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Filmmaker, glaciologist, artist to receive honorary degrees May 17

April 23, 2013 By Greg Bump

Honorary degrees will be bestowed on three individuals considered to be pioneers in their fields at UW–Madison commencement in May. One is a groundbreaking documentary filmmaker, another is a trailblazing glaciologist, and the third is a world-renowned glass artist.

Errol Morris, who won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Film in 2003 for “The Fog of War,” is regarded as one of the most innovative and influential filmmakers of his generation.

Richard Alley, the Evan Pugh Professor of Geoscience at Penn State University, has made significant contributions to the study and understanding of climate change through his research on the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.

Dale Chihuly is considered the preeminent artist working in the glass medium today. An example of his work, an installation titled “Mendota Wall,” can be viewed at the Kohl Center.

The honorary degrees, as well as doctoral and professional degrees, will be presented at the 5:30 p.m. commencement ceremony on Friday, May 17 at the Kohl Center. The ceremony is the first of five that will be held that weekend.

Morris will receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree. He has directed 10 documentary features, and his style has changed the practice of how documentary films are made.

Photo: Errol Morris


“Morris’ work is not simply an exercise in aesthetic innovation,” writes Vance Kepley Jr. in his nomination supporting Morris. Kepley is the director of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research and a professor of film in the Department of Communication Arts. “His films probe contemporary social and political issues of the American experience.”

Morris’ film “The Thin Blue Line” explores the circumstances of a wrongful murder conviction in Texas. “Mr. Death” turns the lens toward capital punishment. “The Fog of War” is an examination of the career of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and the policies that shaped the Vietnam War.

Morris is a 1969 graduate of UW–Madison with a bachelor’s degree in history.

Alley received a Ph.D. from UW–Madison in 1987 and joined the Penn State faculty shortly afterward. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2008 and has received numerous awards for his research, including the Seligman Crystal of the International Glaciological Society, the Louis Agassiz Medal of the European Geosciences Union, the Revelle Medal from the American Geophysical Union, and the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement.

Photo: Richard Alley


As a participant in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Alley is also a member of the group that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

In his nomination letter, Department of Geoscience Chair Brad Singer says Alley has made exceptional efforts to bring his research to his students, the public and policymakers.

“He has dedicated himself to explaining this science, and its implications for society, to a broad audience,” Singer says.

Alley will be granted an honorary doctor of science degree.

Chihuly came to the UW in the 1960s to study with Harvey Littleton at what was then the first studio art glass program at a university, Art Department Chair Jim Escalante writes in his nomination of the sculptor.

Photo: Dale Chihuly


The first public exhibition of Chihuly’s art was at the Madison Art Center in 1967, the same year he earned a master of science degree from the UW. He also has a master of fine arts degree in sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Art Design. His work has been displayed worldwide in hundreds of exhibitions and collections.

“No single living artist has done as much for art glass [as] he has,” writes Escalante of Chihuly. “His innovations in production methods, color application and installations in public settings are recognized as groundbreaking. Dale Chihuly is arguably the most prominent glass worker in the United States and quite possibly the world.”

Chihuly will receive an honorary doctor of fine arts degree.