Archbishop Desmond Tutu will be the keynote speaker at GW’s University-wide Commencement ceremony May 16 on the Ellipse.
Tutu gained international fame as one of the most prominent and outspoken figures during the fight to end apartheid in South Africa. Tutu, a 67-year-old native of Klerksdorp, South Africa, served as General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches for 17 years. Tutu helped build the council into a political force at the height of the tension-fraught struggle to end apartheid.
In 1984, Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent approach to end apartheid. He was later chosen by South African President Nelson Mandela to chair the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where he launched a two-year investigation of crimes committed during the apartheid regime.
Lynn Shipway, director of University Special Events, said GW did not have to sift through a list of possible speakers to choose Tutu.
“The opportunity to have Archbishop Tutu this year presented itself and President Trachtenberg was able to take advantage of it,” Shipway said. “Any time GW has the opportunity to have a guest of the stature and distinction of Archbishop Tutu, that person is the top choice.”
Tutu has previously received honorary degrees from such institutions as Harvard, Oxford and Columbia universities.
Another notable honorary degree recipient this year is track and field legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
The renowned athlete, who graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles in the top 10 percent of her class, won six Olympic medals, including three gold medals.
Also receiving honorary degrees this year are Arthur Levitt, chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and Esther Dyson, former journalist and owner of EDventure holdings, through which she has become a prominent figure in the world of Internet technology.
Past recipients have included tennis great Martina Navratilova and Hall of Fame basketball coach Red Auerbach.
Nominations for honorary degree recipients are received from members of the University community on an ongoing basis, Shipway said. All honorary degree recipients, including speakers, are approved by the Faculty Senate Committee on Honors and Convocations, and by the Academic Affairs Committee of the GW Board of Trustees.
“We try to bring together a group of honorees that represents different disciplines and fields of expertise, different races, religions and ages, broad talents, varying geography and varying measures of achievement,” Shipway said. “Also, honorees often have a relationship with GW.”
Tutu will be the designated speaker at the ceremony, but Joyner-Kersee and the other honorees will have the opportunity to address the audience.
Shipway said she and Trachtenberg are thrilled Tutu will be this year’s speaker.
“Archbishop Tutu often carries the messages of peace, of hope, of understanding, of compassion, of tolerance, of humility, of generosity, of character – words likely of value to graduates, guests and all of us attending,” Shipway said.