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Five notables receive honorary degrees

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Garry Wills, sports icon Billie Jean King among this year's class
From left to right (front) Wei Yang, Garry Wills, Leila Sadat (back) Donald Rubin, Morton Schapiro, Billie Jean King and William Osborn.

Billie Jean King, a pioneering advocate for equal rights and opportunities and a global sports icon, is among the five distinguished individuals who were recognized with honorary degrees at Northwestern University’s 159th commencement ceremony June 16.

King, long a champion of social change and equality and widely known for her advocacy for gender equity and gay rights in sports and in public life, delivered the commencement address to the Class of 2017.

Related: Billie Jean King named commencement speaker

The other four notables who received honorary degrees are:

  • Donald B. Rubin, a Harvard University professor whose work in causal inference and data essentially defined new fields of statistics.
  • Leila Sadat, director of the Harris World Law Institute at Washington University School of Law, who is known for her work on the International Criminal Court and her efforts to draft and win adoption of a global treaty on crimes against humanity.
  • Garry Wills, a prolific public intellectual, Northwestern professor emeritus and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who specializes in American history, politics and religion, especially the history of the Roman Catholic Church
  • Wei Yang, an influential educator, science policymaker and researcher who is the president of the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

About the honorary degree recipients

Billie Jean King 

Named one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century” by Lifemagazine and the first female athlete to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, King is the founder of the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative and cofounder of World TeamTennis. She won 39 Grand Slam singles, doubles and mixed doubles tennis titles, including a record 20 championships at Wimbledon. In 1973, she defeated Bobby Riggs in the historic “Battle of the Sexes.” A lifelong advocate for equality, especially in the areas of gender equality and LGBTQ rights, King founded the Women’s Sports Foundation and the Women’s Tennis Association. In 2006, the National Tennis Center, home of the U.S. Open, was renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in honor of her accomplishments on and off the court. King serves on the boards of the Women’s Sports Foundation, the Andy Roddick Foundation and the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

Donald B. Rubin

Rubin is the John L. Loeb Professor of Statistics at Harvard University, where he joined the faculty in 1984. Rubin’s work in causal inference, missing data, matching and applied Bayesian inference essentially defined new fields of statistics. His methods are now embedded in statistical software used by virtually all empirical scientists, and his books “Statistical Analysis with Missing Data,” “Multiple Imputation for Nonresponse in Surveys,” “Matched Sampling for Causal Effects” and “Applied Bayesian Inference”are essential reference works. Rubin’s many honors include the American Statistical Association’s Samuel S. Wilks Memorial Award, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Humboldt Research Award, the John Wiley and Sons Lifetime Achievement Award in Statistics and Mathematics, election to the National Academy of Sciences and four honorary doctorates. Rubin earned an A.B. in psychology at Princeton University and an M.S. in computer science and a Ph.D. in statistics at Harvard.

Leila Sadat

Sadat is the James Carr Professor of International Criminal Law and director of the Harris World Law Institute at Washington University School of Law, where she has taught since 1992. An expert on international justice and human rights, she is particularly known for her work on the International Criminal Court and her efforts to draft and win adoption of a global treaty on crimes against humanity. Sadat is the director of the Crimes Against Humanity Initiative, president-elect of the International Law Association (American Branch) and special adviser on crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court Prosecutor. The author of more than 100 books, articles and essays, Sadat received the 2011 Fulbright-Tocqueville Distinguished Chair Award and served on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom from 2001 to 2003. She holds law degrees from Columbia University, Tulane University and the Sorbonne Law School at the University of Paris.

Garry Wills

Wills is a prolific author, journalist and historian specializing in American history, politics and religion, especially the history of the Roman Catholic Church. After earning a B.A. in philosophy at Saint Louis University, an M.A. at Xavier University and a Ph.D. in classics at Yale University, he taught history from 1962 to 1980 at Johns Hopkins University and from 1980 to 2005 at Northwestern University, where he is now professor emeritus. His nearly 40 books include “Why I Am a Catholic,” “Papal Sin,” “Reagan’s America” and two National Book Critics Circle Award winners: “Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence” and the 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America.” His numerous other honors include the National Medal for the Humanities, the Order of Lincoln and the 2014 “Festschrift Nation and World, Church and God: The Legacy of Garry Wills.”

Wei Yang

Yang has served as president of the National Natural Science Foundation of China since 2013. Previously he was president of Zhejiang University and a professor at Tsinghua University. An influential educator, science policymaker and researcher, he has authored or coauthored 11 books and some 300 papers, making fundamental contributions to the fields of fracture mechanics, mechatronic reliability and micro- and nanomechanics. Yang’s numerous honors include Brown University’s Engineering Alumni Medal, the International Society of Engineering Science’s Eric Reissner Medal, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ Calvin Rice Lecture Award, the Ho Leung Ho Lee Foundation’s Award for Mathematics and Mechanics, the Zhou Peiyuan Award for Mechanics, election to the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Third World Academy of Sciences and three honorary degrees. A graduate of Northwestern Polytechnic University, he received an M.S. from Tsinghua University and a Ph.D. from Brown University.