Announcement

Steven Chu regrets that he is unable to attend Amherst College’s 196th Commencement to accept an Honorary Degree due to a bike accident that resulted in a broken and displaced clavicle and on the advice of his doctors to not fly at this time.

Former U.S. Energy Secretary, Pioneering Cancer Researcher, Renowned Rabbi and Others to Be Honored on May 21

AMHERST, Mass.— Six influential leaders in the fields of theater and dance, energy policy, environmental history, poverty and development economics, cancer research and religion will receive honorary degrees from Amherst College during its 196th Commencement exercises on Sunday, May 21, at 10 a.m. on the school’s main quad. Amherst President Biddy Martin will deliver the traditional Commencement address during the ceremony itself, and the honorees will all speak in a series of conversations that are free and open to the public on Saturday, May 20. The preliminary schedule for the weekend is available on the Commencement website.

This year’s honorary degree recipients include the following distinguished guests:

  • Yanira Castro ’94E, a dance, performance, theater and visual art artist and founder of the collaborative group a canary torsi
  • Steven Chu, former secretary of the Department of Energy and winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • William Cronon, Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin—Madison and a Pulitzer Prize-nominated environmental historian and author
  • Esther Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics in the Department of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and award-winning poverty economics researcher
  • Barrett J. Rollins ’74, the pioneering chief scientific officer and faculty dean for academic affairs at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI) in Boston and the Linde Family Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School
  • Peter J. Rubinstein ’64, director of Jewish community and the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at 92Y in New York and Newsweek magazine-recognized “influential rabbi.” 

The Honorees and Their Accomplishments 

Yanira Castro Yanira Castro ’94E is an interdisciplinary artist who has been making work in New York for 20 years. In 2009, she formed a collaborative group that she subsequently named a canary torsi, an anagram of her name. Her work borrows from dance, performance, theater and visual art, often using interactive technology to create hybrid projects. In different forms—such as performances, installations, archives, and online and site-based projects—she develops scenarios that place the public in unique relationships to the work. Her work has been commissioned and presented by The Chocolate Factory Theater, The Invisible Dog Art Center, Danspace Project, Dance Theater Workshop and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), among other groups, and has toured nationally and internationally. Castro is a 2017 Gibney Dance DiP Resident Artist, 2016 New York Foundation for the Arts Choreography Fellow, 2014 Returning Choreographic Fellow at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography and current participant in the LMCC’s Extended Life program. Castro received a 2009 Bessie award for Dark Horse/Black Forest, presented by Performance Space 122 in the lobby restroom of The Gershwin Hotel. Originally from Puerto Rico, she received her B.A. in theater and dance and English from Amherst.


Steven Chu

A Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Steven Chu is currently the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Physics and professor of molecular and cellular physiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. During his tenure there, he has conducted groundbreaking research and launched two institutes. Prior to that, he held multiple leadership positions in academia, as well as at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the Quantum Electronics Research Department at AT&T Bell Laboratories, and the U.S. Department of Energy, where he was the 12th secretary, serving from 2009 until 2013. He was the first scientist to hold a cabinet position and the longest-serving secretary of energy in American history. Chu has dozens of recognitions, including the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics for contributions to laser cooling and atom trapping; 29 honorary degrees; and prestigious memberships in the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the UK’s Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Korean Academy of Sciences and Technology. He has published more than 275 scientific papers and holds 11 patents. He received bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physics from the University of Rochester, and a doctorate in physics from the University of California, Berkeley.


William Cronon William Cronon is the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. He studies American environmental history and the history of the American West, with a focus on landscapes and human interactions with the natural world. In addition to editing many volumes, he has authored the influential Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England and Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, which won multiple awards and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Prior to his tenure at UW-Madison, Cronon served on the faculty of the Yale University Department of History for more than a decade. He has held leadership positions with The Wilderness Society, the national board of The Trust for Public Land and the American Historical Association. He has been a Rhodes Scholar, Danforth Fellow, Guggenheim Fellow and MacArthur Fellow, and has been elected into several prestigious organizations, including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received his B.A. from UW-Madison, and master of arts, master of philosophy and doctoral degrees from Yale. In addition, he holds a doctorate of philosophy from the University of Oxford.  


Esther Duflo

Esther Duflo is the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics in the Department of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Also a co-founder and co-director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, she seeks to understand the economic lives of the poor, with the aim to help design and evaluate social policies. She has worked on health, education, financial inclusion, environment and governance, and received numerous academic honors and prizes, including a Princess of Asturias Award for Social Sciences, a John Bates Clark Medal and a MacArthur Fellowship. With Abhijit V. Banerjee, she wrote Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, which won the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award in 2011 and has been translated into 17 languages. Duflo is a founding editor of the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics and the current editor of the American Economic Review.She holds degrees in history and economics from École Normale Supérieure, Paris, and received a Ph.D. in economics from MIT in 1999. 


Barrett Rollins

Barrett J. Rollins ’74 is chief scientific officer and faculty dean for academic affairs at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI) in Boston, and the Linde Family Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. After graduating from Amherst in 1974, Rollins earned his Ph.D. and medical doctorate from Case Western Reserve University in 1979 and 1980, respectively. He then completed a residency in internal medicine at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston and went on to serve a clinical fellowship in medical oncology at DFCI. Since joining the DFCI faculty in 1989, Rollins has developed pioneering techniques that have enabled him to study white blood cell trafficking and the interactions between inflammation and cancer. His research identified genetic mutations responsible for a rare childhood cancer, a discovery which has led to highly effective treatments for that cancer. He leads a project that seeks to perform a broad genetic profile on every patient seen at DFCI. The results are given not only to medical providers and researchers at DFCI but also to a consortium of cancer centers which makes the data publicly available with the aim of advancing cancer research worldwide.


Peter Rubinstein

Peter J. Rubinstein ’64 is the director of Jewish community and the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at 92Y in New York. He was named one of “America’s 50 Most Influential Rabbis” by Newsweek magazine all six years the list was published—and ranked in the top five in three of the editions—as well as one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis” by The Jewish Daily Forward. Rubinstein has served in rabbinical and leadership positions at many religious organizations, including Central Synagogue, a Reform congregation affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism; the Be Wise Fellowship in Jewish Entrepreneurialism; Auburn Theological Seminary; the World Union for Progressive Judaism; and the U.S. board of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. He has taught at several institutions of higher education, and writes and lectures frequently on the evolution of synagogues and the role of a rabbi now and in the future. After graduating from Amherst in 1964 with a degree in English, he went on to be ordained by the Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, and then earned a master of Hebrew letters degree with honors. He received a doctorate of divinity in 1994.