Duke students will not be the only people receiving degrees at commencement this weekend—they will be joined on stage by seven honorary degree recipients.
This year’s recipients represent a wide range of disciplines—from novel-writing to computer science—and three of the seven are Duke alumni. They follow in the footsteps of other recent Duke honorary degree recipients like Oprah Winfrey, Melinda Gates—Trinity '86 and Fuqua '87—and William Foege.
Announced in April, the recipients are geneticist George Church, Trinity '74, business administration professor Clayton Christensen, novelist Marilynne Robinson, former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, documentarian Stanley Nelson, computer scientist Luis von Ahn—Trinity '00—and Deborah Lee James, Trinity '79 and former secretary of the Air Force.
For Church, May’s commencement will be a particularly special one.
“Oddly, this is the first commencement ceremony that I've ever attended, having missed my high school, college and Ph.D. events due to lab work priorities,” he wrote in an email.
Church, Robert Winthrop professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, received his degree at Duke in chemistry and has appeared on Stephen Colbert’s late night comedy show to discuss the future of gene therapy. He is well-known for his work on “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” commonly known as CRISPR.
Additionally, he was a “founding core member” of Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Church credits Duke with being a starting point in his academic career.
“Duke is very special, since it is where I did the research for my first five scientific publications—thanks to my Duke mentor, Sung Hou Kim—on tRNA-translation and DNA-protein interaction codes, about which I am still passionately engaged 42 years later,” he wrote.
Like Church, Christensen is a professor at Harvard. The Kim B. Clark professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School is a New York Times bestselling author with more than a handful of books to his credit. A 2011 Forbes cover story about Christensen called him “one of the most influential business theorists of the last 50 years” and discussed his ideas for the healthcare system, as well as how he overcame a heart attack, cancer and a stroke within three years.
Christensen earned an M.Phil. of econometrics at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and worked as a missionary in the Republic of Korea for two years. His daughter Ann graduated from Duke in 2001 and his son Matt graduated from Duke in 2002.
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Robinson has written four works of fiction and nonfiction each throughout her career, but her inclusion in the Time Magazine’s 2016 list of the 100 most influential people was not in the list of artists, but rather as an "icon"—sandwiched between the profiles of Usain Bolt and Karlie Kloss.
In a 2015 conversation with former President Barack Obama, the then-president told Robinson that he loved her books and that he started reading her 2004 work "Gilead" while campaigning in Iowa. Robinson, who has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington, received the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and a 2012 National Humanities Medal.
As Attorney General, Lynch was the second woman and second African American—and the first African American woman—to hold the post. Lynch served in that role from 2015 to 2017 after being appointed by President Obama.
Although Lynch is not a Duke alum—having earned her undergraduate and law degree from Harvard—her brother Leonzo Lynch earned a masters degree from Duke Divinity School. Lynch earned her undergraduate and law degree from Harvard. She is also scheduled to speak at Duke Law School’s hooding ceremony during her commencement weekend visit.
Deborah Lee James
Like Lynch, James was the second woman to hold her high-ranking position in government when she was secretary of the Air Force from 2013 to 2017. She earned a bachelor's degree in comparative studies at Duke before going on to receive a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University. James has previously served as president of the Fortune 500 company Technical and Engineering Sector of Science Applications International Corporation.
“I am thrilled to return to Duke and even more thrilled to receive an honorary degree,” she wrote in an email. “Looking back, Duke taught me so much that I have used throughout my 35-year career in national security: how to think and investigate critically; how to communicate effectively and how to respect and value different types of people and points of view. I will forever be indebted to Duke.”
Nelson has earned five Primetime Emmy Awards for his career in documentary filmmaking that has spanned more than two decades. He has produced pieces such as "The Black Press: Soldiers without Swords"—which documents the role of black journalists in American history—and "Climbing Jacob’s Ladder," a historical look at African-American churches.
Nelson was a member of the 2002 class of MacArthur Fellows. In 2013 he was awarded a National Medal of the Humanities by President Obama. He earned his undergraduate degree from the City University of New York’s Leonard Davis Film School in 1976.
Luis von Ahn
Von Ahn, associate professor in the school of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, is the creator of the field of human computation, also known as crowdsourcing. He created two projects that were acquired by Google, including reCAPTCHA. The MacArthur fellow is currently working on the popular language app Duolingo. Von Ahn earned his bachelor's degree in mathematics, but he never received a degree in computer science.
“I'm incredibly excited to receive an honorary degree from my alma mater. It's really quite a unique honor that I never thought I'd receive,” he wrote in an email. “It's also a sweet revenge against professor Owen Astrachan, who wouldn't let me get a computer science degree there because I was missing a single class!”
Astrachan, professor of computer science, taught von Ahn in two classes and recalled that from the start, von Ahn showed that “he was intellectually curious and very capable and that he was going to do great things.” As for withholding a computer science degree from the man who has since created a new subfield of the discipline, Astrachan stands by his decision, but noted that it would not be an issue today because of interdisciplinary majors.
“We held firm to our rules, knowing that Luis was brilliant, but we kept to the requirements,” Astrachan wrote in an email. “He and I had a friendly banter about this on Facebook when the honorary degrees were announced.”