Deborah Bial ’87 to speak at 2012 commencement

Two Nobel Prize winners, a renowned musical educator and a beloved alumna and philanthropist to receive honorary degrees

From left: Deborah Bial, Sydney Brenner, Myra Kraft, Joseph Polisi and Amartya Sen

Deborah Bial, a 1987 graduate of Brandeis University and the founder of The Posse Foundation, which has helped open doors to college for thousands of promising public high school students, will be the 2012 commencement speaker at Brandeis.

President Fred Lawrence made the announcement today at a meeting of the university’s board of trustees. Brandeis’ 61st commencement will be held on May 20.

Bial also will be among the five individuals who will receive honorary degrees at the ceremony, including two Nobel Prize winners, one of America’s foremost musical educators and a beloved Brandeis alumna and trustee, Myra Kraft, whose death last year was mourned by all.

“Debbie is a visionary leader in education and richly deserves this honor. The only request I made of her was that she mention, somewhere in her remarks to our graduates, that she once sat right where they are sitting that day. That’s very powerful because there is simply no better example of social justice in action than Debbie Bial,” said Lawrence.

The White House cited her work and The Posse Foundation earlier this year.

This year’s honorary degree recipients:

Deborah Bial ’87 is the founder and president of The Posse Foundation, which identifies and recruits public high school students who might otherwise be passed over by the traditional college-admissions process, and sends them in multicultural teams - or posses - to selective colleges and universities. Bial had been working in the New York City Public Schools when a returning student said he’d never have dropped out of college if he’d had his “posse” with him. This spurred her to consider the importance of peer support for underrepresented students. Later, as part of her doctoral thesis, Bial designed a college admissions tool focused on non-cognitive traits not captured by standard entrance tests. She received a $1.9 million grant in support of the tool from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In 2007, she was honored with a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant.

Sydney Brenner is a pioneering molecular biologist and geneticist whose work has sharpened our understanding of evolution, aging and the genetic code. A native of South Africa, Brenner shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with colleagues John Sulston and Robert Horvitz. The three scientists made contributions in the field of developmental biology using Caenorhabditis elegans—a tiny soil-dwelling roundworm that Brenner found to be a model organism for the investigation of animal development. In 1996, Brenner founded the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, Calif., a nonprofit research organization that studies the behavior of biological systems through the study of genomic data. For many years, Brenner wrote a popular column called “Loose Ends” (later renamed “False Starts”) for the journal Current Biology.

Myra Hiatt Kraft ’64, who passed away in July 2011, was a philanthropist who, through her work with the Robert and Myra Kraft Family Foundation and as president of the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation, sought to improve the lives of people in Boston, Israel and around the world. She was involved with many Boston-area philanthropic organizations. The daughter of Worcester, Mass., businessman Jacob Hiatt, himself a generous supporter of Brandeis who served as chair of the board of trustees from 1971-77, Kraft and her husband, Robert, a leading Boston businessman and the owner of the New England Patriots football team, devoted countless hours to the university she loved. The Krafts supported a number of initiatives at Brandeis, including a chair in Arab politics and numerous student scholarships. Mrs. Kraft became a Brandeis trustee in 1986 and served as vice chair of the board for 10 years. Her husband will accept the honor on her behalf.

Joseph Polisi is the president of The Juilliard School, a position he’s held since 1984. An accomplished bassoonist who has performed throughout the United States as a soloist and chamber musician, Polisi earned an M.A. in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts before completing his Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Yale University. In his tenure at Juilliard, Polisi has presided over a significant growth of the school and transformation of its curriculum. He led the development of a comprehensive long-range plan and campaign for the school that increased student financial aid and faculty compensation, and created school-wide programs to prepare Juilliard students for the changing demands of the 21st century. In 2006, he helped found the Carnegie Hall/Juilliard Academy, a program that prepares post-graduate musicians for their roles as artistic and educational leaders.

Amartya Sen is an economist and philosopher who received a Nobel Prize in 1998 for his contributions to the theory of social justice and the field of welfare economics. Sen is best known for his work on the causes of famine and for having helped develop the theory of social choice. Born in India, Sen’s numerous publications, including “Collective Choice,” “On Economic Inequality,” “On Ethics and Ecnomics” and “Development as Freedom,” have been translated into dozens of languages. Currently the Lamont University Professor at Harvard University, Sen has previously taught at such institutions as MIT, the Oxford University, Delhi University and the London School of Economics. He received degrees at the University of Calcutta and Cambridge University. This year, Sen was awarded the National Humanities Medal.

All members of the Brandeis community are entitled to nominate candidates for honorary degrees. A committee of trustees, faculty and staff narrows the nominations to a list for approval by the board of trustees. The president makes the final selections from that list.

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