’14 Commencement Speaker: Theodore M. Shaw ’76


About two months ago, President Michael Roth sent out an email to the entire campus announcing the honorary degree recipients for 2014, as well as the commencement speaker for the Class of 2014. This year’s commencement address will be given by Theodore M. Shaw ’76, a leading proponent of civil rights, previous Wesleyan trustee (twice!), and also a prior recipient of the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Wesleyan. You can read the entirety of Roth’s email below.

Shaw’s dedication and work to civil rights and human rights is indeed impressive. Currently a professor at Columbia University, where he also received his J.D. in 1979, he was previously an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for over two decades. What’s most notable about Shaw’s work—that perhaps most directly affects us as college students—was his involvement in creating University of Michigan Law School’s controversial affirmative action policy in the early 2000s, something that has been controversial again just last month. 

This policy gained attention in the landmark Grutter v. Bollinger case, in which the Supreme Court determined that the “Law School’s narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body is not prohibited by the Equal Protection Clause,” thus upholding a prior 1978 decision that the use of race-based affirmative action in admissions was constitutional.

Of course, in that case, Justice Antonin Scalia, who Wesleyan loves so much, dissented.

However, that very same admissions policy also found its way to the Supreme Court concurrently with Grutter v. Bollinger in the Gratz v. Bollinger case, where the Supreme Court struck down the use of what was deemed a “quota system” in UMich Law School’s admissions process. The two cases reaffirmed the Court’s prior decision that race-based affirmative action was constitutional and the quota system unconstitutional per the milestone Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case.

Ted Shaw is still very much invested in the issue of affirmative action. He recently participated in an NPR debate over the question, “Does Affirmative Action On Campus Do More Harm Than Good?”

Recently, this very issue has made it back to the Supreme Court, in a case that challenged Michigan’s 2006 ban on affirmative action policies. The Supreme Court upheld the ban passed by Michigan voters by 6-to-2. The 2006 referendum passed with 58% of the vote, just after the aforementioned 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a “vehement dissent” in this recent 2014 decision upholding the affirmative action ban.

At Wesleyan, Shaw majored in CSS, was active in Ujamaa, and was one of the first three black students to play basketball for the full year. In his email, Roth also made sure to mention in his email that Shaw was speaking on “the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s address here,” which must seem so fitting, since I’m sure that King would be very proud of the state of Wesleyan right now.

Nevertheless, if his acceptance speech for the Distinguished Alumnus Award can give us any signs, Shaw will surely deliver a thoughtful—and thought-provoking–commencement address. From that speech:

Our Wesleyan is no longer here. There are places that were apart of our daily lives at Wesleyan that no longer exist. And there are places that exist now that were not here when we were here, and that we could only dream of… The world has changed.

And @mroth78’s full email:

Dear friends,

It is my pleasure to announce that Theodore M. Shaw ’76, one of the nation’s leading proponents of civil rights, will present Wesleyan’s Commencement address on May 25th, the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s address here. Wesleyan will also award honorary degrees to Helena Chmura Kraemer, whose work in biostatistics has had a transformative impact on medicine and psychiatry, and to Hayden V. White, a distinguished theorist of history.

Theodore M. Shaw ’76

For decades Ted Shaw has been one of the nation’s strongest advocates for equity and inclusion in our society. In courts throughout the nation, including the U.S. Supreme Court, he has argued cases involving voting rights, education, housing discrimination, capital punishment, and civil rights. He played a key role in initiating and drafting the admissions policy that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Grutter v. Bollinger, and he has often testified before Congress and other legislative bodies.

He has worked with human rights lawyers in Africa, South America, Europe, and Asia, written numerous articles and opinion pieces for national publications, and has often provided expert commentary for television and radio shows.

He is professor of professional practice at Columbia University School of Law and is “Of Counsel” to Fulbright Norton Rose. For 23 years he served as an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, concluding as director-counsel and president from 2004–2008. He obtained his law degree from Columbia Law School and started his career as a trial attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice.

The recipient of numerous awards and honors, he currently serves on the board of the Wesleyan University Center for Prison Education. He is a trustee emeritus of Wesleyan.

Helena Chmura Kraemer

Professor of Biostatistics in Psychiatry, Emerita, at Stanford University, Helena Chmura Kraemer is one of the nation’s foremost authorities in evidence-based medicine and in the use of statistical analysis for answering pressing questions in public health. She has transformed methods for determining the efficacy of treatments or preventive interventions, measuring risk factors for diseases, and determining how to formulate public policy so as to do the most good with limited resources. Most recently she played a leading role in revising the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, providing crucial guidance for medical researchers and clinicians.

She is widely regarded as a superb teacher and inspiration to women in nontraditional fields of research. Her many honors include membership in the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, the Franklin Ebaugh Prize from Stanford University, the Harvard Prize in Psychiatric Biostatistics and Epidemiology, and a Fulbright Scholarship.

A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Smith College, she holds a Ph.D. in statistics from Stanford University.

Hayden V. White

Hayden White is widely regarded as one of the most important theorists of history of the last 50 years. In one of his best known works, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973), he argues that historians impose their own structure on the past by creating literary narratives that cannot be truly objective but nonetheless give history its meaning. Professor White’s own contributions to how we understand meaning and culture are profound, and he has had a powerful influence on humanists around the world.

He is a former director of Wesleyan’s Center for the Humanities (1973–76) and is a contributor to Wesleyan’s journal of History and Theory. He has returned often to campus—last May, for instance, when he met with a group of scholars from China and the United States to discuss comparative approaches to the Enlightenment.

He is University Professor and Professor of History of Consciousness, Emeritus, at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and formerly was professor of comparative literature at Stanford University. He received his B.A. degree from Wayne State University and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Michigan.

Among his many honors, he is Fellow, American Philosophical Society; Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and a recipient of an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from the University of Michigan.

Michael S. Roth

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