Carolina to Award Six Honorary Degrees, Debut 'Green' Robes

Literary luminaries, eminent educators and a prominent businessman will receive honorary degrees from Carolina during the May 8 Commencement ceremony.

Chancellor Holden Thorp ’86 will preside at the ceremony at 9:30 a.m. in Kenan Stadium, which will also mark the debut of the new True Blue regalia for undergraduates. Fashion designer Alexander Julian ’70 created this sustainable gown using 100 percent post-consumer recyclable material.

This year’s honorary degree recipients are:

  • Edward O. Wilson, of Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University professor, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction and this year’s Commencement speaker, who will receive an honorary doctor of science degree;
  • Timothy Burnett ’62, president of Bessemer Improvement Co., a commercial and industrial real estate firm, of Greensboro, who will receive a doctor of laws degree;
  • Mary Sue Coleman ’69 (PhD), president of the University of Michigan, of Ann Arbor, Mich., who will receive a doctor of laws degree;
  • Ernest Gaines, considered one of the premier American writers of the second half of the 20th century, of Oscar, La., who will receive a doctor of letters degree;
  • John Grisham, the author of 25 books, including numerous legal thrillers, of Charlottesville, Va., who will receive a doctor of letters degree; and
  • Dwight T. Pitcaithley, currently professor of history at New Mexico State University and former chief historian of the U.S. National Park Service, of La Cruces, N.M., who will receive a doctor of laws degree.

Edward O. Wilson

Wilson is university research professor emeritus at Harvard University, where he taught for four decades and received both of its collegewide teaching awards, and he is honorary curator in entomology of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. He is the author of 25 books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning On Human Nature and The Ants. Among Wilson’s most recent books is Consilience, which argues for the uniting of the natural sciences with the humanities. In 2003, he conceived the idea of the Encyclopedia of Life, which has since come to fruition. Wilson is the recipient of more than 100 international medals and awards, including the National Medal of Science, the International Prize for Biology from Japan, the Catalonia Prize of Spain, the Presidential Medal of Italy and the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. He also has received the Gold Medal of the Worldwide Fund for Nature and the Audubon Medal of the National Audubon Society.

Timothy Burnett ’62

Burnett, a Morehead Scholar, received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics and went on to earn an MBA with distinction from Harvard University. At UNC, he was inducted into the honorary societies Order of the Golden Fleece, Order of the Grail-Valkyries and Order of the Old Well. He is a former member of the GAA Board of Directors (1997-2000), and he was a recipient of the GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal in 1996. He also has served the University on the UNC Board of Trustees, with two years as chair, and has served two terms on the Board of Visitors, twice as chair. He served on the steering committees for the Bicentennial and Carolina First fundraising campaigns.

Burnett is vice chair of the board of directors of the UNC Health Care System, vice chair of the trustees of the Morehead-Cain Foundation and a member of the board of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Foundation Inc. He also has received the trustees’ William Richardson Davie Award.

Mary Sue Coleman ’69 (PhD)

Coleman earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry from Grinnell College in 1965 and her doctorate in biochemistry from Carolina before completing a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellowship. She returned to Carolina first as associate provost and dean of research in 1990 and then as vice chancellor for graduate studies and research. She went on to serve as provost at the University of New Mexico and president of the University of Iowa and the Iowa Health System before becoming the 13th president of the University of Michigan in 2002. Coleman built a distinguished research career through her work with the immune system and malignancies. She is a member of the Institute of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 2010, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke named Coleman co-chair of the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Her honors include 10 honorary degrees and Carolina’s Distinguished Alumna Award.

Ernest Gaines

Gaines grew up in the old slave quarters of River Lake Plantation in Louisiana, a setting and culture that permeates his fiction. He moved to California when he was 15, joining the black diaspora from the American South. He earned a degree in literature in 1957 from San Francisco State University and later won a creative writing fellowship to Stanford University. Gaines’ work explores the endurance of human dignity. He is best known for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. His novel A Lesson Before Dying, nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Gaines’ honors include Chevalier de l’Ordre des Artes et des Lettres, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Humanities Medal, the Dos Passos Prize and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. In 2004, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature.

John Grisham

Grisham received a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Mississippi State University in 1977 and a law degree from the University of Mississippi in 1981. Grisham practiced law for nearly a decade and served in the Mississippi House of Representatives from 1983 until 1990. Grisham spent three years working on his first novel, A Time to Kill. His next novel, The Firm, became a best-selling novel in 1991, and The Pelican Brief and The Client also hit number one. Grisham’s many charitable causes include the Rebuild the Coast Fund, providing Gulf Coast relief following Hurricane Katrina. He also is on the board of directors for the Innocence Project, which works to exonerate the wrongly convicted through DNA testing. Grisham gave last year’s Commencement address at UNC. His wife, Renee, received her bachelor’s degree from UNC in 2010, and his daughter, Shea, graduated in 2008.

Dwight T. Pitcaithley

Pitcaithley served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Eastern New Mexico University and earned his doctorate in history from Texas Tech University in 1976. He entered the Park Service as a seasonal guide at Carlsbad Caverns National Park and soon rose through the ranks. Pitcaithley helped shepherd a servicewide initiative that incorporated slavery as a central topic at Civil War battlefields. He also forged a historian-park service agreement that has improved historical interpretation and resource management at many sites. At Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park, he worked to incorporate the story of how slavery underpinned the birth of American liberty at the “President’s House” site. Pitcaithley is the author of the forthcoming Little Paper Amendments: Slavery and the Constitution on the Eve of the Civil War and co-editor of The Antiquities Act: A Century of American Archaeology, Historic Preservation and Nature Conservation, published in 2006.

Also during Commencement weekend, Carolina’s doctoral hooding ceremony will be held May 7 at 10 a.m. at the Dean E. Smith Center. No ticket is required to attend. Suzanne Cusick ’75 (PhD), professor of music at New York University, is the speaker for the ceremony. Cusick is a music historian specializing in the music of 17th-century Italy. She has published extensively on gender and sexuality in relation to the musical cultures of early modern Italy and of contemporary North America. Since 2003, Cusick has edited Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture.

The undergraduate baccalaureate program will take place May 7 at 3 p.m. in the Great Hall of the Student Union. Former Carolina basketball standout Eric Montross ’94 will deliver the keynote address.

The Commencement ceremony will be held in Kenan Stadium, rain or shine, and tickets are not necessary. If it rains during Commencement, the ceremony could be shortened, but it will not be relocated. If severe weather threatens and attendees’ safety is at risk, the ceremony will be canceled.

Graduates and guests are encouraged to park on the south side of campus accessed by Manning Drive off Fordham Boulevard and Columbia Street or Mason Farm Road. Shuttles are available from almost all south side lots. A map of parking areas and more shuttle information is available online.

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