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Brandeis announces 2024 Commencement speakers

In an email to the Brandeis community, Brandeis President Ron Liebowitz recently announced award-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and higher education leader Ruth Simmons as the 2024 Commencement speakers. The 73rd annual Commencement will feature Burns during the undergraduate ceremony, while Simmons will speak at the graduate ceremony on Sunday, May 19. 

Upon receiving an 8 millimeter camera for his 17th birthday, Burns’ career as a filmmaker burgeoned. After experimenting with filmmaking during his high school years, he attended Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts with a Bachelor of Arts in Film Studies and Design. Hampshire College was a unique higher education institution in that the grading metrics are based on a narrative evaluation: in place of letter or numerical grades, professors give written evaluations to students, which are akin to professional performance reviews, with the hopes of identifying specific areas of improvement and strengths. After graduating, he applied for a National Endowment for the Humanities grant in order to support the making of his first documentary film “Brooklyn Bridge.” He was able to win this grant, and “Brooklyn Bridge” was nominated for an Academy Award in 1981. 

Burns is most well known for crafting documentary films and TV series that combine rigorously researched history about American social and political culture with artistic and cinematic choices through the medium of film. His work features commentary from leading historians and prized archival photography to tell stories about American life and history. Since 1981, Burns has directed and produced many of the most acclaimed historical documentaries in the U.S., some of which include “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “Jazz” and “Statue of Liberty.” Burns’ prolific work has earned him 14 Emmy Awards, a National Humanities Medalist title and two Grammy Awards. In 2008, he also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. 

Regarded by Time Magazine as “best university president,” Simmons has pioneered initiatives of immense consequence over the past 50 years in her career in higher education. The youngest of 12 siblings, Simmons grew up in East Texas as the daughter of a cotton sharecropper. As she describes in her memoir “Up Home: One Girl’s Journey,” she often spent her time reading books from an early age. Simmons received her bachelor’s degree from Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and earned her master’s and doctorate degree from Harvard University in Romance languages. Prior to her career in university leadership, Simmons was a professor of French at the University of New Orleans. Since then, Simmons has served as the university president of Brown University, Smith University, Prairie View University and Historically Black College and University (HBCU). She was the first African American woman to hold the title of university president of an Ivy League university.

During her time as the president of Smith University, Simmons spearheaded the first engineering program at a female-only U.S. university. At Brown University, Simmons accomplished a $1.4 billion initiative titled “Boldy Brown: The Campaign for Academic Enrichment,” to bolster scholarship assistance for Brown students and bolster Brown’s programs in the sciences.

Burns and Simmons will both receive honorary degrees from Brandeis University on Commencement Day. In addition to Burns and Simmons, women’s rights activist Ruth Halperin-Kaddari and alumnus and civil rights activist Roy DeBerry ’70, GSAS MA ’78, PhD ’79 will receive honorary degrees. Rabbi David Ellenson had also been selected as an honorary degree recipient, though he passed away on Dec. 7, 2023. In a Brandeis stories article, his family shared this is an honor he greatly appreciated. 

Liebowitz shared, “The accomplished individuals receiving honorary degrees have each devoted their life’s work to addressing some of the most important issues of our day.” He added, “I am very much looking forward to hearing Ken and Ruth share their own accomplished perspectives on how our graduates can approach the next chapters of their lives.”

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