April 1, 2022

Dear Members of the Hobart and William Smith Community,

In light of the situation in Ukraine, I have been working with colleagues at a number of other colleges and universities to jointly award, in absentia, an honorary degree to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

While we do not know of a prior example of such a joint award by higher education institutions in North America, we believe that the initiative is eminently warranted based on: 

  • The unprovoked and reprehensible aggression on Ukraine set in motion by the dictator of Russia, Vladimir Putin.
  • Significance of the threats to civil liberties and the well-being of individuals on account of the Russian aggression to the citizens of Ukraine, Russia and the broader world;
  • The brave example being set by President Zelenskyy and the citizens of Ukraine in defense of freedom and democracy.
  • The critical responsibility that colleges and universities bear in promoting the tenets of a liberal society such as the unalienable rights of individuals to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Surely if anyone embodies a life of consequence at this point in time, as an example to us all, it is President Zelenskyy.

In thinking through this opportunity and what it means for the Colleges, I learned that, second only to the metro NYC area, Rochester has the largest population in the U.S. of Ukrainian immigrants and those who are of Ukrainian descent. The entire Upstate region, including Seneca Falls and Syracuse, is home to many Ukrainians. Thus in awarding this degree to President Zelenskyy, we honor not only his courage but also the bravery of all Ukrainians including those under attack in their country or recently exiled, and those who call Upstate New York home.  

We are actively recruiting other colleges and universities to join our initiative, and so far more than 20 institutions have agreed in principle to participate, subject to their internal processes, including a number of our Liberty League and Upstate colleagues: Alfred, Bard, Canisius, Hilbert, Keuka, Le Moyne, Niagara, the Rochester Institute of Technology and Utica—as well as institutions in California, Connecticut, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia and Canada. After conversation with Board Chair Craig Stine and Allison Morrow, who chairs the Advancement, Communications and Honors Committee of the Board, I have added Hobart and William Smith to this list. A formal vote by the Board on this honorary degree will be forthcoming.

As additional support, Dean of Admissions John Young and I are working on a plan to award a full scholarship to one or more displaced students from Ukraine. We would also be open to housing a displaced Ukrainian scholar on campus, and I have asked Provost and Dean of Faculty Sarah Kirk to work on that initiative. These are first steps towards making the Colleges more open in general to assisting directly displaced students and scholars from around the world.

This is a critical moment in the world fight for democracy and the rights of nations for self-determination. I rely on the long-standing values of this institution to engage in dialogue that is difficult, to stand up for what is right, and to take action so that we can achieve a better future.


Joyce P. Jacobsen