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A degree after death: UND awards rare posthumous degree to Texan

GRAND FORKS — Among the hundreds of University of North Dakota students graduating Friday was Ross Boxleitner, a spacesuit engineer from the Houston area.

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He died there in 2011, leaving behind an all-but-complete thesis. The university decided that was close enough for graduation and he was given a Master’s of Science in space studies.

Wayne Swisher, interim dean of the graduate school, said the degree is as much for Boxleitner’s family as it is for Boxleitner.

“Students that go through graduate and undergraduate programs are successful because they have strong family support,” he said. “That’s particularly true for grad students.”

Posthumous degrees like Boxleitner’s are rather rare — Swisher remembers just a couple of others in the 27 years he’s been at UND, the last one a couple of years ago — but the university does have a process for it.

“It doesn’t happen very often, fortunately,” he said.

Pursuing passion

Boxleitner was 42 when he died Dec. 2, 2011, in League City, Texas, according to his obituary in the Reporter Herald newspaper of Loveland, Colo. He was a native of nearby Fort Collins, Colo.

A former Navy deep-sea diver, Boxleitner attended college in Denver and then went to work for Oceaneering International, a Houston-based firm that serves the off-shore oil industry.

After many years diving and working with remotely operated vehicles on underwater construction projects, and a few more designing tools and machinery, he pursued his passion for space by transferring to Oceaneering’s space division.

Boxleitner was involved in a project designing new space-flight suits for NASA.

Santhos Seelan, chairman of the Space Studies Department, remembers him as a hard worker. Like many online students, Boxleitner had a full-time job and a family to tend to. But he also led other students in a project involving a manned mission to Mars and made substantial contributions to the final report.

Then one day, faculty members stopped hearing from him, Seelan said. Boxleitner’s wife, Liz, emailed the department to say that he had died in an accident, he said.

Boxleitner also left behind a daughter, Alissa Nicole, parents, a brother and many relatives and friends, the obituary said.

Speaking through Seelan, Liz Boxleitner declined to comment. He said she’s very private.

Tough rules

The requirements for a posthumous degree ensure that it will be a very rare occurrence.

The student has to have died in the final semester of college and he has to have completed nearly all of his course work.

That was the case with Boxleitner, according to Seelan. The department examined Boxleitner’s records and found that all he needed was the final thesis of his independent study course, and he’d been diligently sending research results and drafts to his instructor.

Following the process, Seelan recommended that the grad school dean grant Boxleitner a posthumous degree. Swisher concurred and sent his recommendation to the provost for final approval.

Seelan said he didn’t tell Boxleitner’s family about the posthumous degree until it had been approved. As it happens, the email went out to Liz Boxleitner on the second anniversary of her husband’s death, he said. “She was very touched and moved by that.”

The family could not make it to Friday’s commencement, however.

“Families sacrifice a lot,” Seelan said. “That’s why we wanted to honor the family.”

Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is an enterprise reporter with the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began his newspaper career in 1999 as a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, now owned by Forum Communications. He began working for the Forum in September 2014. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
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