April 7, 2015
AMHERST, Mass.—Entrepreneur and philanthropist Jim Ansara ’82, renowned children’s book author and illustrator Eric Carle, contemporary artist and educator Sonya Clark ’89, economist Alice Rivlin, computational geneticist Pardis Sabeti and attorney and activist Paul Smith ’76 will all receive honorary degrees from Amherst College during its 194th Commencement exercises on Sunday, May 24, at 10 a.m. on the school’s main quad. Amherst College President Biddy Martin will deliver the address during the ceremony, and the honorees will all speak to the approximately 477 members of Amherst’s Class of 2015, 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 preliminary schedule for the weekend is available on the Commencement website.
About the honorary degree recipients
Jim Ansara ’82 is the founder and chairman of Shawmut Design and Construction, one of the country’s largest construction management firms. He started the company with just two employees and grew it into one of New England’s most successful start-ups. Ansara served as Shawmut’s president and CEO for 18 years before selling it to his employees in 2006, assuming the role of chairman, and turning his attention to philanthropy. With his wife, Karen, he established The Ansara Family Fund with the mission to address the root causes of poverty. Since 2008 the Ansaras have worked with Partners in Health, a Boston-based global health organization, to oversee the construction of health care facilities in rural Haiti. After the 2010 earthquake there, Ansara applied his philosophy of “boots-on-the-ground philanthropy,” first working to reestablish Haiti’s power supply and then rebuilding the country’s primary teaching hospital—a 240,000-square-foot facility that includes its own wastewater treatment plant, its own solar power supply and other elements of environmentally conscious design. The project served as a major source of economic development in the Port-au-Prince region, employing hundreds of residents. In 2013 Ansara established Build Health International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building additional medical facilities in Haiti as well as in developing African countries.
Eric Carle is an award-winning author and illustrator of children’s picture books with more than 70 books to his credit. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, one of his earliest, and perhaps his most famous, has sold over 38 million copies and has been translated into 62 languages since it was first published in 1969. Born in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1929, Carle moved to Germany with his immigrant parents at age 6 and speaks of painful memories of growing up during World War II and how his colorful illustrations are a kind of “antidote to the grays and browns” of his childhood. In 1952, Carle returned to America with just $40 to his name and landed a job in the promotion department of The New York Times. He later became a designer at an advertising agency. One of his designs was spotted by well-respected author and educator Bill Martin Jr., who asked Carle to illustrate his now classic Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?. This set Carle on what he calls his true course in life. His vivid collage-style illustrations leap from 128 million copies of his books that have been sold to date and are treasured by generations of children and their parents.
Sonya Clark ’89 is an award-winning contemporary artist and educator renowned for her original use of common materials to address race, class and history. Clark’s works have involved human hair, combs, copper, beads and cloth. She gained prominence two decades ago with the exhibition of her highly acclaimed beaded headdresses and assembled/braided wig series. Since graduating from Amherst in 1989, her work has been displayed on six continents in 300 museums and galleries and earns consistently favorable reviews from publications such as The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Among the many honors Clark has received are a United States Artists Fellowship, a Rockefeller Foundation Residency, and a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship. Clark earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Art Institute of Chicago and a master of fine arts degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art. She received tenure with distinction as the Baldwin-Bascom Professor of Creative Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and, since 2006, has been chair of the Department of Craft/Material Studies in the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University, a department consistently ranked as one of the top in the nation.
Alice Rivlin is an economist who specializes in fiscal, monetary and health policy. The founding director of the Congressional Budget Office, which marks its 40th anniversary in 2015, Rivlin later served as vice chair of the Federal Reserve Board and, in President Bill Clinton’s first administration, as director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. She also chaired the “control board” that helped restore the District of Columbia to fiscal solvency. More recently, President Barack Obama named Rivlin to the Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, also known as The Simpson-Bowles Commission. She co-chaired the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force and has worked to inform millennials about debt reduction, even dancing the Harlem Shake in a video urging young people to persuade government leaders to reduce the nation’s debt. Rivlin was born in Philadelphia in 1931 and grew up in Bloomington, Ind., where her father was a professor. Currently, she is director of the Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform at the Brookings Institution, where she is also a senior fellow in the Economic Studies Program. She is a visiting professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University.
Dr. Pardis Sabeti is a computational geneticist who specializes in genetic diversity and devising algorithms to locate the occurrences of natural selection. An associate professor at the FAS Center for Systems Biology and the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and a member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Sabeti has been widely recognized for her discoveries related to the evolution and spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa. Last summer, Sabeti led a group of Ebola researchers who used genomic sequencing technology to uncover the origins and human-to-human spread of the virus. Her team also demonstrated how genetic mutations within the virus could affect diagnostics, vaccines and therapies. Sabeti also hosts the educational video series Against All Odds: Inside Statistics, sponsored by Annenberg Learner, which is included in high school statistics courses nationwide. Her Boston-based rock band, Thousand Days, for which she is the lead singer, songwriter and bassist, released its fifth album earlier this year. Sabeti graduated from MIT in 1997 with a degree in biology. A Rhodes Scholar, she earned her doctorate in evolutionary genetics in 2002 from Oxford before graduating summa cum laude from Harvard Medical School in 2006.
Paul Smith ’76 is a partner at Jenner & Block, a national law firm, where he chairs the Appellate and Supreme Court Practice. In his career, he has handled many cases involving civil rights and civil liberties, including in the areas of free speech, voting rights and gay rights. Many of these have been cases in the Supreme Court, where he has argued 16 times, including in the landmark gay-rights case Lawrence v. Texas, several cases involving redistricting and voter ID laws, and Brown v. EMA, which established the First Amendment rights of video game producers and rejected the idea that violent expression is constitutionally unprotected. Smith co-chaired the Board of Directors of Lambda Legal, the premier national organization litigating for LGBT equality, and has served on numerous other nonprofit boards in the legal field. He graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Amherst in 1976 and from Yale Law School. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell. In 2010, he received the Thurgood Marshall Award from the American Bar Association for his work on civil rights and civil liberties, and the National Law Journal named him one of the “Decade’s Most Influential Lawyers.”
About Amherst College
Founded in 1821, Amherst is a highly selective, coeducational liberal arts college with 1,800 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 38 fields of study. Sixty percent of Amherst students receive need-based financial aid.