Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and higher education pioneer Ruth Simmons to speak at Brandeis’ 73rd Commencement exercises

Headshots of Ken Burns, Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, Rabbi David Ellenson, Roy DeBerry and Ruth Simmons staggered on a blue and back textured background.
From left: Documentarian Ken Burns, women's rights advocate Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, Rabbi David Ellenson, z"l, alumnus and civil rights leader Roy DeBerry, and higher education trailblazer Ruth Simmons will receive honorary degrees.

Photo Credit: Photo collage by Dan Holmes

March 12, 2024

Renowned documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and higher education trailblazer Ruth Simmons will deliver keynote addresses and receive honorary degrees at Brandeis University’s 73rd Commencement exercises, on Sunday, May 19.

Two other distinguished individuals will also receive honorary degrees: international women’s-rights expert and advocate Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, and civil and community rights leader Roy DeBerry ’70, GSAS MA’78, PhD’79.

Rabbi David Ellenson, z"l, former director of Brandeis’ Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and chancellor emeritus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, will be recognized posthumously. David’s wife, Jackie, will accept the award on his behalf.

“The accomplished individuals receiving honorary degrees have each devoted their life’s work to addressing some of the most important issues of our day,” said Brandeis University president Ron Liebowitz. “Together, they embody Brandeis’ founding Jewish values to seek knowledge and to repair the world. I am very much looking forward to hearing Ken and Ruth share their own accomplished perspectives on how our graduates can approach the next chapters of their lives.”

For almost 50 years, Burns has directed and produced acclaimed historical documentaries, including “Brooklyn Bridge” (1981), “The Civil War” (1990), “Baseball” (1994), “Jazz” (2001), and “The U.S. and the Holocaust” (2022). His films have been honored with 17 Emmys, two Grammys, and two Oscar nominations. In 2008, he was honored by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences with a Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2022 he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.

Currently a President’s Distinguished Fellow at Rice University and a senior adviser to the president of Harvard on HBCU initiatives, Simmons has been one of the most influential leaders in higher education since she began her career as a French professor in the 1970s. She has been president of three universities, including Brown, where she was the first African American woman to hold the top position at an Ivy League university.

Halperin-Kaddari is founding academic director of the Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women’s Status, at Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Law, in Israel. She has served as vice chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and she is a recipient of the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage Award. In 2018, Halperin-Kaddari was named one of Apolitical’s 100 Most Influential People in Gender Policy around the world.

A triple Brandeis degree holder, DeBerry served as vice president for economic development and local governmental affairs, and executive vice president at Jackson State University. In 1995, he and Aviva Futorian ’59 created The Hill Country Project, a nonprofit that records first-person stories told by residents of Benton County, Mississippi, and seeks to improve education, economic development, and community capacity building in the area.

Internationally recognized for his publications and research in the areas of Jewish religious thought, ethics, and modern Jewish history, Ellenson wrote extensively on Orthodox Judaism, the relationship between religion and state in Israel, the history of modern Jewish religious movements, and American Jewish life. A leader of the Reform movement of Judaism in the United States, he was a staunch advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights, women’s rights, and religious pluralism, and he was passionately committed to the people and the state of Israel.

Ellenson died on Dec. 7, 2023, shortly after being informed that he would receive an honorary degree at Brandeis, an award his family said he greatly appreciated.

The university will conduct its Commencement ceremonies in two parts, following last year’s redesigned model. Burns will address undergraduate students during a morning ceremony. Simmons will speak at an afternoon ceremony that honors master’s and PhD recipients from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis International Business School, and the Rabb School of Continuing Studies.

Both ceremonies will be held at the Gosman Sports and Convocation Center.