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Thomas Pickering named commencement speaker

This May, the Brandeis community will welcome Thomas Pickering, a former United States ambassador, to speak at Brandeis’ 64th Commencement ceremony. Pickering served as an ambassador to Russia, India, the United Nations, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria and Jordan.
Pickering was high achieving well before he began working for the State Department. He was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship out of college and later enrolled in the Navy where he earned the position of a Lieutenant Commander.

Throughout the course of his life, Pickering has been the recipient of 12 honorary degrees and multiple awards. These awards include the Distinguished Service Award in 1996 and the Distinguished Presidential Award in 1983 and 1986. The United States Foreign Service named Pickering a career ambassador, the highest honor.

“We decided that he is an outstanding individual, who has spent years working for the benefit of our country,” said Brandeis Trustee Carol Saivetz, chair of the Honorary Degree Committee. “The committee unanimously approved his nomination. The full Board of Trustees also unanimously voted in favor of his receiving an honorary degree from Brandeis,” Saivetz continued. As the chair of the Honorary Degree Committee, Saivetz contributes greatly to the selection process.

The process begins early in the year when a form is released to the public allowing anyone to submit nominations to the Board of Trustees’ Honorary Degree Committee. The Committee consists of nine members and includes one Brandeis student and one faculty member. The nominations are reviewed by the Committee and then looked at by an outside agency.

After being reviewed, the Committee recommends candidates to the Board of Trustees, which then reviews and approves candidates. From the approved candidates, Lawrence selects a few speakers and honorary degree recipients. Lawrence’s selections are reviewed by the Board chair, the Honorary Degree Committee chair and a tenured faculty member in the related field. If supported, the candidates are contacted regarding availability for commencement.

While the selection process is long, it has resulted in excellent commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients. Past individuals include, President Harry S. Truman in 1957, Golda Meir in 1973, Nancy Pelosi in 2003 and Yo-Yo Ma in 2011. Although last year there was a controversy regarding giving Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree, after a student petition was created, Ali was ultimately removed from the list of recipients.

This year, four distinct individuals will be honored degrees from Brandeis: Suzanne Farrell, Jamaica Kincaid, Helen Vendler and Yotam Ottolenghi. Farrell is a world renown ballerina and the founder of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet in Washington, D.C. While she no longer performs, she has dedicated her life to teaching people around the world the work of Balanchine, her mentor.

Currently a professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, Kincaid has written many novels, essays and short fiction pieces. Her work comments on loss, gender and race, and Kincaid is known for excellent depictions of complex emotions. She won the Reix Femina Étranger for “My Brother” in 2000 and was later inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2004 and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009. Her work has been featured in The Paris Review and The New Yorker.

Vendler, a literary critic and professor at Harvard, has written books on famous writers such as Shakespeare, Keats, Dickinson and Yeats. She reviews poetry and other works for The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review and The New York Republic. Vendler has judged for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in the past and is a member of the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was president of the Modern Language Association in 1980.

An accomplished food writer, restaurant owner and chef, Ottolenghi has created many Middle Eastern-inspired dishes. Ottolenghi writes weekly for The Guardian’s Weekend magazine and has published four successful cookbooks. Ottolenghi Deli, now in four different locations, is extremely successful.

The Brandeis Commencement ceremony will take place at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, May 17 in Gosman.

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