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GW awards four honorary degrees to speakers

GW will award honorary degrees to four speakers at the 2000 Commencement ceremony May 21.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will give the keynote address. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), historian Sir Martin Gilbert and World Bank Group President James Wolfensohn will also speak, University officials said.

Universities all over the country are going to be jealous that we’ve gotten such prestigious speakers, President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said. It’s a fascinating balance of people.

Albright was sworn in as the 64th secretary of state January 23, 1997.

Nominated by Clinton, she is the first female secretary of state and the highest-ranking woman in the U.S. government. Albright previously served as United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

In addition, she has been a member of the National Security Council and president of the Center for National Policy – a non-profit research organization that promote(s) the study and discussion of domestic and international issues, according to the State Department’s Web site.

We don’t know what (Commencement speakers are) going to say ahead of time, said Lynn Shipway, special assistant to the vice president for Administrative and Information Services.

Shipway said she expects the keynote address to be personal in nature because of the State Department’s proximity to GW and the relationship that Albright has with members of the University. There are no requirements concerning what speakers must talk about, she said.

The son of Alabama sharecroppers, Lewis is best known for his participation in the civil rights movement. He took part in the Freedom Rides that challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals throughout the South during the early 1960s. By age 23, Lewis became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and gained recognition as one of the Big Six leaders of the civil rights movement. He helped plan and was a keynote speaker at the August 1963 March on Washington.

In an event that would become known as Bloody Sunday, Lewis attempted to lead a group of 525 civil rights marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. State troopers attacked the marchers with nightsticks, bullwhips and tear gas, leaving Lewis nearly unconscious. Confrontations with police were common for Lewis, who was arrested more than 40 times.

John Lewis laid everything on the line for the most important moral question, African-American history professor Adele Logan Alexander said. He is a man of extraordinary courage and integrity.

In 1986 Lewis was elected to represent Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District, the position he currently holds. In 1998 Clinton presented Lewis with the first Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights. Lewis is seeking the position of Democratic Whip, which would make him only the second African American to hold a leadership position in Congress.

Lewis was able to make the difficult transition from pounding on the gates to coming of age in the civil rights movement, Alexander said. He has always believed in the American system.

Gilbert, one of the foremost scholars of 20th century history, wrote the official biography of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He has also written histories of the Holocaust, both World Wars and the founding of modern Israel.

The historian recently had triple bypass surgery, Trachtenberg said.

We were worried that his health was going to keep him from speaking, he said.

Wolfensohn has been the World Bank Group’s ninth president since 1946 and is one of only three presidents to be elected to a second term.

He was a member of the 1956 Australian Olympic fencing team, worked on Wall Street and played the cello in Carnegie Hall. He is chairman emeritus of Carnegie Hall and chairman emeritus of the board of the directors of the Kennedy Center.

When you read his resum?, it sounds like he’s a committee, Trachtenberg said.

Several people have written letters critical of Wolfensohn’s participation in GW’s commencement in light of last month’s World Bank/IMF protests, Trachtenberg said.

It’s important to distinguish him from the World Bank, Trachtenberg said. He’s probably the most progressive, change-oriented leader at the World Bank.

Trachtenberg said that GW offered Wolfensohn an honorary degree a few years ago.

It’s ironic that we got him (to speak) now, he said.

State Department officials have not yet issued a press release indicating Albright as the keynote speaker at Commencement. A State Department representative would not confirm her attendance.

GW’s press release, which named Albight as the keynote speaker, received State Department approval, said Shipway. The University issued their press release on March 30, 2000.

The process of finding commencement speakers begins early in the year. Nominations are accepted from any and all sources, Shipway said.

Nominations are sent to the Faculty Senate Committee on Honors and Academic Convocations for consideration and then forwarded to the president for consideration. Trachtenberg sends the list to the Academic Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees and finally to the full board for approval.

Honorees are selected and invitations are issued from the final list of approved candidates, Shipway said.

Some honorees delay acceptance of invitations for several years, depending of their availability, Shipway said.

Many of the speakers lead such complicated and busy lives, Trachtenberg said.

But persistence and indicating that the University wants the speaker generally pay off, he added.

Shipway said it took several years to schedule Albright to speak at Commencement.

She always said she’s wanted to do our Commencement, Shipway said. Unfortunately, she’s had other engagements.

All honorary degree recipients speak at the ceremony. Speakers often call to get more information about campus, the graduating class and important issues on campus. Some give personal messages to each university and others change small details at each commencement speech, Shipway said.

In the event that the designated speaker is unable to participate due to illness or other circumstances, their collective remarks serve as the speech, Shipway said.

-Rich Murphy contributed to this report.

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