingham-Southern College celebrates final commencement ceremony

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Birmingham-Southern College held its final commencement ceremony on Friday, May 24, in Bill Battle Coliseum, celebrating 245 members of the Class of 2024 and awarding eight honorary degrees, one of which was a surprise to the honoree.

Each speaker – including Board of Trustees Chair Rev. Keith Thompson ’83 and 16th President Daniel B. Coleman – referenced the tenacity resilience this class has demonstrated from its first days on campus at the peak of the pandemic to the last 18 months of uncertainty about the College’s future.

“Do not tell me that today’s young people do not have the grit of previous generations,” said Coleman. “I give you the last class of Birmingham-Southern College – a class that embodies the ideals of the College, ideals held for 168 years. I give you the Class of 2024.”

Honorary degrees

Honorary degrees, which are voted upon by the faculty, were conferred on eight people, including three elected officials who worked tirelessly to save BSC. (Comments from BSC Provost Dr. Laura K. Stultz are in quotations below.)

  • Sen. James T. Waggoner, Jr. ’60, who has distinguished himself as a member of the Alabama Legislature, serving in both the House of Representatives and, since 1990, the Alabama Senate. “Over the last two years, his longtime loyalty to the College has been especially evident in his heroic efforts to secure funding that would have ensured BSC’s future. “
  • Sen. Rodger Mell Smitherman, who is serving his fifth term as an Alabama state senator. “He represents the district in which BSC resides, leads the Jefferson County Legislative delegation and has been a tireless champion of the College, especially during the last two years.”
  • Birmingham Mayor Randall L. Woodfin, “whose vision for what Birmingham is – and what this city can be — has brought vitality and progress to the Magic City. His appreciation for the value of having an excellent liberal arts college within the city led him to join the effort to save Birmingham-Southern, leading to an infusion of funding that allowed us to stay open through spring 2024.”

Rev. Thompson, senior pastor at Canterbury United Methodist Church, and Joelle James Phillips ’89 of Nashville, vice chair of the BSC board recently retired after 10 years as president of AT&T Tennessee, also received honorary doctorates in recognition of their professional accomplishments and their leadership and service to BSC.

Dr. Guy Ward Hubbs, Professor Emeritus of Library Science and the College’s archivist from 1999-2015, received an honorary doctorate in recognition of his devotion to documenting the history of the College from its earliest beginnings through its impending closure. His work ensures that the story of Birmingham-Southern College will be available to future generations of historians.

Dr. Robert J. Lerer of Cincinnati, Ohio, is a graduate of BSC and an honors graduate of Johns Hopkins University Medical School who has been named a Distinguished Alumnus by both institutions. He served as commissioner of public health in Cincinnati for 42 years while practicing and teaching pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. “During the pandemic, he provided guidance and support to BSC that allowed the College to safely provide in-person instruction when most colleges were fully remote. In retirement, he continues to travel the world delivering medical supplies and providing compassionate care in places where both are desperately needed. He receives this honorary doctorate in absentia, as he is in Cuba delivering a lecture to primary care providers.”

An honorary doctorate was awarded to the late Anne Liles Berte, “BSC’s longest-serving and deeply loved First Lady who passed away in December 2023. A graduate of the University of Cincinnati, where she met her future husband, President Emeritus Dr. Neal Berte, in the library. Her name is and will rightly remain as closely associated with Birmingham-Southern College as is Dr. Berte’s, for they served the College side-by-side for nearly three decades. A warm and gracious presence, Mrs. Berte made an impact on the life of everyone she met, especially our students, many of whom found a surrogate mother at the President’s Home, where she raised her own four children.”

A surprise honorary degree

To his surprise, Coleman also received an honorary doctorate. A graduate of Yale University and the University of Chicago, he spent more than 30 years in executive roles in the global finance industry in New York and Chicago before returning to his hometown of Birmingham in 2017. In December 2018, he became BSC’s 16th President.

“From that day through this one, his commitment to our College has never wavered,” Thompson said. “Having inherited a daunting situation not of his own making, he persisted, day after day, believing to his core that Birmingham and Alabama and indeed the world needed BSC.

“His deep devotion to the students, faculty, and staff has been evident at every turn. And his example of leadership has delivered the most important lesson we will all take away from our time on the Hilltop: Find a fight worth fighting and then give it everything you have. When you do, no matter the outcome, you will have served with honor.”

The Class of 2024

Some 245 degrees were conferred, including 75 Bachelor of Arts degrees, three Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees, and 145 Bachelor of Science degrees.

Additional recognition was given to the following students:

  • Robert Hewlin Jackson Meritorious Scholarship Award: Marylise Adelaide Bridges, Chandler Frazier Campbell, AnnaRuth Dorris Davis and Zachary Hagan Roberts
  • Robert Hewlin Jackson Achievement Award: Conner Lee Thornburg
  • Phi Beta Kappa: Marylise Adelaide Bridges, Lydia Glenn, Eleanor Estes, Evan Michael Garrett, Sara Elise Guven, Sara Elizabeth Hill, Kendall Landen Johnson, Mary Rives Marques, Gia Subedi, Madison Sage Taylor and Nicole Villavicencio-Garduno
  • Donald C. Harrison Honors Program Senior Scholars: Marylise Adelaide Bridges and Zachary Hagan Roberts
  • Distinction In Leadership Studies: Chandler Frazier Campbell, Chloe Faith Carignan Grant Thomas Ezekiel, Isabella Renee Furgason, Angela Matthews Jackson, Cade Sabastian Marino, Emily Hope Parvin and Lillian Taylor Williamson.
  • Distinction In Poverty Studies: Lydia Glenn Eleanor Estes, Lindsey Noelle Hitchcock and Trey Alexander Lemmo
  • Distinction In Black Studies: Matthew Lafayette Dale

Dr. Jessica Yeakle Allen, assistant professor of psychology, was named Outstanding Educator of the Year.

Commencement speakers were Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Greta Valenti and Willliam Graham Spencer ’16, Managing Director of EAB, a Washington, D.C.-based education consulting company. Spencer delivered a welcome to graduates on behalf of the BSC alumni community.