Bryan Stevenson Named the 2016 Commencement Speaker (and Patti Smith Is Also Coming to Campus)

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After months of hilarious gossip circulating about Bernie Sanders being our commencement speaker, MRoth is putting rumors to rest: Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and a professor at NYU Law School (and owner of an impressive AF Wikipedia page), will be delivering the commencement address. Stevenson will also receive an honorary degree from the university.

Some other cool news (that astag_rocky is currently shitting his pants over): Patti Smith (yes, THE Patti Smith) will be attending and receiving an honorary degree, as will Kwame Anthony Appiah, renowned philosopher whose long list of amazing accomplishments include winning the National Humanities Medal in 2012.

And no surprise here: John Usdan of the Usdan University Center Usdans is receiving the Baldwin Medal, the highest honor from Wesleyan’s alumni association, which recognizes “outstanding service to Wesleyan.”

You can read MRoth’s full email after the jump (it’s hella long).

Dear friends,

Wesleyan will present three honorary doctorates at the University’s 184th Commencement on May 22, 2016. Bryan Stevenson, a staunch advocate for racial justice who has fought against inequities in our judicial system, will deliver the Commencement address. Wesleyan will also honor Patti Smith, a legendary singer and writer celebrated for her path-breaking music and powerful memoirs, and Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher known for his compelling work on cosmopolitanism, identity and ethics. The Baldwin Medal, the highest award of the Wesleyan Alumni Association, will be presented to John Usdan ’80, P’15, P’18, P’18.

Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson is a human rights lawyer who has dedicated his life to fighting racial injustice and discrimination in the criminal justice system. He is the founder and chief executive officer of the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based group that has won numerous legal challenges on behalf of the poor and incarcerated, including a historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling holding that life-without-parole sentences for children aged 17 or younger are unconstitutional.

Professor Stevenson also teaches at the New York University School of Law and founded the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in 1989 to help prisoners on death row, and the scope of its mission has expanded since. Under his leadership, EJI has won a number of major legal challenges—eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill and aiding children prosecuted as adults. He has successfully argued several cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and he and his staff have won reversals, relief or release for more than 115 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row.Professor Stevenson has initiated major new anti-poverty and anti-discrimination efforts that challenge the legacy of racial inequality in America, including projects to educate communities about slavery, lynching and racial segregation.

He is a 1985 graduate of Harvard, with both a master’s in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government and a J.D. from the Harvard Law School. Among the numerous honors accorded him are a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” the National Medal of Liberty from the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Olof Palme Prize in Stockholm for international human rights. He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2014. He is the author of the bestseller Just Mercy, winner of the 2015 Carnegie Medal for Best Nonfiction and named by Time magazine as one of the 10 Best Books of Nonfiction for 2014.

Patti Smith

Patti Smith is a writer, performer, and visual artist. She gained recognition in the 1970s for her revolutionary mergence of poetry and rock and has recorded thirteen 13 albums. Her seminal album Horses (1975) has been inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress/National Recording Preservation Board.

Her acclaimed memoir, Just Kids, chronicling her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe, was awarded the 2010 National Book Award.  Her books include Witt, Babel, Coral Sea, Woolgathering, Auguries of Innocence and the recent M Train.

The French Ministry of Culture awarded Smith the prestigious title of Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, the highest honor awarded to an artist by the French Republic. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007 and in 2011 was the recipient of Sweden’s Polar Award, for significant achievements in music.

The anthem People have the Power, written and recorded with her late husband Fred Sonic Smith, is used globally to call for collective unity and social justice. Smith lends her support to many causes, believing it is essential to use one’s creative powers to increase awareness of environmental issues, disease, poverty and human rights violations.

Kwame Anthony Appiah

Kwame Anthony Appiah is Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, teaching in New York, Abu Dhabi and other NYU Global Centers. He has held a number of other distinguished academic appointments as well, most recently at Princeton in the philosophy department and the University Center for Human Values. He also has taught at Yale, Cornell, Duke, and Harvard universities and has lectured worldwide.

Professor Appiah is renowned for his insights into moral theory and practice, racism and identity, cultural differences and political development. His 1992 book, In My Father’s House (Oxford University Press), explores the role of African and African-American intellectuals in shaping contemporary African cultural life and was recognized by the African Studies Association with its Herskovits Award as “the most important scholarly work in African studies published in English.” His vast and wide-ranging scholarly activities earned him Forbes’ designation in 2009 as one of the world’s seven most powerful thinkers. In October 2015, he began to write the weekly Ethicist column for The New York Times Magazine, answering readers’ questions about their ethical quandaries.

Professor Appiah holds B.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Cambridge University. His numerous honors include election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. President Obama presented him with the National Humanities Medal in 2012.

John Usdan

Baldwin Medal

Wesleyan will present the Baldwin Medal to Mr. John L. Usdan ’80, P’15, P’18, P’18. Mr. Usdan is president of Midwood Management, a New York-based real estate investment and development firm. Mr. Usdan is also president of the Lemberg Foundation. The Baldwin Medal, which pays tribute to the late Judge Raymond E. Baldwin of the class of 1916, is the highest honor of the Alumni Association, recognizing outstanding service to Wesleyan.

Mr. Usdan’s remarkable record of service to the Wesleyan community over more than three decades has included 12 years as a trustee and as chair of the THIS IS WHY campaign—the most successful fundraising effort in Wesleyan’s history. He is one of Wesleyan’s greatest ambassadors, engaging scores of alumni and parents in the life of the University. While serving alma mater, Mr. Usdan has led by example. He and his brother, Adam ’83, established the Samuel Lemberg Scholarship Fund in memory of their grandfather to support middle-income students. John and Adam also made the lead gift to construct the university center, which Wesleyan proudly named the Suzanne Lemberg Usdan University Center in honor of their mother and in recognition of their extraordinary service to the University.

Mr. Usdan and his wife, Eva Colin Usdan, have three sons: Samuel, Wesleyan class of 2015, and twins, Joshua and Simon, both Wesleyan class of 2018.

We welcome suggestions for future recipients of honorary degrees. Please contact

Michael S. Roth


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