Acclaimed Nigerian Writer and Feminist Icon, Southern Poverty Law Center Founder, Children’s Health Advocate Among Six to be Honored at Commencement

AMHERST, Mass., May 1, 2018 — Six influential leaders in the fields of literature and feminism, political theory, civil rights advocacy, environmental security, art history and epidemiology and children’s health will receive honorary degrees from Amherst College during its 197th Commencement exercises on Sunday, May 20, at 10 a.m. on the school’s main quad. Amherst President Biddy Martin will deliver the traditional Commencement address during the ceremony, and the honorees will all speak in a series of conversations that are free and open to the public on Saturday, May 19. The preliminary schedule for the weekend is available on the Commencement website.

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

  • Acclaimed Nigerian writer and feminist icon Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Classicist and political theorist Danielle Allen, the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics
  • Civil rights activist Morris Dees, co-founder and chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center
  • Environmental security advocate Sherri Goodman ’81, senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program and Polar Initiative and former U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Environmental Security)
  • Art historian and curator Kellie Jones ’81, professor at Columbia University and a 2016 winner of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (also known as a genius grant)
  • Children’s health advocate Philip J. Landrigan, professor of environmental medicine and pediatrics and dean for global health in the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

The honorees and their accomplishments

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the author of three novels and a multitude of short stories, essays, translations, plays, poetry and other publications. Her work explores the lives of Nigerians before and after the Nigerian Civil War as well as the themes of race, love and feminism, and has earned her a number of prestigious awards, including the O. Henry Prize and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, which she began during her senior year at Eastern Connecticut State University, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize (2004) and awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (2005). Her other two novels are Half of a Yellow Sun (also the title of one of her short stories), which won the Orange Prize (2007), and Americanah, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award (2013). Adichie holds two master’s degrees, one in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and another in African history from Yale University, and served as a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University from 2005 to 2006. From 2011 to 2012, she served as a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, where she finished her third novel, Americanah.

Danielle Allen
Danielle Allen is James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. A political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology and the history of political thought, she is widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America. She is author of Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown vs. Board of Education (2004), Why Plato Wrote (2010), Education and Equality (2016) and Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. (2017), among other books. She is the co-editor of the award-winning Education, Justice, and Democracy and From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in the Digital Age. In addition, she is a chair of the Mellon Foundation Board, former chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. She is also the principal investigator for the Democratic Knowledge Project, a distributed research and action lab at Harvard University.  

Morris Dees
Morris Dees is an attorney and co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a public interest law firm specializing in civil rights cases. Among many other accomplishments, the Dees-led Center created the Intelligence Project, which monitors hate groups and develops legal strategies for protecting citizens from violence-prone groups; secured a $7 million precedent-setting judgment against the United (Ku Klux) Klans of America on behalf of the mother of a young black man lynched in Alabama; and won a $6 million judgment that bankrupted the Aryan Nations. To promote acceptance and respect for others, in 1990 the Center also founded Teaching Tolerance, which has produced free videos, teaching materials and the Teaching Tolerance magazine for schools across the United States. Dees has received numerous awards for his work, including Trial Lawyer of the Year in 1987; the American Bar Association’s highest honor, the ABA Medal; the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize from The King Center in Atlanta; and the National Education Association President’s Award for Human and Civil Rights, among others. He is the author of three books: A Lawyer’s Journey, his autobiography; Hate on Trial; and Gathering Storm: America’s Militia Threat.    

Philip J. Landrigan
Sherri Goodman ’81 is an expert in the fields of national security, energy, science, oceans and environment. A senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program and Polar Initiative, Goodman is credited with educating a generation of U.S. military and government officials about the nexus between climate change and national security, using her famous coinage, “threat multiplier,” to fundamentally reshape the national discourse on the topic. The first-ever U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Environmental Security) and professional staff member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Goodman has founded, led or advised nearly a dozen research organizations on environmental and energy matters, national security, oceans and public policy. She has been awarded the Gold Medal from the National Defense Industrial Association, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Change Award and the DoD medal for Distinguished Public Service, twice.  She has testified before numerous committees of the U.S. Congress and appeared in numerous documentaries and other media.  A summa cum laude graduate of Amherst, she earned a law degree from Harvard Law School and a masters in public policy degree from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Kellie Jones ’81
Kellie Jones ’81 is associate professor in art history and archaeology and the Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS) at Columbia University. Her research interests include African American and African Diaspora artists, Latinx and Latin American Artists, and issues in contemporary art and museum theory. She has received numerous awards for her work from the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Harvard University; Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and a term as Scholar-in-Residence at the Terra Foundation for American Art in Europe in Giverny, France. In 2016 she was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow. Jones’s writings have appeared in exhibition catalogues and such journals as NKAArtforumFlash ArtAtlantica, and Third Text. She is the author of two books published by Duke University Press, EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art (2011), and South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s (2017), which was named one of the Best Art Books of 2017 by The New York Times. Jones has also worked as a curator for over three decades and has numerous major national and international exhibitions to her credit. After graduating from Amherst, she earned her master’s and then doctorate from Yale University.

Philip J. Landrigan
Philip J. Landrigan is professor of environmental medicine and pediatrics and dean for global health in the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. His groundbreaking work exploring the effect lead, pesticides and other toxins have on humans—particularly children—were influential in the development of several laws requiring the removal of lead from gas and paint as well as the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996. He has also directed medical studies of the 9/11 rescue and recovery workers who spent significant amounts of time at Ground Zero and on toxic environmental exposures in low- and middle-income countries. As Senior Advisor on Children’s Health to the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he was instrumental in helping to establish the Office of Children’s Health Protection. In addition, he served in the Medical Corps of the U.S. Navy, where he was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal (three times), the National Defense Service Medal and the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service. Landrigan holds degrees from Boston College, Harvard Medical School and the University of London’s London School of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene.

About Amherst College

Amherst College prepares students to use ideas to make a difference in the world. Since its founding, in 1821, in Western Massachusetts, Amherst has demonstrated steadfast confidence in the value of the liberal arts and the importance of critical thinking. Today, its financial aid program is among the most substantial in the nation, and its student body is among the most diverse. Small classes, an open curriculum and a singular focus on undergraduate education ensure that leading scholars engage daily with talented, curious students, equipping them for leadership in an increasingly global and complex world. The College will celebrate its bicentennial in 2021.



Commencement Weekend 2018

Watch videos, hear audio, and see photos of from Commencement 2018.