University of Vermont

University Communications

Billie Jean King Sends off Class of 2011 at UVM's 207th Commencement

(Photo: Sally McCay)

Tennis legend Billie Jean King served up three pieces of advice to grads at Sunday's commencement ceremony: No. 1: Learn how to learn. No. 2: Relationships are everything. No. 3: Be a problem solver.

"Study history," King said, elaborating on her first point. "The more you know about history, the more you know yourself." One of Life magazine’s 100 most important Americans in the 20th century, King changed history when, in 1973, she beat former champion Bobby Riggs in The Battle of the Sexes, sending a strong message for gender equality at a time when, King noted on Sunday, women couldn't get their own credit cards.

On her second point -- relationships are everything -- King told graduates, "You'll never know how you'll touch another person's life or how they'll touch yours." As an example, she told the story of meeting Elton John. Although both were initially too shy to say hello (a fact that seemed impossible to King, who idolized the musician), they were introduced when they attended the same party weeks before King's fateful match against Riggs and became close friends, remaining so today.

Celebrities and stars aside, King said, everyone needs "she-roes and heroes," adding that professors, parents, siblings and coaches are among the most important people in our lives.  

Toward the end of her remarks, King cited Nelson Mandela as an example of how to live life as a problem solver. Visiting his cell on Robben Island, said King, who has herself worked on behalf of social change and equality for women and those in the LGBT community, was among the most profound experiences of her life.

Closing out her time at the podium, King pulled out a racket, and with Elton John's "Philadelphia Freedom" playing on the speakers -- a song he dedicated to her -- she lobbed more than a dozen tennis balls to the crowd.

Approximately 8,000 people gathered to celebrate this year's commencement, the 207th in the university's history. Originally scheduled to take place on the University Green, the ceremony was moved inside to the Multipurpose Facility in the Athletic Complex -- not, as board chair Robert Cioffi quipped in his opening remarks, to make King feel more at home on the indoor tennis courts, but because record rainfall this spring had left the Green too soggy to accommodate the event.

In his comments, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin noted this year's extreme weather in Vermont -- from a long, cold winter to this spring's historic flooding of Lake Champlain -- as a palpable reminder to students of the "responsibility and obligation of dealing with climate change."

President Daniel Mark Fogel's remarks celebrated the student efforts that have made UVM what it is today, from a fledgling recycling program 20 years ago to student activism that "pushed the campus toward levels of diversity that some would have never thought possible."

"Hold on," Fogel said, "to what you feel now -- the optimism and energy, the open mind and sense of possibility of a new college graduate."

At this year's ceremonies, approximately 3,097 graduates received diplomas, including 2,475 bachelor's, 392 master's, 97 doctoral and 111 M.D. degree recipients, in addition to 22 post-baccalaureate certificates. Degree recipients hail from an estimated 43 states and 19 countries. Approximately 1,235 graduates are from Vermont. The graduating class includes an expected 229 African, Latino/a, Asian and Native American (ALANA) and bi/multi-racial students.

In addition to King, the university conferred honorary degrees on seven other individuals who have had a positive impact on the state, university and nation: Letitia C. Biddle, Major General Michael D. Dubie, Bruce Lisman, Keith M. Miser, Dr. Thomas J. Sullivan, Professor Emerita Marion Brown Thorpe, and Simon Pearce. Read full bios of each of the degree recipients.

During the ceremony, the UVM Alumni Association presented the annual George V. Kidder Outstanding Faculty Award for excellence in teaching to Stephanie Kaza, professor of environmental studies. Kaza, who has been actively engaged in campus sustainability initiatives to reduce waste, conserve energy and promote environmental values, teaches courses with a focus in the environmental humanities.

Three faculty members were added to the ranks of University Distinguished Professor: Jerold Lucey, professor of pediatrics; Brooke Mossman, professor of pathology; and Susan Wallace, professor and chair of the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. The distinction, begun in 2009, carries with it rights to use the title for the duration of their careers at UVM; an annual stipend for scholarly pursuits; and service as an informal advisory board to the university administration.

Eight students were honored with five university awards. Claire Chevrier won the Mary Jean Simpson Award, honoring the senior woman who exhibits the highest qualities of leadership, academic competence and character; Bryce Jones won the F.T. Kidder Medal, honoring the senior man ranking first in character, leadership and scholarship; Jason DePatie and Kimberley Davy won the Class of 1967 Award, presented to seniors who best exhibit leadership, academic competence and character, and who have earned the respect of faculty and fellow students; Briana Martin and Kofi Mensah won the Keith M. Miser Leadership Award, recognizing outstanding service to the university; and Gregory Herman and Haylley Johnson won the Elmer Nicholson Achievement Prize, recognizing the greatness of the students' UVM experiences and the expectation that they will make a major contributions in their fields of interest.