Acclaimed public interest attorney Bryan Stevenson to deliver Brandeis’ 2021 Commencement address

Stevenson is among five individuals who will receive honorary degrees from Brandeis

clockwise from left, head and shoulder shots of Ellen Gordon ’65,   Lynn Schusterman, Bryan Stevenson, Herman Hemingway ’53, and Robert J. Zimmer ’68

Clockwise from left, 2021 Honorary Degree Recipients Ellen Gordon ’65, Lynn Schusterman, Commencement speaker Bryan Stevenson, Herman Hemingway ’53, and Robert J. Zimmer ’68

Bryan Stevenson, who has spent his career fighting against the death penalty and toward a more just society, will deliver this year’s Commencement keynote address to the 2021 graduates of Brandeis University and their families.

Stevenson and four other distinguished recipients will receive honorary degrees as part of the May 23 ceremony, which will take place virtually due to COVID-19. The other awardees are Ellen Gordon ’65, president and CEO of Tootsie Roll Industries; the late Herman Hemingway ’53, an attorney and human rights activist; Lynn Schusterman, co-founder and chair emerita of Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies; and Robert J. Zimmer ’68, president of the University of Chicago.

“Our honorary degree recipients have all demonstrated leadership and humanitarianism throughout their lives and careers,” said Ron Liebowitz, president of Brandeis. “We are proud that they will stand in spirit beside our 2021 graduates, offering them inspiring examples of what can be achieved in a lifetime of purpose.”

Stevenson, whose book “Just Mercy: a Story of Justice and Redemption” was made into a film in 2019, is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Based in Alabama, EJI combats mass incarceration and represents men and women sentenced to the death penalty, as well as children sentenced as adults to long prison sentences. Stevenson also founded the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which chronicle the legacy of slavery, lynching, and racial segregation, and their links to contemporary issues of mass incarceration and racism.

“Bryan Stevenson has dedicated his life to one of Brandeis’ core values: using one’s talents to repair a broken world. His work and his message have never been more vital or more resonant than they are today. I know our graduates and the Brandeis community will value the opportunity to hear directly from him about how he and his organization are dismantling injustice and working to protect vulnerable members of our society,” Liebowitz said.

Stevenson has argued and won multiple cases at the United States Supreme Court, including a 2019 ruling protecting condemned prisoners who suffer from dementia and a landmark 2012 ruling that banned mandatory life-imprisonment-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger. He and his staff have won reversals, relief, or release from prison for more than 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row, and won relief for hundreds of others wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced.

A graduate of Harvard Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Stevenson began his career at the Southern Center for Human Rights, in Atlanta. He has been a faculty member at the New York University School of Law since 1998. His many honors and recognitions include the MacArthur Fellowship; the ACLU National Medal of Liberty; the Olof Palme Prize for international human rights; and honorary degrees from more than 40 universities and colleges. At Brandeis, he will receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.

Ellen Gordon '65 will be awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. She and her late husband, Melvin, built Tootsie Roll Industries into one of the largest U.S. candy makers. After beginning her studies at Vassar and Wellesley, Gordon left college to raise her family. She later resumed her studies at Brandeis — regularly bringing a daughter to class — and completed her bachelor’s degree at age 34. A dedicated philanthropist, Gordon has generously supported institutions that advance education, health care, human services, and many other causes.

Herman Hemingway '53 will be posthumously awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. A lawyer, public defender, law professor, public housing administrator, and architect of the Boston Human Rights Commission, the late Herman Hemingway, who passed away in December 2020, was the first Black man to graduate from Brandeis. He devoted his life to advocating for the poor, fighting racial bigotry, and broadly advancing the cause of social justice.

Lynn Schusterman will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. She is the Co-Founder and Chair Emerita of Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, a global organization working in the United States and Israel to achieve more just and inclusive societies. At Brandeis, she created and endowed the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, one of the world’s leading academic institutions focused on modern Israel. She served on the university’s Board of Trustees from 2008-10.

Robert J. Zimmer ’68 will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. He was appointed in 2006 as the 13th president of the University of Chicago. He is a pioneering mathematician, a strong advocate for access and affordability in higher education, and an outspoken defender of the importance of free expression and open discourse on college campuses. He chairs the boards of Argonne National Laboratory, the Fermi Research Alliance, and the Marine Biological Laboratory. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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