The Graduate Center to Award Three Honorary Degrees and President's Distinguished Alumni Medal

NEWS Press Release

MEDIA Contact:  Tanya Domi,, 212-817-7283.
The Graduate Center to Award Three Honorary Degrees and Distinguished Alumni Medal at its 52nd Commencement; 654 Graduates Receiving Advanced Degrees

Dennis Liotta named Alumni Medal recipient for developing life-saving HIV/AIDS drugs
NEW YORK, May 23, 2016—The Graduate Center, City University of New York, will confer three honorary degrees and the President’s Distinguished Alumni Medal as part of its Fifty-Second Commencement Exercises on Friday, June 3, at New York City’s iconic Lincoln Center, President Chase F. Robinson announced.

Renowned artist Lorna Simpson; writer, art expert, and philanthropist Reba White Williams; and digital media pioneer Curtis Wong have been selected as this year's honorary degree recipients. Dennis C. Liotta (Ph.D. Chemistry, 1974), the chemist who developed life-saving drugs for HIV and AIDS, will receive the 2016 President's Distinguished Alumni Medal. 

Doctoral degrees from more than 30 programs in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences will be awarded to 477 graduates. Master’s degrees will be awarded to 177 graduating students. The Graduate Center’s Class of 2016 has a strong international presence represented by 36 countries, ranging from Albania to Singapore.

For interesting human interest stories about 2016 graduates, see #GCStories.

Lorna Simpson, who will be awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, is a boundary-pushing artist whose work has been heralded as “refined and impassioned” by The New York Times. Simpson first achieved national prominence in the 1980s with large-scale works that drew on photography and text to confront the topic of race. Today, Simpson is known internationally for her provocative works that address concepts of gender, ethnicity, culture, and identity.

She was born in Brooklyn, attended the High School of Art and Design and the School of Visual Arts in New York, and received an M.F.A. from the University of California, San Diego. She started as a documentary street photographer; later, she composed photographs in her studio.
By the mid-1980s, Simpson was celebrated as a pioneer of conceptual photography. A decade later, she was creating multi-panel works, printed on felt. More recently, she has expanded to include film and video. Her work has been widely exhibited by museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 2007, the Whitney Museum of American Art presented a 20-year retrospective of her work.

Reba White Williams, who will be awarded the Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa,  has had a wide and varied career — as an expert on fine art prints, a mystery writer, and a philanthropist. Williams was raised in Mississippi, Tennessee, and North Carolina, and earned her Bachelor of Arts from Duke University. After graduation, she moved to New York City, where she hoped to make it as a fiction writer. Instead, she began writing articles on art, business, and finance.

She went on to earn an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School in 1970, where she was one of 30 women in her graduating class; an M.A. in Art History from Hunter College; and a Ph.D. in Art History from the Graduate Center. She also received an M.A. in Fiction Writing from Antioch University. Her writing has appeared in American Artist, Art and Auction, Print Quarterly, and Journal of the Print World. More recently, she fulfilled her dream of writing fiction; she is the author of four mystery novels.

In the mid-1970s, Williams and her husband, Dave H. Williams, began to collect American fine-art prints, focusing on the early 20th century. Over the next three decades, they had amassed a collection of more than 5,000 prints, most of which they donated to the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 2008.

Curtis Wong, who will be awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, is principal researcher at Microsoft Research, as well as an inventor and creator devoted to the future of digital media and interactive for learning. He has been granted 57 patents, in areas ranging from data visualization and user interaction to media browsing and automated cinematography.

His recent work has included leading Microsoft’s interactive spatial-temporal data visualization efforts in Excel, which allows users to gain insight from the patterns of data rendered on a map over time. In 2008, he fulfilled a long-held dream: leading the vision for the WorldWide Telescope, a free, rich interactive virtual simulation that allows children of all ages to explore and understand the universe. Millions of kids of all ages around the world have used the WorldWide Telescope, known as WWT, to learn about astronomy from scientists and educators, and the PBS station WGBH was awarded a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation to leverage WWT for science education.

Before joining Microsoft, Wong was the Director at Intel Productions in Silicon Valley, where he developed the first broadband major art museum exhibition network on the Web in 1998; it featured 3D recreations of art exhibitions at the Whitney Museum, the National Gallery of Art, and other museums. His work has received numerous honors throughout his career, including the first Interactive Television Emmy nomination in 2002, a British Academy Award for Online Learning, and several New York Film Festivals Gold Medals. 

Dennis C. Liotta, who obtained his Ph.D. in Chemistry from the Graduate Center in 1974, is this year’s President’s Distinguished Alumni Medal recipient. Liotta helped develop a component of the combination therapy that is the standard for treating patients with HIV, and has been credited with saving and extending many lives. According to estimates from Emory University, where he is the executive director for the Emory Institute for Drug Development, more than nine out of 10 patients with HIV have taken a drug developed by Liotta,

His medical breakthroughs have not been limited to AIDS research. Liotta discovered the first drug approved for the treatment of hepatitis B, and a pharmaceutical company he founded went on to develop what is now the first-line therapy for treating hepatitis C. Other biotech companies founded by Liotta are researching potential treatments for various types of cancer, stroke, and traumatic brain injuries.

Liotta also founded a series of outreach programs in South Africa, including a scholar exchange program that offers postdoctoral researchers and graduate students the chance to spend a year at pharmaceutical companies in the United States and Europe. He has received many awards for his teaching and research, including Emory’s Thomas Jefferson Award.

For more information or interview requests, media should contact Tanya Domi, Director of Media Relations, and 212-817-7283.

About the Graduate Center
The Graduate Center (GC) is the principal doctorate-granting institution of the City University of New York (CUNY). Positioned at the center of the largest urban public university in America, the GC capitalizes on a networked relationship with CUNY colleges that enriches our faculty and students alike. With a core faculty of 140 scholar-teachers, and another 1,600 affiliated faculty, we boast over 35 doctoral and master’s programs and some 20 research centers, institutes and initiatives. Every year, GC students teach over 200,000 CUNY undergraduates, with another 150,000 undergraduates taught by GC alumni in virtually every college and university across the City.  Through its public programs, the Graduate Center enhances the City’s intellectual and cultural life. Visit to learn more.

Submitted on: MAY 24, 2016

Category: Press Room