Alfred University News

Dr. Robert Johnson '68 delivers keynote address as Alfred University celebrates 187th Commencement

Alfred University alumnus Dr. Robert L. Johnson delivered Saturday’s keynote address at the University’s 187th Commencement. He told graduates that while their time at Alfred has instilled in them goals and prepared them for success, they will face challenges that will come from serendipitous turns in their life’s journey.

Johnson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Alfred University in 1968, knows this lesson well. After graduating from Alfred, he pursued his goal of becoming a pediatrician. “When I graduated, I knew that I was going into medical school. I knew that eventually I would spend my life doing what I realized I loved the most – providing care to the most vulnerable among us – as a pediatrician. And my dreams were realized!” he said.

In 1972, he earned a medical degree from the College of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (now Rutgers New Jersey Medical School) and four years later opened up a medical practice. While Johnson has enjoyed a rewarding and fulfilling career in medicine, it has taken him in directions he never envisioned while studying at Alfred University.

“Along the way, just when I thought things were sewn up for me, serendipity kicked in, my journey was complicated by unforeseen twists, turns, detours, and barriers that took me in directions I did not foresee in my life’s visions and dreams.”

Embracing the challenges that come from the unexpected has helped Johnson enjoy a remarkable career in medicine spanning a half century.

“My life and career have benefited (from challenges). Each of these has been a force that propelled me forward,” he remarked. “As I look back, I am grateful for the challenges, the twists and the turns. They have led me to success and great fulfillment.”

Today, Johnson is dean of the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, NJ, and interim dean of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, NJ. In addition to being the only medical school dean serving at two schools simultaneously, he is one of only a handful of African Americans serving as medical school deans. As professor of Pediatrics and director of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, his clinical expertise and research focus on adolescent physical and mental health, adolescent HIV, adolescent violence, adolescent sexuality, health equity and family strengthening.

Johnson’s work serving society and his profession is noteworthy.

In 1972, Johnson co-founded The Door, a program aimed at helping a diverse and growing population of disconnected adolescents gain the resources needed to succeed in school, work, and life. He created the New Jersey Medical School’s Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine and served as a member of policy boards for the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control, Health Resources and Services Administration, Association of American Medical Colleges, and American Academy of Pediatrics.

Johnson cited three “serendipitous occurrences” that significantly changed the trajectory of his career.

The first, which he referred to as “the power of yes,” happened in the mid-1980s, when Johnson was working at The Door. One of his patients there was suffering from a respiratory infection that would not respond to available treatments. Soon after, the patient would die from the mysterious illness.

“All my knowledge, all that I had gained in all my training was not enough. I could have settled back and accepted defeat,” he recalled. “Instead, I said yes. I said yes to engaging in clinical research to understanding this new mysterious malady, I said yes to finding new diagnostic tools and new treatments. I said yes to finding methods to prevent infection, illness and death. Of course, the illness was HIV/AIDS and my ‘yes’ lead me to join with many other healthcare providers and scientists throughout the worldwide effort defeat HIV.”

“Saying yes, is scary. You could fail, people could doubt and scoff at you. But if you do not try to do what is daunting you will never succeed. If you stay safe and never fail, you will never move forward. If you don’t take a risk, you will never benefit from the wonders of discovery and advancement.”

platformJohnson also advised students to “strive to achieve excellence in all that you do.” He recalled that, as a youngster, he spent summers at a youth retreat in Richmond, VA, where he recalled seeing a carving on a large stone which read: Good, better, best. Never let it rest, until your good is better and your better best. Johnson said the quote stuck with him, and to this day guides him to always strive to be his very best.

“To be clear in this regard my assessment is not the achievement of others it is rather my personal measurement. Have I achieved the best that I can do? When you say yes to opportunities the actions that follow should always be accomplished with your personal best. Whether you fail or succeed, do it excellently. There should be no room for mediocrity.”

Lastly, Johnson urged graduates to “love your life!”

“I am often asked how I can do so much. I usually stop and think about it. I realize that I enjoy every moment of every aspect of my work. I consider myself to be very fortunate,” he said. “Be wise in your career choice. The guiding force should be personal satisfaction not prestige or money.”

Johnson; Gregory Connors ’92, a member of the Alfred University Board of Trustees and Board Chair Emeritus; and Ann Moskowitz, an Alfred University Life Trustee, were awarded honorary degrees Saturday.

Johnson received a Doctor of Science degree, honoris causa, for his career in medicine.

Connors—who has served on the Alfred University Board of Trustees since 2008, including as Board Chair from 2017-22—received a Doctor of Law degree, honoris causa.

A 1993 Alfred University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in political science (minor in business), Connors earned a law degree from Ohio Northern University in 1995. He is co-founder of and partner in the law firm Connors & Ferris LLP, which specializes in workers’ compensation, social security disability and personal injury claims.

He is a member of the New York State Bar Association, the Erie County Bar Association, the Monroe County Bar Association, as well as the New York State Injured Workers Bar Association. He has lectured for the Monroe County Bar Association and has represented clients before the Workers’ Compensation Board, Workers’ Compensation Board Office of Appeals, the Appellate Courts of New York State as well as the Social Security Administration.


Over the years, Connors has remained a dedicated supporter of Alfred University. His philanthropy was instrumental to the renovation of Openhym, a residence hall that has been renamed in honor of Greg’s family. His gifts have also improved our athletic facilities. He and his family funded construction of the Connors Family Pavilion, a gathering place overlooking Yunevich Stadium, as well as provided support for a new scoreboard named in honor of Bob ’66 and Pat Codispoti.

Connors is a member of the Board of Directors of Hunter’s Hope, a charitable organization that was created by Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame Quarterback Jim Kelly and his wife, Jill. In 2008, Greg was recognized as a recipient of the Rochester Business Journal “Forty Under 40 Award.”

In accepting his degree, Connors led the audience in a rousing “Saxon Nation” chant, encouraging the hundreds of audience members to shout out: “Thank you from Saxon Nation!” as he identified different shareholders and groups within the Alfred University community. Connors identified the geography of Alfred University as “Magic Valley,” adding: “The experience I had here in  the Magic Valley…and the magic you experience here will still be here for you, waiting to welcome you with open arms.”


Moskowitz, a Life Trustee at Alfred University who served on the Board from 2017-21, received a Doctor of Humane Letters degree, honoris causa. Moskowitz and her late husband, longtime Trustee Joel Moskowitz ’61, were dedicated supporters of initiatives aimed at improving student life at Alfred University, particularly in the area of residence life.

In 1967 Joel and Ann co-founded Ceradyne, Inc., an advanced technical ceramic company which manufactured and marketed ceramics for the industrial, aerospace, defense, medical, and electronic markets until it was sold to 3M in 2012. Joel served as Ceradyne’s company president and chairman of the board with the support of Ann, who worked as the company’s first IT professional.

Ann and Joel created two special interest houses on the Alfred University campus: Joel’s House, a 22-bed residence hall constructed in 2004; and Ann’s House, a 48-bed residence hall constructed in 2009. A 2019 gift from Ann supported renovations to Reimer Hall, which was renamed Moskowitz Hall. In 2022, Ann’s gift of $1 million funded renovations to The Brick residence Hall, a project which was completed just prior to the start of the 2022-23 academic year. This year, Ann has provided further support for improvements to our Welcome Center/Alumni Hall.

In addition to their life-long support of Alfred, the Moskowitz’s philanthropic priorities and interests also included Chapman University’s Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education, the Brooklyn College Foundation, National Jewish Health, the Hoag Hospital Foundation, and the Accelerated Cure project (for Multiple Sclerosis). Ann is a past member of the board of trustees at Chapman University.

She called the Saturday graduation celebration “a special day in all of our lives.” Addressing the graduates directly, she said: “I wish you all wonderful lives.”


Addressing their classmates were 2023 Marlin Miller Outstanding Senior Award recipients Knox VanRenselaar of Amsterdam, NY, a double major who earned bachelor’s degrees in history and theater (minor in adolescent education) in December 2022, and Owen Nelson, a materials science and engineering major from Amherst, NY.

Winners of the Marlin Miller Outstanding Senior Award are chosen based on scholarship, extracurricular achievement, personal character and conduct, and nominations by faculty, students, staff, or alumni. The award was established to honor Alfred University alumnus Marlin Miller ’54, H ’89, H ’19 one of Alfred University’s most generous supporters. Miller has been a member of Alfred University’s Board of Trustees since 1972.

VanRenselaar earned several awards and accolades during their time at Alfred University, including being inducted into the Phi Alpha Theta, Omicron Delta Kappa, Pi Gamma Mu, Phi Kappa Phi, and Phi Theta Kappa honor societies. VanRenselaar has been honored numerous times for their talents in theater. The recipient of the Henry and Agnes Guenther Scholarship (awarded for exemplary leadership in the Alfred University Theater Department), they won the 2021 Region 2 Vasta Award given by the Kennedy Center American Collegiate Theater Festival; claimed the first place award for the 2021 National Partners of the American Theatre Classical Acting; and placed first in the 2021 Irene Ryan acting competition in Region 2 of the Kennedy Center American Collegiate Theater Festival.

They worked at Scholes Library for more than three years, first as circulation desk assistant, then as circulation desk student supervisor. They were a peer leader in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, a residential assistant, and an intern in the Alfred University Food Pantry. They are pursuing a master’s degree in philosophy and social policy from The George Washington University.

The child of Marcella VanRenselaar, they are a graduate of Hillcrest High School in Midvale, UT.

In their remarks, VanRenselaar described transforming the challenges of her life into productive action as an undergraduate, citing among other accomplishments helping to found a campus food pantry – called the Mini Pantry Program. “All meaningful action beings with empathy,” she said. “We chose to lean into our empathy. We make the impossible possible.”


Graduating senior Owen Nelson was cited as a recipient of a Presidential Scholarship and Ceramic Grant from Alfred University, as well as a member of the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society.

He is president of the Materials Advantage engineering society and is president of Alpha Eta Beta, the engineering study club he founded in 2022. Nelson was a member of the Alfred University swimming and diving team from 2019-21.

Nelson completed an engineering internship with PCC Airfoils, Sanford, NC, from May to August 2022. He has served as an Alfred Ambassador with the University’s Admissions Office since Fall 2021, helping with recruitment events and working as a campus tour guide.

The son of Donald and Beth Nelson, Nelson is a graduate of Amherst High School.

In his commencement speech, Nelson observed Alfred University delivered on its promise of being “Outside of Ordinary (and) it’s a great day to be a Saxon.” Reflecting on the various mistakes he made through his undergraduate career, he advised his fellow graduates: “You’re going to make a lot of mistakes, but mistakes don’t define who you are. Mistakes are necessary to living a rewarding and redeeming life.”


The University recognized as the following top students (highest GPAs in each school and college) for the Class of 2023:

College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: Rachel Fleischman, communication studies major from East Sparta, OH, 4.00 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale.

School of Art and Design: Lukas Perry, fine arts major from Naples, NY, 3.98 grade-point average.

Kazuo Inamori School of Engineering: Joseph Alexander Falvo, materials science and engineering major from Utica, NY, 3.93 grade-point average.

College of Business: Matthew Wedzik, business administration major from North East, PA, 3.96 grade-point average.


Alfred University President Mark Zupan closed Commencement by echoing Johnson’s advice to say “Yes!” Zupan said students’ willingness to embrace the positive lay behind what he had observed through the post-Covid school year: “A sense of joy on our campus.” He further encouraged graduates to embrace that joy by “saying ‘Yes,’ pursuing excellence, finding joy. You’ve done that because of what you’ve lived through.”


Alfred University awarded 205 baccalaureate degrees, 61 master’s degrees and 4 doctoral degrees to graduates who completed their degree requirements in May 2023. The University had already conferred 85 baccalaureate degrees, 24 master’s degrees, and two doctoral degrees to August 2022, December 2022, and 2023 Allen Term (January) graduates.