UNC Asheville to Hold First-Ever Virtual Commencement at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 1, with Commencement Address by Dr. Patrice Harris, AMA Immediate Past-President

July 30, 2020

Dr. Patrice HarrisWith the required public health protocols preventing an in-person gathering, UNC Asheville celebrates its 565 May 2020 graduates with a virtual Commencement ceremony on Saturday, Aug. 1 at 9 a.m. with a Commencement address from Dr. Patrice A. Harris, immediate past-president of the American Medical Association, speaking to the graduates from Atlanta.

The virtual Commencement will be available to everyone on the Commencement website at https://www.unca.edu/events-and-news/commencement/ as well as social media. It premieres at 9 a.m. on Saturday and will remain available for later viewing.

UNC Asheville Chancellor Nancy J. Cable will open the ceremony and provide introductions to the speakers, all from the traditional commencement location, the University Quad. She also will award honorary degrees to Dr. Luther E. Barnhardt, retired radiologist and physician; to W. Louis Bissette Jr., former mayor of Asheville, to Dr. William H. Turner, sociologist and scholar of African Americans in Appalachia. Dr. Harris will also receive an honorary degree as well as the Chancellor’s Medallion, the University’s highest non-academic recognition.

Samantha Creech, recipient of UNC Asheville’s valedictory Manly E. Wright Award for the graduate first in scholarship, will be the featured Class of 2020 student speaker. Other graduates have submitted short video remembrances that will be included, as well as special tributes from members of the faculty.


Dr. Patrice Harris, a renowned child and adolescent psychiatrist from Atlanta, is immediate past president of the American Medical Association, having been elected to serve from July 2019 until June 2020.

A private practicing physician, public health administrator and widely recognized patient advocate, Dr. Harris has been an active leader in organized medicine for her entire career. The first African American woman to hold the position of AMA president, Dr. Harris is a trailblazer and a widely respected national voice about issues pertaining to public health, health equity and mental health.

Dr. Harris served on the AMA’s Board of Trustees since 2011, including a term as chair. She has also served as chair of the AMA Opioid Task Force since its inception in 2014 and has held leadership positions with the American Psychiatric Association, the Georgia Psychiatric Physicians Association and other organizations.

From 2009-2015, Dr. Harris served as director of health services for the Fulton County Department of Health Services in Atlanta; from 2005-2009, she was medical director for the same county’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

A distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, Dr. Harris continues in private practice and currently consults with both public and private organizations on service delivery and emerging trends in health care. She is an adjunct assistant professor in the Emory University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and an adjunct clinical assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Morehouse School of Medicine. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she has become a leading national spokesperson for promoting evidence-based approaches to the pandemic.

Dr. Harris is a West Virginia-native and she earned her B.A. in psychology, M.A. in counseling psychology, and M.D. at West Virginia University. She completed her psychiatry residency, and fellowships in child and adolescent psychiatry and forensic psychiatry at the Emory University School of Medicine.


Dr. Luther E. Barnhardt, a retired Western North Carolina physician, served the health care needs of this region for three decades, founded Western Carolina Radiology in Asheville, and was president of McDowell Radiology in Marion, N.C. A diplomate of the American Board of Radiology, the American Board of Nuclear Medicine, and an officer of the North Carolina Chapter of the American College of Radiology, he earned his M.D. at Duke University.


Louis Bissette Jr., president of the law firm, McGuire, Wood & Bissette, P.A. and former mayor of Asheville, is one of our state’s most prominent public leaders and visionaries. He has served as chair of the UNC System Board of Governors, led the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce as president and chairman of the Board, and has served as chair and/or trustee for numerous organizations including I-26 Corridor Association; N.C. Arboretum Society; Grove Arcade Public Market Foundation; Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation; MAHEC; and Mission Health.

His many awards include the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, North Carolina’s highest civilian honor; the Centennial, Citizen Lawyer, and Dr. I. Beverly Lake Public Service Awards from the North Carolina Bar Association; the Citizenship Award from the Land of Sky Regional Council; and Asheville’s Downtown Heroes Award.

Bissette is a life trustee of his alma mater, Wake Forest University. He earned his J.D. at the University of North Carolina School of Law, and also earned an MBA from the University of Virginia.


Dr. William H. Turner is a sociologist, widely respected public intellectual, and a pioneer in research, documentation, and writing about the history of Africans Americans in Appalachia and Western North Carolina. He is the co-editor of the book, Blacks in Appalachia, and once worked as research associate to Alex Haley, author of the groundbreaking book, Roots.

Turner has served as interim president of Kentucky State University, and has held faculty and/or administrative positions at Prairie View A&M University, Berea College, University of Kentucky, Duke University, and Winston-Salem State University. His many honors include induction into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame and being named that state’s Dr. Martin Luther King Citizen of the Year.

Born to a family of coal miners in Lynch, Kentucky, Turner earned a B.S. in sociology at the University of Kentucky, and a master’s degree and Ph.D. at the University of Notre Dame. He has shared his knowledge and insights at UNC Asheville’s annual African Americans in Western North Carolina and Southern Appalachia Conference and other campus lectures over the last several years.



Samantha Creech, a native of Horse Shoe, N.C., graduates as recipient of the Manly E. Wright Award, UNC Asheville’s valedictory award given to the student first in scholarship.

A physics major with minors in astronomy and mathematics, Creech has worked closely with faculty mentor Britt Lundgren, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, looking for patterns in the large scale winds produced by galaxies due to supernova explosions, to shed light on how galaxies grow and evolve over time. She has presented their findings at two of the world’s largest professional astronomy conference, and is one of the lead co-authors of a coming peer-reviewed article on galactic evolution in the early universe.

On campus, Creech served as president of the University’s chapter of the Society of Physics Students, and as a docent at Lookout Observatory, and earned the Astronomy Club of Asheville-Carolyn Keefe Scholarship. She also was office supervisor for UNC Asheville’s Outdoor Programs and became a trip leader for backpacking, mountain biking, and climbing expeditions.

Creech spent the summer before her senior year as an undergraduate researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s IceCube project, interning on the team working to improve the neutrino-detecting capabilities of instruments buried deep in the ice at the South Pole. This summer, she is interning as a science writer for Physics Today.


For more information on UNC Asheville’s virtual Commencement, visit unca.edu/commencement.