UArts announces 2023 honorary degree recipients, Commencement speaker

May 4, 2023

When University of the Arts celebrates Commencement on Thursday, May 18, at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, it will honor five members of its artistic community who have significantly impacted our broader cultural dialogue.

Alum, artist, curator, educator and author Deborah Willis BFA ’75 (Photography), PhD, will receive an Honorary Doctorate of the Fine Arts at Commencement. Willis will also deliver the Commencement address. Joining her in this recognition will be Michael Forman and Jennifer Rice, the couple who launched the Forman Arts Initiative in Philadelphia, a program that has connected and provided vital support to artists all across the Philadelphia region.

The presentation of the university’s highest honorary degree to distinguished individuals is a longstanding tradition. It is intended to recognize extraordinary intellect or artistic achievement, service to the university and society, and figures who stand as role models for UArts students. In addition, the university will present Silver Star alumni awards to Dotty Attie BFA ’59 (Art Education) and Clayton Reilly BM ’06 (Instrumental Performance), MAT ‘21 (Music Education).

About the 2023 honorees

Deborah Willis is a university professor and chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University (NYU). She is also the director of NYU’s Center for Black Visual Culture. Her research examines photography’s multifaceted histories, visual culture, contemporary women photographers and beauty.

Willis is the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and the Guggenheim Fellowship and is a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. In addition, she has received awards from the College Art Association for Writing Art History in 2021, the Outstanding Service Award from the Royal Photographic Society in the UK and the 2022 Don Tyson Prize for the Advancement of American Art.

Additionally, Willis is the author of The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship and Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present, among other books. Her curated exhibitions include Home: Reimagining Interiority at YoungArts, Miami; Framing Moments: Photography from the Kalamazoo Institute of the Arts, Migrations and Meaning(s) in Art; and Free as they want to be: Artists Committed to Memory at FotoFocus 2022. Most recently, the Norton Museum of Art named Willis the 2023 Mary Lucille Dauray Artist-in-Residence.

Michael Forman is chairman and CEO of FS Investments, an alternative investments asset manager. Michael founded FS in 2007 after a successful career as both a corporate and securities lawyer and a serial entrepreneur. In 2021, Michael co-founded the Forman Arts Initiative (FAI) with his wife, Jennifer Rice. FAI is a platform to connect and support artists and cultural organizations in Philadelphia through programming, exhibition commissions, financial support and advocacy. Forman’s commitment to the Philadelphia region extends to board service at several institutions, including Drexel University and the Center City District Foundation. He also serves as the founding co-chair of the Philadelphia Equity Alliance. His civic leadership has garnered recognition by the community and his peers, including the 2022 Corporate Leadership Award from the Community College of Philadelphia and the 2019 Americanism Award from the Anti-Defamation League of Philadelphia, as well as a special honor from Mural Arts Philadelphia in 2017 for his dedication to the city’s public art initiatives.

Jennifer Rice is devoted to many charitable organizations focusing on the arts, education, women’s rights and animal welfare. She is co-founder of the Forman Arts Initiative and serves on the boards of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, Big Picture Philadelphia (Vaux and El Centro high schools), Elevate 215, ACCT Philly (Animal Care and Control Team of Philadelphia) and the Cat Collaborative. Rice is a member of the Gender Wealth Institute Advisory Committee for Women’s Way, the Philadelphia Equity Alliance, the Sam Fox School National Council and the Kemper Museum Collection Committee. She is also the former board chair and current honorary trustee for The Philadelphia School, an independent, progressive school in Center City.