SUNY to Confer Honorary Doctorates at Graduation

SUNY to Confer Honorary Doctorates at Graduation


Two individuals — a champion athlete who pioneered the use of outrigger canoes among people with disabilities and an avant-garde musician who plays internationally acclaimed concerts on the toy piano — will receive honorary doctoral degrees from the State University of New York during SUNY Cortland’s Undergraduate Commencement ceremonies on Saturday, May 21.

Jan Richards Whitaker, a marathon canoe racer whose innovative programs have helped thousands of disabled people — including many wounded soldiers — gain confidence and improved health through adaptive paddling, will receive a Doctor of Humane Letters. Whitaker is a 1965 SUNY Cortland graduate.

Margaret Leng Tan, a classically trained pianist who explores alternative forms of music and unconventional instruments, will receive a Doctor of Fine Arts. She has performed at prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, but also shared her music with students at SUNY Cortland.

“Both of these women are true champions in their respective fields,” SUNY Cortland President Erik Bitterbaum said. “Jan Whitaker, one of the nation’s top competitive canoeists, created innovative ways to share her passion with people challenged by physical disabilities. Her efforts, and the non-profit organization she created, opened a new world of activity for thousands of people.  Margaret Tan has been on the cutting edge of avant-garde piano for decades. Her unique compositions have expanded the definition of modern music and created new worlds of sound.”

Whitaker will speak at 9:30 a.m. during SUNY Cortland’s morning undergraduate commencement ceremony in the Park Center Alumni Arena. Tan will address graduates during the afternoon ceremony at 2:30 p.m. in the same location.

Jan Richards Whitaker '65

Whitaker graduated from SUNY Cortland with a degree in physical education. She taught health and physical education in the Union Springs Central District for years.

At the same time, she became one of the nation’s top marathon canoeists, winning more than 30 United States Canoe Association national championships. She earned numerous other honors, including an Empire State Games gold medal, induction into the Canoeing Hall of Fame and selection as USCA Canoeist of the Year for 1994 and 2003.

Whitaker is best known, however, for her devotion to adaptive canoeing. It began after she became involved with racing in outrigger canoes; modern versions of the traditional watercraft used by generations of Pacific Islanders. She realized that the stability of the canoes, created by their pontoon-like outriggers, made them perfect for people with disabilities.

Jan Richards Whitaker '65
Jan Richards Whitaker '65

In 2005, Whitaker founded Cape Ability Outrigger Ohana Inc., a chapter of Disabled Sports USA and a national group with more than 60,000 members. Whitaker’s non-profit organization is dedicated to increasing access and awareness of outrigger canoeing as an adaptive activity among people who are physically challenged. She partnered with a canoe manufacturer in Maine to design the first modified seat system and a special, stabilized float for outrigger canoes, widening the accessibility of the sport to disabled paddlers.

She created the Rochester River Challenge, which is now the largest outrigger canoe race on the East Coast. Because of Whitaker, the City of Rochester is recognized as the birthplace of team outrigger canoe racing for people with disabilities.

In 2001, she established the first adaptive paddling event in the USCA National Championships. Cape Ability has since established scores of adaptive outrigger programs across the United States and in Canada, England, New Zealand and the Cook Islands.

Most recently, Whitaker extended her efforts to help soldiers wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan, establishing outrigger canoe rehabilitation programs at Walter Reed Army Hospital. In 2008, the Non-Commissioned Officers Association’s National Defense Fund honored her with an American Patriot Award for this work.

Margaret Leng Tan

Tan, a native of Singapore (shown above left), was the first woman to earn a doctorate from the prestigious Juilliard School of music in New York City. Her artistic drive soon led her stray from classical piano into avant-garde world of experimental music.

By fusing American alternative piano with the Asian influences of her childhood, and by experimenting with unusual instruments Tan created a truly unique sound. By composing, performing and recording music for the toy piano, she elevated an ordinary child’s plaything into an instrument of high art and inspired others to compose music for non-traditional instruments.

Over the years, she made numerous audio and video recordings, earning international acclaim. Tan is the foremost interpreter of the groundbreaking composer and aesthetic philosopher John Cage, whose ideas have strongly influenced modern avant-garde art.

The quintessential performer, Tan excels at interpreting difficult music for wide and diverse audiences. She has made the often-arcane tradition of avant-garde music accessible to people around the world, including students at SUNY Cortland.

Through her professional friendship with Donna Anderson, professor emeritus of music at SUNY Cortland, and their shared interest in the legacy of impressionist pianist Charles T. Griffes, Tan developed a strong connection with the College. She performed at the college on two separate occasions, inspiring music theatre majors as well as the SUNY Cortland community at large.