Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Friday, October 16, 2009

Actor, journalist, civil rights leader and scientist to receive honorary degrees

Actor, playwright, songwriter and Michigan native Jeff Daniels will receive an honorary degree and will deliver the address at Winter Commencement.

Also receiving honorary degrees at the 2 p.m. Dec. 20 ceremony in Crisler Arena are:

• Helen Thomas, journalist and Detroit native, who has served the White House press corps during 10 presidencies.

• Grace Lee Boggs, a labor and civil rights activist, writer and speaker from Detroit, who has been engaged in various social and political movements for more than six decades.

• Edward Osborne Wilson, entomologist and biological theorist whose research on ants has led to an understanding of social behavior and interdependence.

The honorary degrees were approved by the Board of Regents on Thursday.

Jeff Daniels

Daniels will receive a Doctor of Fine Arts in recognition of his contribution to the arts and support of his home state of Michigan. Raised in Chelsea, Daniels studied theatre at Central Michigan University and Eastern Michigan University.

Daniels has acted in numerous stage productions and films. Big screen credits include “Ragtime”(1981), “Terms of Endearment” (1983) and Woody Allen’s “Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985).

He also is a playwright and songwriter who has garnered several awards and nominations. He received a Drama Desk Award and an Obie Award. Daniels has been nominated for a Tony Award for his current Broadway role in “God of Carnage,” three Golden Globe Awards, Screen Actors Guild Awards, Satellite Awards, the London Critics Circle Awards and Independent Spirit Awards.

In 1991 he established the Purple Rose Theatre Company in his hometown to bring opportunities to Midwest professionals and to provide the local community with affordable theatre, according to the company’s Web site. Daniels actively is involved in the theatre, writing more than a dozen plays for it, including his newest, “Escanaba,” the third play in a trilogy about life in the Upper Peninsula.

More recently, Daniels can be seen in television ads promoting Michigan as a great place to do business. The Michigan Economic Development Council advertisements can be seen across the country.

Helen Thomas

Thomas will receive a Doctor of Humane Letters. The familiar journalist, who has taken her seat in the front row of presidential press conferences since the Kennedy administration, was born to a large Lebanese-American family and raised in Detroit. She graduated from Wayne State University and went to work as a copy girl at the Washington Daily News.

Her next career move in 1943 was to become a radio news writer for United Press. While at UP and its successor, United Press International, she also covered federal institutions, including Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and congressional news. She joined the White House press corps in 1961, first serving as a UPI staff member and later as a Hearst Newspaper columnist, the position she holds today.

Thomas quickly developed a reputation for her tenacious questioning of the president and his staff. Her familiar, “Thank you Mr. President” has signified the end of numerous presidential press conferences.

She has received numerous honors including being named the “Newspaper Woman of Washington” by the American Newspaper Woman’s Club, and receiving the Matrix Award from Women in Communications. The World Almanac named her one of 25 most influential women in America. She was the first woman elected president of the White House Correspondents Association in 1975, and the first woman member of the exclusive Gridiron Club, as well as serving as its president in 1993.

Grace Lee Boggs

Boggs will receive a Doctor of Humane Letters from the university. She has championed issues related to labor, civil rights and justice for causes such as equal treatment for African Americans, Asian Americans and women.

Boggs was born in Rhode Island to Chinese immigrant parents. By the age of 25 she had earned a bachelor’s degree from Barnard College and her doctorate in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College. She moved to Detroit in 1953 and married James Boggs, an African-American labor activist, writer and strategist, with whom she worked for more than 40 years.

She and others founded Detroit Summer, a multiracial, intergenerational collective in Detroit, and she has been involved with the Detroit City of Hope Campaign and the Beloved Communities Initiative, among others.

Boggs has received numerous honors, including two Lifetime Achievement Awards in 2005 from the Detroit City Council and the Michigan Women’s Federation, Michiganian of the Year by The Detroit News in 2007, a Distinguished Alumna Award by Barnard College in 2000, and several honorary degrees. She is an author and her life has been chronicled in a book published by the University of Minnesota Press.

Edward Osborne Wilson

Wilson, who was the inaugural speaker for the opening of the U-M Life Sciences Institute in 2004, will be awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree. Growing up in Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Washington, D.C., Wilson determined at age 9 that he would be an entomologist. For years he has studied insects, ants in particular, to develop an understanding of social systems and species diversity, giving rise to the modern study of biodiversity.

Wilson is the author of 25 books and has received more than 100 awards. He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and was the recipient of a National Medal of Science. Time magazine has named him one of the 25 most influential Americans, and Time and Audubon magazines selected him as one of the century’s 100 leading environmentalists.

“The one process now going on that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats,” he has said. “This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.”

He earned two degrees at the University of Alabama and his doctorate from Harvard University, where he remained to serve on the faculty for more than 40 years. He holds the title University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, and honorary curator in entomology of the Museum of Comparative Zoology.