In addition to the 5,500 Duke students receiving diplomas Sunday at commencement, honorary degrees will be handed out to seven individuals who have already changed the world in extensive ways.
The recipients come from the worlds of literature, law, education, business, architecture and science. They were selected by a committee of faculty members and university trustees not just in recognition of their accomplishments, but to reaffirm Duke’s own values and commitment to excellence. Several have long and close ties to Duke and Durham.
Commencement speaker Tim Cook is not eligible to receive an honorary degree because he is a member of the Duke Board of Trustees.
Here are this year’s recipients:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Doctor of Humane Letters
Who: A MacArthur Fellowship winner, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian writer whose works, including “Half of a Yellow Sun” and “Americanah” have won international acclaim for their empathetic and nuanced portrayals of modern life.
Why: Globalization has changed the nature of modern societies, and few writers have captured the challenges of immigrants and others navigating those changes as Adichie. In addition to her novels, Adichie is a public intellectual who speaks to a global audience as a writer and an activist. Said David Eggers: “She is the rare novelist to become a public intellectual — as well as a defining voice on race and gender for the digital age.”
Quote: “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man. Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same?”
Did You Know? Her 2012 TEDx talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,” was sampled by Beyoncé on her song “***Flawless”. In the TEDx talk, Adichie tells the story of learning, as a teenager, the definition of feminism as “a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” She defined feminism as “a man or a woman who says, ‘Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it; we must do better.’”
Mary T. Barra
Doctor of Science
Who: Mary Barra is chairman and chief executive officer of General Motors Company. She has served as CEO since 2014 and was elected chair of the Board of Directors in 2016. She is the first woman to lead a major auto company.
Why: Barra rose through General Motors because of her discipline and vision. She has spent her entire career with GM; prior to becoming CEO, Barra served as executive vice president for global product development, purchasing and supply chain; and as senior vice president for global product development. In these roles, Barra and her teams were responsible for the design, engineering and quality of GM vehicle launches worldwide.
Quote: “Do every job like you’re going to do it for the rest of your life. You don’t want to be renting the job, you want to be owning the job. Because when people see that kind of dedication and hard work, that’s when you get noticed.”
Did You Know? Her office includes 34 model cars scattered throughout the office, including a mini version of one of her favorites, a Chevrolet Corvette C7. Her father, a member of the United Automobile Workers union, worked as a die maker for 39 years at GM’s Pontiac factory.
William V. Bell
Doctor of Laws
Who: Bill Bell served eight terms as the mayor of Durham from 2001 to 2017, making him the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history.
Why: As mayor of Durham, Bell oversaw a renaissance of the downtown region and other neighborhoods that now serves as a blueprint for other cities. More than $1.7 billion in public and private money was invested, leading to restoration of more than a million square feet of abandoned tobacco factories into award-winning restaurants, high-tech start-ups, loft apartments, and science laboratories.
Quote: “There used to be a time we visited other cities to try to find out how they did things, but I can tell you now we’re having more people come to Durham and asking, ‘How did you do it?’”
Did You Know? One of his most lasting accomplishment has to do with education: The 1992 merger of the then majority-white Durham County and majority-black City school systems. Bell was instrumental in pushing for the merger, which is considered to be a central factor in attracting more residents to Durham and spurring the region’s growth.
Philip G. Freelon
Doctor of Humane Letters
Who: A Durham resident, Freelon is the design director of the Freelon Group and the lead designer of many significant cultural and civic buildings. He is a fellow of the American Institute of Architects and was the 2009 recipient of the AIA Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture.
Why: Named by Architectural Digest as “the most accomplished African-American architect living today,” Philip Freelon led the team of architects on the design of the $500 million Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., which opened in 2016. The new museum on the National Mall was immediately celebrated for its striking beauty and symbolic impact; Freelon has stated that he aimed to “infuse African American and African influences into the building to create a distinctive form.”
Quote: “I derive a tremendous amount of pride in developing places that everyday people can experience. I like to create beauty in everyday lives.”
Did You Know? He is married to the jazz singer and composer Nnenna Freelon. In December 2016, Freelon announced that he had been diagnosed with ALS. He also launched “Design A World Without ALS,” a fund-raising effort to support research at the Duke ALS Clinic and ALS patients and their families.
Dr. William G. Kaelin Jr.
Doctor of Science
Who: Dr. William Kaelin is a cancer biologist who is a professor in the Department of Medicine at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School and former associate director for basic science for the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center. He has an undergraduate and medical degree from Duke.
Why: Kaelin conducts research to understand how mutations affecting tumor-suppressor genes cause cancer to lay the foundation for new cancer therapies. His work has produced new insights into how cells detect and respond to changes in oxygen, which may prove valuable for treating diseases beyond cancer, such as anemia, heart attacks and stroke.
Quote: “We should appreciate that papers strengthen science when they candidly acknowledge limitations and puzzling results.”
Did You Know? In 2016, Kaelin shared the prestigious Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award with two other physician-scientists for their discovery of the pathway by which cells from human and most animals sense and adapt to changes in oxygen availability, a process that is essential for survival. Scientists had long appreciated that the success of today’s dominant life forms hinges on oxygen, yet little was known about their responses to it.
Russell M. Robinson II
Doctor of Laws
Who: Russell Robinson is the founding partner of Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson, one of the largest law firms in North Carolina, and the author of “Robinson on North Carolina Corporation Law,” the preeminent book on North Carolina corporation law.
Why: In addition to his contributions to the law and legal scholarship, Robinson’s support of higher education, particularly in North Carolina, is enormous. His service includes several terms as a trustee (and a decade as chair) of The Duke Endowment, and board service at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Johnson C. Smith University and the John Motley Morehead Foundation.
Quote: “You learn much more from defeats and the mistakes you make. Any lawyer makes mistakes in negotiations and litigation. That’s where you learn to be a lawyer. That’s why it is very helpful to come to practice with a lawyer who can help you, someone who has been through a lot.”
Did You Know? An alumnus of the Duke Law School, where he graduated first in the class, Robinson’s connection to the university also goes through his wife Sally, a member of the Class of ’55, and a university trustee from 1995-2004. She was co-chair of the Financial Aid Initiative from 2005-2008.