There are few occasions that bring an Olympian, a computer whiz, a government official and an archbishop to the same stage.
GW’s 1999 Commencement ceremony will honor people from such diverse backgrounds as the University will hand out four honorary Doctor of Public Service degrees Sunday.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, GW’s keynote speaker at Commencement, heads the class of degree recipients this year. Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Arthur Levitt, and Esther Dyson, the chairman of a company focusing on emerging information technology worldwide, will join Tutu on the Commencement stage.
Tutu became famous for speaking out against the apartheid system in South Africa during the 1970s and ’80s, and he eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
“Bishop Tutu is absolutely a world-class, all-cosmos symbol of world peace,” University Marshal Jill Kasle said. “He is very deserving of the honor.”
The process for determining who is worthy of an honorary degree is a long, continuous process. In fact, plans are already underway for the recipients for the 2000 Commencement, Kasle said.
First, Kasle’s office requests nominations from the GW community. Kasle then sends a list to the Faculty Senate’s Committee on Honors and Academic Convocations, who makes recommendations to GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. A Board of Trustees committee then makes a final decision based on the President’s list of nominees.
Among the honorees on the list is Joyner-Kersee, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, who has been one of the most dominant female track and field athletes of her generation. She holds the world record in the heptathlon and the American record for the long jump. After competing in the 1996 Olympics she played in the inaugural season of the now defunct American Basketball League, returning to the sport that earned her a scholarship to the University of California at Los Angeles.
But beyond the world of sports, Joyner-Kersee has given back to her community. She established the JJK Community Foundation in 1998, which fosters leadership development in urban areas around the country.
Joyner-Kersee demonstrates the two main criteria by which recipients are nominated and selected: high achievement in one’s field and a contribution to the public good.
“The degrees are an acknowledgment of not just early success but continued achievement and success in a field,” Kasle said. “There should also be some evidence or indication of public spiritedness, not necessarily monetary. It can be philanthropy, but it can also be taking time to read to kids at a library.”
GW usually prefers its recipients to have some link to the University as well, though a connection with GW is not required. While none of the four honorary degree recipients are connected to GW, all meet the other two criteria.
Dyson is the chairman of EDventure Holdings, which helps countries of eastern Europe to get started in the computer business and provides assistance in other aspects of the computer industry. Her company is increasing the rate of computer availability in eastern European countries and in the former Soviet Union.
“She is a computer visionary,” Kasle said. “If Bill Gates is the money in the computer industry, Esther is the brains. What he has done in the industry came as a businessman; Esther Dyson has done it with intellect.”
Forbes Magazine recently named Dyson one of the 50 most powerful women in American business.
Levitt is the fourth and final recipient. He has chaired the SEC since 1993, and his current term expires in 2003. Levitt’s top priority during his tenure has been investor protection. He created the Office of Investor Education and Assistance, held town meetings and created a Web site so his office could better serve the public.
“He is a top public servant who has used the resources of his offices to reach out to people who would not normally have access to the system,” Kasle said.