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College Declines to Award Posthumous Honorary Degree to Legacy Watkins ’18

Emily Messer ’20, News Editor

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A petition to grant Legacy Watkins ’18, who was a junior at Dickinson College when she passed away while studying abroad in Cameroon, Africa, an honorary degree in Africana studies has been circulated by Watkins’ family despite the college’s decision to award her with a certificate of achievement.  The college claims that such a degree would be “against their policy to award honorary undergraduate degrees to students who have passed before reaching the credits required,” according to William Merrick, Watkins’ stepfather.

As a member of the class of 2018, Watkins’ classmates will be graduating this May, and in the petition her parents “plead for Dickinson to allow Legacy to graduate with her class and award her an Honorary Undergraduate Degree in African[a] Studies, for all [that] she has done and all that they know, she would have done.”

The college, however, does not plan to grant Watkins an honorary  degree, regardless of the petition, because, according to Dickinson College President Margee Ensign, “An honorary degree may be conferred upon an individual who satisfies one or more of the following criteria: Pioneering contribution in an area related to the mission of the college, advancement of learning in the arts and sciences and for the common good [or] relationships with or connection to the college, including distinguished service or accomplishment as alumni,” criteria that Watkins does not meet because “while Legacy was a remarkable young woman, she was just beginning the second semester of her junior year when she died.”   

The college does, however, plan to “recognize Legacy’s contributions to Dickinson at the Baccalaureate Ceremony and will present her family with a certificate,” said Ensign.  This certificate, she emphasized, is “a new tradition” and will “acknowledge Legacy’s participation in and contributions to both the Dickinson and Carlisle communities.”

In the past, “flowers have been placed on the stage for the commencement ceremony and the President has recognized the student during the opening remarks,” continued Ensign.  This, along with the college’s “tradition of honoring deceased students with a tree or a bench” are also planned to honor Watkins, whose tree will be planted “soon” and “be dedicated after the Baccalaureate Ceremony with a plaque that has been commissioned by Student Senate.”

Vice President of Finance and Administration Bronte’ Burleigh-Jones spoke with Merrick before the petition was circulated.  She said that during their conversation, Merrick “made me aware that the family was going to pursue whatever means necessary to secure [Watkins’] diploma.”

Burleigh-Jones then “explained the college’s policy to Mr. Merrick during the call and outlined the additional measures that the college was putting into place to honor Legacy at the Baccalaureate Ceremony on Saturday.  He expressed appreciation for our intended efforts and said that he looked forward to being here to participate in the ceremony with the full family, but indicated that he was going to pursue every possible means to secure a degree for Legacy.”

Burleigh-Jones maintained that she and Merrick “ended the call in a very positive manner” and that the petition “came as no surprise.”

Merrick believes that Watkins should receive an honorary degree because of her dedication to the school.  “Legacy wasn’t just a student at Dickinson,” he said, “but she was a staple at Dickinson. Not only was she dedicated to achieving academic excellence at Dickinson, she [wore] her school’s flag with pride, involving herself and participating in whatever school programs she could and providing community service not just at Dickinson, but also in the surrounding community of Carlisle.”   

Merrick continued to describe Watkins’ ties to the surrounding Carlisle community, saying,  “She founded the community service program Keep Hope under a known CommServ program known as Hope Station. She has done more before and during her time at Dickinson then most students have done, even after they have graduated.”

Merrick does not only want the school’s policy to change just for Watkins, however.  “This petition is not just for [Watkins],” he said, “but for all families who have lost students in their course of study, who have struggled and fought, not just in gaining a higher learning but gaining a higher self.”

“If there is anyone more deserving of this,” said Merrick, “it is Legacy, for them to make this her legacy. And change this policy for her and students like her, who have not only excelled in school but also made [a] difference in that time.”

“Legacy not only excelled in academics,” said Merrick, “but she actually changed lives while doing it. Not just at Dickinson, but also in her hometown, and also 13,000 miles away in Yaounde, Cameroon. For the short month that she spent studying abroad for Dickinson in Africa, her name made a sound through a whole town, thousands of miles away.”

“Dickinson College was Legacy’s dream school,” continued Merrick. “[A]ll she talked about was graduating from Dickinson with [an] African[a] studies degree, walking across [the] stage with all of her colleagues… This was her dream, this is what she worked so hard for, this is what her life was, this what she gave her life for.”

As of print time at 12:05 a.m., the petition had 676 signatures.  It can be found on change.org under the title “Honoring Legacy Watkins’ Degree” and has been shared on Facebook by several friends and family members of Watkins.

Several students have shared the link to the petition on Facebook already.

Jasmin Lopez ‘19 is on of these students and posted the link saying, “Her life was cut short and at the very least Dickinson College should honor her and her family with this degree.”

Carolyn Goode ‘18 expressed a similar sentiment saying that “I can’t think of any more deserving person to get this than Legacy… We all miss and love her and we want to graduate with her at least symbolically.”

Other students, however, believe that the administration cannot change the degree requirements

“After speaking with Bronté, and hearing the administrative side of things, while she would move the earth for Legacy and so would many of us, the policies just won’t allow this to be feasible,” explained Kenya Bullock ’19 in a Facebook post. “And while there is NO doubt that [Watkins] would have killed sh*t for her time remaining here, she unfortunately passed at the beginning of the Spring semester of her Junior year with a lot of the requirements still pending… [Dickinson] students, before you share this link please consider the requirements and things that we need to complete before they are allowed to give us that piece of paper. Think of the value of that piece of paper. If I could change how things have happened, or better yet if BRONTÉ could, she would.”

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3 Comments

3 Responses to “College Declines to Award Posthumous Honorary Degree to Legacy Watkins ’18”

  1. Derrick on April 24th, 2018 10:08 am

    They are saying that they follow certain criteria for allowing this form of degree, but where is the policy on it. Where is it in writing as an actual policy or requirement. Credits do not matter in the case of an “Honorary Degree”. The majority of individual who receive “Honorary Degrees” have no credits at the particular institution from which they are given the certificate. This term “Honorary” is simply to honor an individual. In this case, the certificate cannot be used to gain employment, social standing or anything else that a typical Degree would seem to offer. The certificate is for her mother’s piece of mind and to ease her grieving knowing that this was her daughters wish and unfortunately the last chapter in her life. This isn’t a decision about credits. To say that a student whom attended this university is not worthy of being “honored” with and “Honorary Degree” because of credits contradicts the term “Honorary”. The fact that the institution knows that this academically meaningless certificate would bring her mother the slightest sense of closure and yet consider not presenting her with it seems insensitive and heartless to say the least.

  2. Susette Jackson on April 24th, 2018 1:15 pm

    I urge that the president change her mindset for this family whose child is most deserving of an honorary degree and for the school to revisit their policy regarding death of students and honorary degrees.

  3. Kiara on April 25th, 2018 9:49 pm

    I feel as tho Legacy deserves that award for all her hard work and dedication. She would of got the reward if she was alive and i feel as tho they should present her family with that reward which is her honorable degree at graduation.

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College Declines to Award Posthumous Honorary Degree to Legacy Watkins ’18