The University will take the extraordinary step of conferring a degree to Otto Warmbier (Com ’17), who died in a Cincinnati hospital in June the week after North Korean authorities released him from 17 months’ captivity (see In Memoriam).
While the University doesn’t award honorary degrees, it can hand out posthumous ones if certain conditions are met. Such is the case with Warmbier, a commerce and economics major who died one course shy of having enough credit hours to graduate. The College will award him a bachelor of arts degree in economics, according to Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer Patricia Lampkin (Educ ’86).
The 22-year-old’s death made national and international headlines. “Let us state the facts plainly: Otto Warmbier, an American citizen, was murdered by the Kim Jong-un regime,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“We condemn the horrendous treatment that certainly contributed to Otto's condition in North Korea,” UVA President Teresa Sullivan said in a statement that was read during a candlelight vigil at the McIntire Amphitheatre the day after he died.
Warmbier had planned to study in China for the January term of his third year. It was while traveling there in December 2015 that he decided to go to North Korea for a five-day New Year’s tour.
As Warmbier was leaving the country with fellow students, he was arrested for allegedly attempting to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel. On March 16, 2016, Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor.
Sometime after, Warmbier suffered neurological damage and fell into a coma, according to reports. Upon his return, North Korean officials claimed that botulism and a sleeping pill had caused it. At a June 15 press conference, physicians at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center said they found no evidence of this; the Warmbier family decided against an autopsy, according to reports.
Warmbier, an Echols Scholar who would have graduated last May, was honored by fellow students with a June 13 sign on the Beta Bridge reading, “Welcome back, Otto. Hoos are with you.” “It was abundantly clear that not only was he well-liked,” says David Lehman, an associate professor at McIntire, “but that he was well-respected.”
Emmett Saulnier (Com ’17) had known Warmbier—a fellow Cincinnati native and Theta Chi fraternity brother—since high school.
“He would dive head-first into anything he did, basically,” says Saulnier, who spoke at Warmbier’s funeral. “Whenever he went on trips abroad, he would just absolutely love to learn more about the cultures. He had this real thirst for experiences and knowledge. He loved hearing about other people’s experiences. I think that’s why he wanted to go to North Korea—because it was such a different place than America.”
Warmbier’s death is said to have played a part in the U.S. government’s travel ban to North Korea, which was announced by the State Department on July 21.
Donations in Warmbier’s name can be sent to the UVA Fund. At press time, Lampkin said the University was awaiting instructions from the Warmbier family about their use.