Leadership Is the Theme as University Awards Four Honorary Degrees

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – A spiritual leader, a civil rights pioneer, and two leaders in Arkansas higher education will receive honorary degrees from the University of Arkansas during the All-University Commencement on Saturday, May 14, in Bud Walton Arena.

The Dalai Lama is an international spokesperson for human rights and non-violence, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize; Lewis Epley Jr. has been a leader in his community as well as serving for 10 years on the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees, two years as chairman; Christopher Mercer is a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement in Arkansas and was one of the first African Americans to enroll at University of Arkansas School of Law; and B. Alan Sugg has led the University of Arkansas System since 1990.

“Each of these men has had a profound impact on the world and the people around them,” said G. David Gearhart, chancellor of the university. “Each, in his own way, defines what it means to be a leader and an example to others, to work for the betterment of others. All of our lives are richer because of them and we at the University of Arkansas are proud to be associated with them and to honor them.”

The Dalai Lama will receive a Doctor of Humane Letters degree, but will not attend the commencement ceremony. He is speaking at the University of Arkansas on May 11.

Epley will receive a Doctor of Laws degree.

Mercer will receive a Doctor of Laws degree.

Sugg will receive a Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

All three honorees will be addressing the graduating students during commencement.


Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, and from the age of 15 also served as political leader, a position he recently relinquished. He was forced to flee into exile after China suppressed a Tibetan uprising in 1959. He and his fellow exiles established the Tibetan Administration in Exile in Dharamsala, India.

The Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his non-violent struggle for the people of Tibet. He became the first Nobel laureate to be formally recognized for his concern for environmental issues throughout the world.

In addition to his role as spiritual and a political leader for the Tibetans, the Dalai Lama is an international spokesperson for human rights and non-violence and is among the most respected leaders in the world.

In 2007, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the president of the United States, George W. Bush.

Since 1959 he has received more than 84 awards, medals and honorary doctorates in recognition of his message of compassion, peace, non-violence, interfaith understanding and universal responsibility. He has also authored more than 70 books, which include An Open Heart, Ethics for the New Millennium and The Universe in a Single Atom.


Lewis Epley Jr.

Lewis Epley Jr., who grew up in Springdale, overcame polio as a teenager and went on to a career that combined law, banking, business and public service in his adopted home of Eureka Springs and throughout the state. 

Epley attended the University of Arkansas after recovering from polio. The effects of the disease kept him from playing the clarinet, but he still became an active and very public member of the band, acting as the “Voice of the Razorback Band” for seven years. He graduated in 1961 with degrees in public administration and law, and moved to Eureka Springs soon afterward.

Epley developed a prominent law practice, and in 1984 was named special associate justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. He was also chosen as a delegate to the Arkansas Constitutional Convention in 1969-70. Epley was also active in business, serving as vice-chairman of Cornerstone Bank (formerly the Bank of Eureka Springs) and a member of the board of directors of the Southwestern Energy Co.

He has maintained close ties to the University of Arkansas. Epley was a member of the Board of Trustees from 1989 to 1999 and was chairman for two years. He is a board member of the University of Arkansas Foundation, the university Board of Advisors and a former member of the Arkansas Alumni Association Board. He also remains a major supporter of the Razorback band, and in 1997 the band building was named in his honor.


Christopher Mercer

Christopher Mercer was born in Pine Bluff, and is one of the “Six Pioneers,” the first six African American students to enroll at University of Arkansas School of Law. During his time in law school, he supported himself by teaching biology, chemistry and math classes including a business class for veterans at Carver High School in Marked Tree.

After graduating from the law school in 1955 and passing the bar exam with the highest score in his group, Mercer went on to play an integral part in the legal community and in the civil rights struggle in the state of Arkansas. He was a pivotal figure in the integration of Little Rock Central High School, serving as aide-de-camp for Daisy Bates and transporting the “Little Rock Nine” to and from school each day their first semester. In addition, he was a member of the Arkansas Council on Human Relations and served as the Arkansas field secretary for the NAACP.

Mercer was the first African American in the South to serve as a deputy prosecutor and continues to practice the law after more than 56 years, often representing clients of modest means.


B. Alan Sugg

B. Alan Sugg, retiring president of the University of Arkansas System, grew up in Helena-West Helena, where he attended public schools. His father was a county school superintendent and his mother a teacher. He attended the University of Arkansas on a track scholarship as a pole vaulter. After graduating he served in the U.S. Army before returning to the University of Arkansas for a master’s degree. He earned his doctorate in higher education from the University of Oklahoma.

Sugg worked in higher education in Texas for 22 years, including 13 years as president of Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi.

He was named president of the University of Arkansas System in 1990 and has guided the institutions through unprecedented growth and challenges. The system now includes more than 66,000 students and 17,000 employees among its five universities, five community colleges, college of medicine, two schools of law, a presidential school, a math and science high school and divisions of agriculture, archeology and criminal justice. 

President Sugg has championed the University of Arkansas system as a driving force in the state’s economy and has worked diligently to meet the needs of both the state and the state’s institutions of higher education. He will retire in June 2011.


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