Past Speakers

2016
Julieanna L. Richardson '76, oral historian and founder of The HistoryMakers

2015
Thomas R. Pickering, former ambassador to the Russian Federation, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the United Nations

2014
Geoffrey Canada, CEO and president, Harlem Children’s Zone

2013
Dr. Rick Hodes, medical director, Ethiopia for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee

2012
Deborah Bial ’87, founder and president, The Posse Foundation

2011
David Brooks, columnist,
The New York Times

2010
Michael B. Oren, ambassador of Israel to the United States

2009
Cory A. Booker, mayor,
Newark, N.J.

2008
William Schneider '66, political commentator

2007
Thomas Friedman '75, columnist, New York Times

2006
El Hassan bin Talal, prince of Jordan

2005
Margaret Marshall, chief justice, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

2004
James D. Wolfensohn, president, World Bank 

2003
Aharon Barak, president, Supreme Court of Israel

2002
Ted Koppel, anchor, ABC News "Nightline"

2001
Peter S. Lynch, vice chairman, Fidelity Investments

Rosalie Silberman Abella

Roaslie Silberman Abella on stage receiving her honorary degree with President Ron Liebowitz, Provost Lisa Lynch and Mark A. Surchin

Left to Right: Mark A. Surchin ’78, Provost Lisa Lynch, P’17, Rosalie Silberman Abella, President Ron Liebowitz

Rosalie Silberman Abella was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany, to parents who had spent three years in Nazi concentration camps and whose 2-year-old son perished in Treblinka.

In 1950, the family immigrated to Canada. By age 4, Abella had decided to become a lawyer, inspired by her father, who had been a brilliant law student in Poland before the war. But when he learned he would have to become a citizen, which would take five years, in order to practice law, he went into insurance instead to support his young family.

In a remarkable coda to her father’s legacy, Abella became, in 2004, the first Jewish woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

After earning an LLB from the University of Toronto, Abella was called to the Ontario Bar in 1972. She practiced civil and criminal litigation until she became a jurist on the Ontario Family Court in 1976 at age 29, the youngest person ever appointed to Canada’s judiciary. Sixteen years later, she was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal.

Abella is considered a foremost expert on human-rights law. She was the sole commissioner of the 1984 federal Royal Commission on Equality in Employment, which created the concept of “employment equity” to end workplace discrimination against women, indigenous peoples, nonwhite minorities and persons with disabilities. The report was implemented in Canada and several other countries. The definition of equality she created — acknowledging and accommodating differences to avoid arbitrary exclusion — was adopted by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1989 as the basis of its equality and discrimination jurisprudence under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Abella chaired the Ontario Labour Relations Board and the Ontario Law Reform Commission. She is the author of more than 90 articles, and has written or co-edited four books. She was named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2007, and received the Distinguished Alumnus Award of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, the Distinguished Service Award of the Canadian Bar Association (Ontario), the International Justice Prize of the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, and the Human Relations Award of the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews. In January, she was named the Global Jurist of the Year by Northwestern University.

Honorary Degree Citation

At age 4, inspired by your father’s life story, you knew what you wanted to do. Your father had been a gifted law student in Poland, on the verge of a brilliant legal career. But his life changed unalterably when the Holocaust ignited. He and your mother survived imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps; your brother perished in Treblinka. After the war, as your family built a new life in Canada, he instilled in you his devotion to the rule of law. You went to law school and were called to the bar. In 1976, at age 29, you became the youngest person — and the first pregnant woman — ever appointed to Canada’s judiciary. Twenty-eight years later, you were the first Jewish woman appointed to your country’s Supreme Court. You are a leading expert on human-rights law. You created the concept of “employment equity,” now adopted in Canada and other countries, to end workplace discrimination against women, indigenous peoples, nonwhite minorities and persons with disabilities. Your commitment to justice and equality shines a bright beacon for all. Your father and mother would be so proud of your accomplishments. In every regard, you are a consummate jurist on the world stage. Your life’s journey and path-breaking work embody the intellectual rigor and fierce commitment to social justice that Louis Brandeis stood for and that this university, named for him, proudly continues to advance. We are pleased to award you Brandeis University’s highest honor.