Peng Liyuan, the first lady of China, was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Juilliard School on December 6, 2017. Chairman Bruce Kovner and Juilliard President Joseph Polisi travelled to Beijing’s China Conservatory of Music to confer the degree in person. The awarding of the honorary doctorate was surprisingly underreported in the United States, with its sole media coverage coming from Chinese and Singaporean news outlets. As of press time, there was no mention of Peng’s honorary degree on Juilliard’s official website.
A Juilliard degree has never been awarded outside of that ceremony, and never outside of the United States. Peng’s honorary doctorate is the first of its kind.
Peng, an acclaimed soprano and longtime advocate for women’s rights and the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS in China, is one of the primary proponents of the Tianjin Juilliard School, a new branch of Juilliard which is expected to open in Tianjin, China, in 2019. Peng last visited Juilliard’s New York campus in November 2015, when she and Polisi first announced their partnership and plans to begin construction in Tianjin. Peng’s honorary degree illuminates questions about the intimate nature of Juilliard’s relationship with China. According to a December 11 article in China Daily, President Polisi delivered a speech at the degree ceremony, saying the award was “not only in recognition of Peng’s accomplishments as an artist but also for her contribution to cultural exchanges between China and the United States.” Peng replied: “I hope cooperation between art schools and organizations of the two countries will be deepened in the future.”
Juilliard has a long, esteemed tradition of awarding honorary degrees to notable alumni and artists, dating back to 1987. Each year, recommendations for honorary doctoral candidates are submitted by faculty and staff, and then finalized by Juilliard’s Board of Trustees. Peng’s selection comes at an interesting time, on the eve of the Tianjin school’s opening. Past awardees have included Yo-Yo Ma, Joyce DiDonato, Tony Kushner, Viola Davis, and John Houseman. The coveted award is typically announced in February and conferred during Juilliard’s May graduation in New York City. A Juilliard degree has never been awarded outside of that ceremony, and never outside of the United States. Peng’s honorary doctorate is the first of its kind.
In a statement, Alexandra Day, Juilliard’s Associate Vice President of Marketing and Communications, wrote of the unusual nature of Peng’s award. “Because of various security protocols around a person of Madame Peng’s standing, Juilliard made a decision to allow the honorary doctorate to be awarded in Beijing, rather than New York.” She went on to discuss the importance of this particular award, writing “In this day and age, that any first lady advocates for the arts is something to be celebrated!”
When it opens in 2019, the Tianjin Juilliard School will award a U.S.-accredited Master of Music Degree, the first to ever be offered in China. Prior to conferring the honorary doctorate last month, Polisi had been in Tianjin in June 2017 for the school’s ground-breaking ceremony. This is his final year as Juilliard President.