May 6, 2009

AMHERST, Mass.— Margaret Bangser ’81, founder and former director of the nonprofit Women’s Dignity organization; Peter Brown, the Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History at Princeton University; former Virginia Congressman Thomas M. Davis III ’71, now president and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership; celebrated conductor and pianist Leon Fleisher; accomplished researcher and an esteemed Columbia University professor Andrew R. Marks ’76; entrepreneur Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal and SpaceX; Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, managing director of the World Bank; and abstract artist Frank Stella will all receive honorary degrees from Amherst College during its 188th Commencement exercises on Sunday, May 24, at 10 a.m. on the school’s campus. While Amherst President Anthony W. Marx will deliver the address during the ceremonies May 24, the eight honored guests will speak to the approximately 420 members of Amherst’s Class of 2009, their families and friends and the college and Western Massachusetts communities in a series of conversations that are free and open to the public on Saturday, May 23. The schedule of discussions with the honorands is available on the Commencement Web site.

About the honorary degree recipients

Margaret Bangser ’81Bangser was the founding executive director of Women’s Dignity, a nonprofit organization based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Women’s Dignity promotes public policy, government accountability and social services to protect the dignity and rights of the poor, particularly girls and women. In partnership with groups including the United Nations Population Fund and the World Health Organization, Women’s Dignity has mobilized international attention to obstetric fistula, a devastating complication of childbirth that leads to lives of shame and isolation for an estimated 2 million women worldwide. Bangser holds a B.A. in political science from Amherst College and a master’s degree in public and private management from Yale. She has worked with the Ford Foundation in Eastern and Southern Africa, the International Women’s Health Coalition in Asia and the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. From 1996 to 1998, she coordinated the first comprehensive program to address fistula in Tanzania, and from this initiative she developed Women’s Dignity. In 2007, the UNFPA Campaign to End Fistula honored Bangser as an “Outstanding Fistula Pioneer.”

Peter BrownBrown is considered one of the world’s first and foremost historians of the period known as Late Antiquity (approximately 250 to 850 C.E., including the later years of the Roman Empire). Born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1935 and educated at Oxford, Brown taught at Oxford, the University of London and the University of California, Berkeley, before arriving at Princeton in 1983. He made a name for himself in 1967 with his first book, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, and his many subsequent books, lectures and courses have illuminated Christianity, sexuality, poverty, leadership and many other aspects of Late Antiquity. Through his writing and work, Brown has helped to establish and popularize the study of the period and has challenged preceding historians’ notions of it. He has been honored with a 1982 MacArthur Fellowship, a 2001 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Distinguished Achievement Award for scholarship in the humanities and a 2008 Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Study of Humanity.

Thomas M. Davis III ’71Davis says he knew, from the time he was young, that he wanted to serve in Congress. With that goal in mind, he attended the Senate Page School during high school and graduated with a degree in political science from Amherst. After graduating from the University of Virginia Law School and serving in the Army, he was elected to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors at the age of 30. In 1991, he was elected Chairman of the Board of Supervisors. Under his leadership, Fairfax County was named the best-managed county in the United States in 1993. Elected to the U.S. Congress in 1994, Davis became the first freshman Congressman in 40 years to chair a subcommittee. As the D.C. subcommittee chairman, he brought fiscal responsibility back to the nation’s capital. He earned respect for his bipartisanship as chairman of the House Government Reform Committee from 2003 to 2007, particularly after investigating the executive branch’s response to Hurricane Katrina. He retired from Congress in 2008 and joined Deloitte, LLC, as director of Federal Government Relations.  He also teaches a course in government at George Mason University and serves on numerous boards.

Leon Fleisher

Since launching his career at a remarkably early age, pianist Fleisher has become one of the world’s most celebrated instrumentalists. He studied with Artur Schnabel, debuted at the New York Philharmonic and won the prestigious Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Competition, all by the age of 24. At the height of his career, however, he began a struggle against focal dystonia, a neurological disorder that interferes with the functioning of his right hand. He carried on performing the left-hand repertoire, conducting, recording and teaching and earned two Grammy nominations, the 2005 Johns Hopkins University President’s Medal and the 2007 Kennedy Center Honors, among other awards. For the last 10 years, with the aid of Botox injections, he has been able to play the two-hand repertoire again in concerts and recitals and on acclaimed recordings; an Academy Award-nominated short film, Two Hands, documents his remarkable artistry. He has taught the Peabody Conservatory of Music since 1959, where he is now the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Chair in Piano, and served on the faculty of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music and the Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music. In addition to founding the Theater Chamber Players at the Kennedy Center in 1967, Fleisher has served as associate conductor of the Baltimore Symphony, as well as music director of both the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Music Center.

Andrew R. Marks ’76

An accomplished researcher and an esteemed professor, Marks has brought about breakthroughs in the understanding and treatment of heart disease and muscular dystrophy. After studying biochemistry and English at Amherst, Marks earned his medical degree from Harvard and went on to work at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. His teaching career began at Mount Sinai in 1990. In 1997, he joined the faculty of Columbia, where he has since founded SPURS, the Summer Program for Under-Represented Students, and risen to chair of the Department of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics. The doctor has also served as editor-in-chief of The Journal of Clinical Investigation and been invited to speak at countless medical and scientific conferences. He has received honors from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the American Heart Association—among other organizations—and is a member of the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and founder of International Academic Friends of Israel. Marks is the developer of the drug-eluting coronary stent now used in most angioplasties, and his most recent discovery, currently in clinical development, is a novel therapy for treating cardiac arrhythmias, heart failure and muscular dystrophy. It is based on fixing a “leak” he found in the ryanodine receptor/calcium-release channel required for muscle contraction.

Elon MuskMusk is the co-founder of PayPal, a service through which people can make payments over e-mail; CEO and CTO of SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies), which develops and manufactures space launch vehicles; CEO and Product Architect of Tesla Motors, a producer of electric cars; and Chairman of the Board of SolarCity, which helps equip homes and businesses to run on solar power. Raised in South Africa and educated at Queen’s University and the University of Pennsylvania, Musk earned the title of 2007 Entrepreneur of the Year from Inc. magazine, in recognition of his business skills and his bold innovations in Internet technology, clean energy and space exploration.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Before being appointed a Managing Director of the World Bank in 2007, Okonjo-Iweala was the first woman to hold the positions of Finance Minister and Foreign Minister of Nigeria. Through many reforms, she led the way in reducing corruption, cutting debt and inflation and spurring tremendous economic growth for the nation. Born and raised in the town of Ogwashi-Uku, Nigeria, she earned degrees from Harvard and MIT and served as vice president and corporate secretary of the World Bank until being appointed Finance Minister in 2003. After a brief stint as Foreign Minister in 2006, she was invited back to the World Bank as a managing director, responsible for overseeing the organization’s activities in Africa, South Asia, Europe and Central Asia. She is founder of the first indigenous opinion research organization in Nigeria, NOI Polls, and co-founder of the Makeda Fund, a $50 million private equity fund that invests in African women entrepreneurs. She is also the founder of the Center for Research on the Economies of Africa, a think-tank in Nigeria. In addition, Okonjo-Iweala was a Distinguished Visiting Fellow in the Global Economy and Development Program at the Brookings Institution. She is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a spot on the Forbes list of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the World in 2006 and Euromoney Global Finance Minister of the year in 2005.

Frank Stella

For 50 years, Stella has been a renowned and influential innovator in American abstract art. Born in Malden, Mass., and educated at Princeton, the artist began his career in Manhattan in the late 1950s. Influenced by the creations of Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns and Barnett Newman, among others, Stella’s art soon earned a place in many important exhibitions. By the time he was 35, in fact, New York’s Museum of Modern Art had already presented a retrospective of his work. He began as a painter, then moved into printmaking and relief, as well as costume design and set design. By the 1980s and 1990s, he was designing massive sculptures, murals and architectural projects. Among his best-known works are the Black Paintings; the Irregular Polygon and Eccentric Polygon series; the Protractor Series; and public installations in Toronto, Miami and Washington, D.C. Stella remains active in the New York art scene and has joined the Artists Rights Society to defend the copyright interests of his fellow artists.

About Amherst
Founded in 1821, Amherst is a highly selective, coeducational liberal arts college with approximately 1,600 students from most of the 50 states and more than 30 other countries. Considered one of the nation’s best educational institutions, Amherst awards the B. A. degree in 34 fields of study.