2017: Honorary degrees

Wake Forest conferred four honorary degrees during its 2017 Commencement ceremony.

Regina M. Benjamin

In 2009, Dr. Regina M. Benjamin achieved national prominence when she was appointed the 18th Surgeon General by President Barack Obama. As America’s leading spokesperson on public health, Dr. Benjamin abandoned the treat-sickness paradigm and chose instead to promote wellness and prevention initiatives based on a healthy lifestyle.

It was undoubtedly Dr. Benjamin’s humanitarian spirit that earned the notice of President Obama. Dr. Benjamin gained recognition as the sole physician of an impoverished Alabama fishing town where few could afford to pay her medical fees. When she opened the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in 1990, her resolve to serve the forgotten population prompted her to earn her MBA. She beat the financial odds, developed a business acumen, raised money and accessed federal funds on behalf of her patients. Dr. Benjamin’s altruistic spirit and dedication have not waivered since she opened her facility, and her perseverance is apparent in a clinic that has been rebuilt multiple times after being destroyed by a fire, Hurricane Georges and Hurricane Katrina.

Because she embraces the spirit of Pro Humanitate with her lifelong commitment to improving the lives of others, works tirelessly to support an impoverished and underserved community, and strives for excellence in all facets of her work as a physician, Regina M. Benjamin is recommended for the degree of Doctor of Science.

Anil Rai Gupta (MBA ’92)

With an entrepreneurial spirit tempered by a practical mindset, Anil Rai Gupta, Chairman and Managing Director of Havells India Limited, was instrumental in transforming a small electrical products company into a global brand. As a result of Mr. Gupta’s efforts to modernize plants and dramatically increase its product line, Havells evolved into an innovative enterprise that distributes products in over 60 countries.

Growing up under the tutelage of his father, the company founder and a self-made, first-generation entrepreneur, Mr. Gupta’s strategy for making Havells a leading international company advanced his father’s vision, perseverance and calculated risk-taking. In 1992, after earning his MBA from Wake Forest, Mr. Gupta joined Havells and immediately spearheaded the company’s global expansion efforts with enormous success.

Because food security is a major concern in India, Mr. Gupta, who embraces the Pro Humanitate ideal of giving back to society, launched a midday meal program that continues to serve the people of India. The program alleviates hunger among schoolchildren by providing a freshly cooked meal each school day to more than 50,000 students in the Alwar district of Rajasthan.

For his impressive foresight and bold but thoughtful approach to business management, for his commitment to corporate social responsibility and global citizenship, and for his unassailable belief in values-driven leadership, Anil Rai Gupta is recommended for the degree of Doctor of Laws.

Vivian Howard

Vivian Howard, television host and owner of two restaurants in Kinston, N.C., is an exceptional chef, storyteller, culinary writer, entrepreneur and food show personality who blends her gifts beautifully to create the ideal recipe for a life well-lived. After spending many years trying to escape her rural North Carolina roots, Ms. Howard returned to Eastern North Carolina to open a restaurant and discovered a culinary treasure in the traditional food of the region and its people.

Her restaurant, Chef & the Farmer, earned accolades and prompted Ms. Howard to launch A Chef’s Life, an award-winning documentary-style food show with programming that combines food and storytelling. Her unofficial co-host of the series is the town of Kinston itself, featured in the voices of local growers and farmers as each episode methodically follows the journey of a single Southern staple from farm to table. Ms. Howard’s unique spin on the traditional stars of Southern cooking and her genuine admiration for the knowledge and skills of the food growers of Lenoir County have consistently drawn 3 million viewers and, together with her restaurants and New York Times bestselling cookbook, have buoyed the region’s economy and created a sense of hometown pride in a community that once thrived on tobacco and textiles.

For her fearless entrepreneurial spirit that revived the morale and economy of a struggling community, for her uncanny talent for uncovering character through cuisine and for her realization that the nation’s love for food can be used to bridge the cultural gap between rural and urban America, Vivian Howard is recommended for the degree of Doctor of Letters.

John Sexton

President Emeritus John Sexton transformed New York University during his 13-year tenure, globalizing its reach and dramatically strengthening its scholarship. After Dr. Sexton assumed the helm, applications doubled, international prominence grew dramatically, and NYU became firmly cemented in the upper echelon of higher learning. Rarely has one individual been so singularly responsible for the physical and intellectual metamorphosis of a major academic institution.

The renaissance of NYU was largely shaped by Dr. Sexton’s vision of the university as a global network. The school continues to expand its footprint in lower Manhattan, and now has academic centers on six continents with full-fledged campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. Dr. Sexton sought to attract the brightest minds to the faculty, and under his administration, NYU professors earned four Nobel Prizes and six Pulitzers. With a student body that grew increasingly diverse, five students were honored with Rhodes Scholarships. President Emeritus Sexton was a popular and beloved professor throughout his tenure, teaching full-time each year and fostering a rapport with students that few university administrators enjoy. He continues to teach at the NYU Law School, where he was a transformative dean before assuming the presidency.

For re-imagining the modern university as a global force for positive good, helping reshape urban ‘idea capitals’ worldwide; for leading the metamorphosis of a downtown commuter school into an international higher-education landmark; and all the while for remaining mindful of the university’s core purpose by so enthusiastically and inspiringly inhabiting the classroom himself, President Emeritus John Edward Sexton is recommended for the degree of Doctor of Laws.

Jon Meacham

Jon Meacham believes that history is our greatest teacher. As a presidential historian, acclaimed journalist and Pulitzer-Prize winning author, Mr. Meacham suggests that the direction of American politics should be guided by the lessons of our past. Whether he is exploring the modern relevance of early presidents like Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson, or shedding light on a legacy still evolving in George H. W. Bush, Mr. Meacham has an extraordinary gift for relating the shortcomings and successes of our leaders with both empathy and honesty.

Achieving political perspective by linking the past and the present requires a creative mind,
and Mr. Meacham credits his liberal arts education with his ability to connect the dots. He has written frequently about the need for educators to facilitate innovation by nurturing creativity, knowing that the value of an education is not only a question of what graduates know, but how they know.

For reminding us that to understand the present, we must first examine the past, for encouraging us to consider the humanity and not just the politics of our leaders, and for serving as an example of the merits of a liberal arts education, Jon Ellis Meacham is recommended for the degree of Doctor of Letters.

Kathy Killian Noe (’80)

Kathy Killian Noe, founder of Seattle’s Recovery Café and co-founder of Samaritan Inns in Washington, D.C., has dedicated her life to strengthening the marginalized of society, creating a welcoming environment that empowers those traumatized by homelessness, addiction and mental health challenges. Reverend Noe’s community-centered work is based on a profound faith that we as human beings have an indelible connection to one another, and our oneness is our strength as a society.

For Reverend Noe, learning to value community was integral to her formative life – from the closely-knit Southern Baptist congregation of her minister father to the Pro Humanitate culture she experienced at Wake Forest. With Recovery Café, Reverend Noe created a new and unique community model for sustainable recovery and has helped launch five more cafés in Washington State and California through the Recovery Café Network. As her concept of serving others through peer support and radical hospitality gains traction across the country, countless more people promise to benefit from her vision. Her approach allows us to engage one another honestly, form relationships across difference and examine inner narratives that perpetuate injustice.

For her commitment to bridge what she calls the “wretched divide” between those who have a chance to fulfill their potential and those who are never afforded the opportunity, for helping thousands of individuals through her recovery programs and indirectly assisting others through organizations that have replicated her therapeutic model, and for reminding us that we are all connected and our collective efforts can be transformative, Kathy Killian Noe is recommended for the degree of Doctor of Divinity.

Bryan A. Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson, an acclaimed public policy lawyer who advocates for the country’s unfairly incarcerated, has sought to repair our country’s justice system by ending a pattern of treatment based on economic and racial inequality. His campaign for social justice and human rights has also launched major projects to acknowledge our nation’s history of slavery and racial segregation.

When Mr. Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative as a young Harvard-educated lawyer in Montgomery, Alabama, his fundamental goal for the nonprofit was to undo wrongful or excessive punishment in our criminal court system. His organization has spared 125 offenders from execution. His work exonerating death row inmates has fueled a national conversation about the ethics of capital punishment, an ideological debate manifested in programs like Wake Forest Law’s Innocence and Justice Clinic.

For his tireless efforts to combat the devastating effects of poverty and racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, for his commitment to ending the legacy of racial violence and inequities by shedding light on their national beginnings and for his unwavering faith that he can make the world a better place, Bryan A. Stevenson is recommended for the degree of Doctor of Laws.