Kent State Confers Honorary Degree Upon Alumnus Willard Jenkins

Kent State University has conferred a Doctor of Humane Letters honorary degree upon alumnus and art advocate Willard Jenkins, during the 10 a.m. Commencement ceremony on May 11.

In presenting the honor to Jenkins, Melody Tankersley, Ph.D., Kent State’s senior vice president and provost, said it was with great pleasure to recognize Jenkins for his “extraordinary contributions in promulgating jazz music and its importance to American culture and in advancing Kent State University.”

Kent State customarily awards the Doctor of Humane Letters to a person distinguished in the humanities. Jenkins is artistic director of the DC Jazz Festival and host of the "Ancient/Future" program on WPFW radio in Washington, D.C.

A 1973 graduate of Kent State, Jenkins thanked the university for the honorary degree and providing the opportunity for him to participate in a commencement ceremony. When Jenkins earned his bachelor of arts in sociology, he took 26 credit hours in his final quarter and did not participate in a ceremony. 

“This is an extremely meaningful place for me,” Jenkins said. “I am of the late ’60s/early ’70s generation of student protest at Kent State University, and it’s such a pleasure to come back and be honored in this way.”

Kent State alumnus Willard Jenkins receives a Doctor of Humane Letters honorary degree from Kent State President Todd Diacon and Senior Vice President and Provost Melody Tankersley

Jenkins acknowledged E. Timothy Moore, who was “a very important person in my life and my matriculation here at Kent State,” Jenkins said. Moore, Associate Dean Emeritus in Kent State’s College of Arts and Sciences and Associate Professor Emeritus in the Department of Pan-African Studies (now the Department of Africana Studies), passed away in 2021.

Jenkins also gave special thanks to the brothers of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc., Psi Gamma Chapter at Kent State, which was his “original listening audience for my pursuit of this music.”

During a career spanning more than 50 years, Willard has made a tremendous impact on the jazz field as an artistic director, writer, broadcaster, educator, arts advocate and oral historian.

He has won prestigious awards, including the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives Award for Excellence in 2011, the Jazz Journalists Association Jazz Hero Award in 2013 and the Jazz Awards Lifetime Achievement in Journalism in 2013. Most recently, he was a 2024 recipient of the A.B. Spellman National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy, the highest honor the nation bestows upon jazz artists.

Jenkins accepted his honorary degree before graduating students from Kent State’s College of Aeronautics and Engineering, College of the Arts and College of Nursing. The students received individual name recognition and participated in the conferral of degrees and tassel-turning ceremony.

He urged the students if they encounter tough times in the future to remember how they persevered at Kent State. And he had a bit of advice for returning students.

“For you students of Kent State University, please maintain this campus as a bastion of free speech,” he said. 

Commencement ceremonies for all colleges and degrees on the Kent Campus were held May 9-11 at the Memorial Athletic and Convocation Center. The Commencement for graduating students from Kent State’s College of Podiatric Medicine will take place May 17 at Cartwright Hall. 

POSTED: Wednesday, May 15, 2024 03:01 PM
Updated: Thursday, May 16, 2024 01:15 PM
April McClellan-Copeland
Rami Daud