Student toss their graduation caps at Commencement at Amherst College (AMHERST, Mass., April 16, 2019) — Seven influential leaders in neuroscience, photography, religion, writing, astrophysics and social justice philanthropy will receive honorary degrees from Amherst College during its 198th Commencement exercises on Sunday, May 26, at 10 a.m. on the school’s main quad. Amherst President Biddy Martin will deliver the traditional Commencement address during the ceremony, and each of the honorees will speak in a series of conversations that are free and open to the public on Saturday, May 25. The schedule for the weekend is available on the Commencement website.

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

  • Harvard neuroscientist David P. Corey ’74
  • Photographer Annie Leibovitz
  • Cape Town, South Africa, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba
  • Book author, science writer and scriptwriter Charles C. Mann ’76
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala
  • Journalist, book author and former Amherst Board of Trustees chair Cullen Murphy ’74
  • Ford Foundation President Darren Walker

The Honorees and Their Accomplishments

David Corey David P. Corey

David P. Corey is the Bertarelli Professor of Translational Medical Science in the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. His team uses a variety of biophysical, structural, genetic and imaging methods to understand how vertebrate ears convert the vibration of sound to a neural signal. Over 40 years, this has progressed from a basic morphological and biophysical description of the process, to a molecular identification of some of the proteins involved and solution of their structure at the level of single atoms. Because mutation of many of these proteins causes different forms of hereditary deafness, his laboratory is now using this understanding to develop new gene therapy methods to treat hearing loss. Corey joined the faculty at Harvard in 1984 as an assistant professor of neuroscience and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Previously, he received his doctorate in neurobiology from Caltech and postdoctoral training in biophysics at the Yale School of Medicine. He graduated from Amherst in 1974 with a degree in physics and a budding interest in neuroscience.

Annie Leibovitz Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz’s large and distinguished body of work encompasses some of the most well-known portraits of our time. Leibovitz began her career as a photojournalist for Rolling Stone in 1970, while she was still a student. In 1983, when she joined the staff of the revived Vanity Fair, she was established as the foremost rock music photographer and an astute documentarian of the social landscape. At Vanity Fair, and later at Vogue, her work with actors, directors, writers, musicians, athletes, and political and business figures, as well as her fashion photographs, expanded her collective portrait of contemporary life. Leibovitz has published several books and has exhibited widely. She is a Commandeur in the French government’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and has been designated a Living Legend by the Library of Congress. She holds a bachelors degree from the San Francisco Art Institute.

Archbishop Thabo Thabo Makgoba

Thabo Makgoba is the archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa; metropolitan of the Anglican Church of the ecclesiastical province of Southern Africa; and chancellor of the University of the Western Cape. After earning his bachelor’s degree at Wits University in Johannesburg, Makgoba trained as a priest and earned a diploma in theology at St. Paul’s College in Grahamstown, South Africa, before being ordained. Among many other achievements, he has served in a number of positions in the Anglican Diocese of Johannesburg; earned another bachelor’s degree—this time in applied psychology—and a master’s degree in educational psychology from Wits, and published three books. He holds a doctorate in spirituality from the University of Cape Town and four honorary degrees, and participates on the boards multiple nongovernment and religious organizations. The youngest person ever to be elected the archbishop of Cape Town, Makgoba is credited with pioneering the use of indaba (the isiZulu word for “discussion,” often used in South Africa as a synonym for “conference”) in the worldwide Anglican Communion as a means of addressing and appreciating difference.

Charles Mann; photo by Michael Lionstar Charles C. Mann

Charles C. Mann’s most recent book is The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World. His previous books include 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, a New York Times best-seller, and 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, winner of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ Keck award for the best book of the year. A correspondent for The AtlanticScience and Wired, Mann has covered the intersection of science, technology and commerce for many newspapers and magazines here and abroad. In addition to the aforementioned books, he has co-written four others, television scripts for HBO and Law & Order, and texts for museum exhibits and Native American cultural centers. He is a member of Amherst’s class of 1976. 

Nergis Mavalvala Nergis Mavalvala

Nergis Mavalvala, the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a 2010 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, is a physicist whose research focuses on the detection of gravitational waves and quantum measurement science. She is a leading figure on the scientific team that announced, in 2016, the first direct detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). Mavalvala has also conducted pioneering experiments on generation and application of squeezed states of light, and on optical cooling and trapping of macroscopic objects to enable observation of quantum phenomena in human-scale systems. She was a postdoctoral fellow and research scientist at the California Institute of Technology before joining the physics faculty at MIT in 2002, and was appointed associate head of MIT’s Department of Physics in February 2015. Elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2017, Mavalvala earned her bachelor’s degrees in physics and astronomy from Wellesley College and her doctorate in physics from MIT.

Cullen Murphy Cullen Murphy

Cullen Murphy served as chair of Amherst’s Board of Trustees from 2012 until 2018. At present he is editor at large of The Atlantic magazine, where from 1985 until 2006 he served as managing editor. From 2006 until 2018 he was editor at large of Vanity Fair. For 25 years he wrote the comic strip Prince Valiant, which was drawn by his father, John Cullen Murphy. He has also written a number of books, among them Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage, with co-author William Rathje; the essay collection Just Curious; The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own; Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America; and God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World. His most recent book, Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe, was published in 2017. Murphy is a former member of the governing boards of the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Emily Dickinson Museum, and the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. He graduated from Amherst in 1974 with a degree in European studies.  

Darren Walker Darren Walker

Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation, an international social justice philanthropy with a $13 billion endowment and $600 million in annual grantmaking. For two decades, he has been a leader in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. Walker led the philanthropy committee that helped bring a resolution to the city of Detroit’s historic bankruptcy, and he chairs the U.S. Impact Investing Alliance. He co-chairs New York City’s Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers, and serves on the Commission on the Future of Rikers Island Correctional Institution and the UN International Labour Organization’s Global Commission on the Future of Work. He also serves on the boards of Carnegie Hall, the High Line and the Committee to Protect Journalists, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Walker graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, which in 2009 recognized him with its Distinguished Alumnus Award.


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.