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Honorary degree for author and three Northwestern alumni

The four will be honored at commencement for contributions to the arts, sciences and leadership
honorary degree
Northwestern will hold its 164th commencement ceremony on Monday, June 13, at Ryan Field. Photo by Jim Prisching

Four distinguished individuals, including commencement speaker Isabel Wilkerson, will receive honorary degrees from Northwestern University. 

An acclaimed author and gifted storyteller, Wilkerson will receive her honor and deliver her address June 13 during Northwestern’s 164th commencement ceremony at Ryan Field.

Along with Wilkerson, three Northwestern alumni will receive honorary degrees at the ceremony: J. Landis Martin, chair of the Northwestern University Board of Trustees; Judith Olson, a human-computer interaction pioneer; and Eva Jefferson Paterson, a civil rights attorney.

Isabel Wilkerson 

Isabel Wilkerson will receive a Doctor of Humane Letters. She is a Pulitzer Prize winner, National Humanities Medal recipient and former New York Times reporter. In her work, Wilkerson captivates audiences with the universal human story of migration and reinvention, as well as the unseen hierarchies that have divided us as a nation, in order to find a way to transcend them.

Isabel Wilkerson
Isabel Wilkerson

Wilkerson is the author of the nonfiction bestsellers “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” and “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” She has become an impassioned voice for demonstrating how history can help us understand ourselves, our country and our current era of upheaval.

“The Warmth of Other Suns” (Vintage, 2011) tells the true story of three people among the 6 million who made the decision of their lives during the Great Migration, a watershed in American history. Wilkerson spent 15 years working on the book, interviewing more than 1,200 people to tell what she calls one of the greatest underreported stories of the 20th century. The book received numerous awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Heartland Prize for Nonfiction, and was named to 30 “best of the year” lists. 

Wilkerson’s latest book, “Caste” (Random House, 2020), examines the unspoken caste system that has shaped America and shows how a hierarchy of social divisions still defines our lives today. Dwight Garner of The New York Times called it “an instant American classic.” Picked as a 2020 must-read book by Time magazine, “Caste” is being adapted into a Netflix film.

Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize for her work as Chicago bureau chief of The New York Times in 1994, making her the first Black woman in the history of American journalism to win a Pulitzer Prize and the first African American to win for individual reporting in the history of American journalism.

J. Landis Martin

Lanny Martin will receive a Doctor of Humane Letters. He leads a successful career in business and law and was inducted to the Colorado Business Hall of Fame in 2012. He has served as chair of the Northwestern University Board of Trustees since 2017. Martin will retire from that role on Aug. 31 but will remain a member of the Board of Trustees.

J. Landis Martin
J. Landis Martin

Martin joined the Board of Trustees in 1999 and served in leadership roles in standing and ad hoc committees, including chairing the academic affairs committee from 2010 to 2015 and serving as a vice chair of the board from 2015 until becoming chair in 2017. During his tenure as chair, the board oversaw University-wide growth in financial stability to enable the ambitions of the institution, the University’s remarkable efforts through the COVID-19 pandemic and four consecutive years as a Top 10 National University in U.S. News and World Report.

Martin was an economics major and received an undergraduate degree in business administration from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management in 1968 and a J.D. degree from the Northwestern University School of Law in 1973.

Martin is chairman and managing director of Platte River Equity, LLC, a Denver-based private equity firm. Martin retired in 2005 as chairman and CEO of Denver-based Titanium Metals Corporation, one of the world’s largest producers of titanium metal. Martin also is the chairman of the board of Houston-based Crown Castle International Corporation, a communications infrastructure provider. 

Martin has been closely involved in alumni and fundraising activities for Northwestern. He and his wife, Sharon, are among Northwestern’s most generous and loyal benefactors across broad areas including the Law School, Bienen School of Music, Athletics and Student Affairs. Martin served as a member of the campaign steering committee for We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern, and he and Sharon served as co-chairs of the “We Will” Campaign in 2015. Martin previously chaired the Law School’s Motion to Lead Campaign — part of the “We Will” Campaign. He is a life member of the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law board.

Martin is committed to the cultural landscape of Colorado and is an art connoisseur and donor, focusing on 20th century art. Martin is chairman of the Denver Art Museum board of trustees and its foundation and the Clyfford Still Museum Foundation, which he was instrumental in founding. Martin is chairman emeritus of Central City Opera House Association, and he is past chairman and president of the Houston Grand Opera. 

Judith Olson

Judith Olson will receive a Doctor of Science. She is the Donald Bren Professor of Information and Computer Sciences Emerita in the department of informatics at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). For over 30 years, Olson conducted research in the field of human-computer interaction. Her work focused on teams whose members do not work together in person, summaries of which are found in her most-cited paper, “Distance Matters” (Olson & Olson, 2000), and her latest book, “Working Together Apart” (Olson & Olson, 2014).

Judith Olson
Judith Olson

Olson received her undergraduate degree in experimental psychology from Northwestern in 1965, followed by a master’s degree and then a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from the University of Michigan in 1969. After a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University, she was a professor at the University of Michigan, first in the psychology department and then in the business school. After that she became one of the 10 founding faculty of the new School of Information. She was at Michigan for 38 years before moving to UCI in 2008.

Olson is a fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). With her husband and colleague, Gary Olson, she holds the Lifetime Achievement Award from the ACM Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction. 

In 2018, she was elected to the National Academy of Engineering. In 2015, Larry Page, co-founder of Google, was quoted in the book “Innovations” saying the course that influenced him the most when he was an undergraduate was a course Olson taught on human-computer interaction. In 2011, she was awarded the ACM-W Athena Lecture, the equivalent of “Woman of the Year in Computer Science.”

Eva Jefferson Paterson

Eva Jefferson Paterson will receive a Doctor of Laws. She is co-founder and president of the Equal Justice Society, a nonprofit organization transforming the nation’s consciousness on race through law, social science and the arts. 

Eva Jefferson Paterson
Eva Jefferson Paterson

She previously served 13 years as executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. There she was part of a broad coalition that filed the groundbreaking anti-discrimination suit against race and gender discrimination by the San Francisco Fire Department. That lawsuit successfully desegregated the department, winning new opportunities for women and firefighters of color.

Paterson is co-chair of the California Civil Rights Coalition (CCRC), which she co-founded and chaired for 18 years. As co-chair of CCRC, she was a leading spokesperson in the campaigns against Proposition 187 (anti-immigrant) and Proposition 209 (anti-affirmative action) and numerous other statewide campaigns against the death penalty, juvenile incarceration and discrimination against lesbians and gay men. Paterson also served as vice president of the ACLU National Board for eight years.

She has received numerous awards, including the Fay Stender Award from the California Women Lawyers, Woman of the Year from the Black Leadership Forum, the Earl Warren Civil Liberties Award from the ACLU of Northern California and the Alumni Award of Merit from Northwestern. 

In 1970, as a 20-year-old student leader at Northwestern, Paterson was catapulted into the national spotlight when she debated then-Vice President Spiro Agnew on live television. Dubbed the “peaceful warrior” for fostering nonviolent protest in the aftermath of the 1970 shooting of student demonstrators at Kent State University, she received major media recognition and was called to testify before Congress.

Paterson received her B.A. in political science from Northwestern and was elected the first African American student body president. She received her law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.