Music legend Stevie Wonder will receive an honorary doctorate of humane letters at Fordham University’s 178th Commencement on May 20 on the Rose Hill campus. Wonder will offer the Class of 2023 some words of heartfelt gratitude to be counted among its members.
“It is an honor and a thrill to welcome Stevie Wonder to Fordham,” said Fordham President Tania Tetlow. “His music has charmed us, consoled us, elevated us, and entertained us for more than six decades. He is a shining example of an artist’s ability to stir the soul.”
A child prodigy, Wonder—born Stevland Morris—was signed by Motown Records at age 11, and in 1963, as 12-year-old Little Stevie Wonder, he became the youngest recording artist to achieve a No. 1 single, with “Fingertips, Part 2.” He’s regarded as a musical genius and a pioneer—a master of many instruments and groundbreaking in his use of synthesizers. His songs have topped the charts for decades, bridging the genres of pop, R&B, funk, soul, gospel, and jazz.
To date, Wonder has amassed 49 Top 40 singles, 32 No. 1 singles, and worldwide sales of over 100 million units. He has earned 25 Grammy Awards, the prestigious Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a Golden Globe, and an Academy Award. His iconic 1976 album, Songs in the Key of Life, is archived in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress for its cultural, historic, and aesthetic significance.
“Music, at its essence, is what gives us memories,” he once said. “And the longer a song has existed in our lives, the more memories we have of it.”
While Stevie Wonder’s songs are unequivocally classic and his influence timeless, equally laudable are his humanitarian efforts, philanthropic leadership, and generosity of spirit. His accolades include awards from the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Children’s Diabetes Foundation, and the American Association of People with Disabilities. In 1983, he spearheaded the realization of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a national holiday, and his single “Happy Birthday” was the rallying song for the movement.
His participation in the 1985 “We Are the World” fundraiser for hunger in Africa is a music industry milestone, while his involvement in efforts to put an end to apartheid in South Africa is legendary. In 1999, he became the youngest recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors. He is a Commander of France’s National Order of Arts and Letters, and has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Last year, he was awarded the inaugural Icon Award from the Legal Defense Fund. He is the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a designated United Nations Messenger of Peace with special focus on persons with disabilities.
In 2016, he called for U.N. member states to join the Marrakesh Treaty, which expanded the availability of published works in accessible formats such as Braille, large print, and audio books. “Imagine if others like me were given the opportunity to function at their full potential, how much better our world would be,” he said to delegates, noting that just 25 member states had ratified the treaty at the time. Today, 118 countries have signed on.
The University will also confer honorary degrees upon Jennifer Jones Austin, a 1993 graduate of Fordham Law School, chief executive officer of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies in New York City, and a prominent advocate for underserved children, individuals, and families; Cardinal Michael Czerny, S.J., prefect of the Holy See’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and a leader in advancing the climate agenda of Pope Francis; Norman Francis, a widely respected civic leader and civil rights advocate who led the transformation of Xavier University of Louisiana during his 47-year term as president; Sharon Greenberger, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater New York and leader of its current strategic plan to foster healthier, stronger New York City communities; Jeh Johnson, an attorney and widely quoted expert on national security issues who served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from 2013 to 2017; and Regina Pitaro, a 1976 Fordham College at Rose Hill graduate and a managing director of GAMCO Investors who is also a philanthropist, author of a book on merger arbitrage, and a Fordham trustee fellow.