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Meet This Year’s Honorary Degree Recipients

Glass ceiling–breaking scientist, X-Men producer, TV exec, and life-saving trustee to be honored Sunday


One dove to the depths of oceans and rose to the top of her male-dominated field of science. Another has produced genre-defining movies, including one that launched the superhero craze. A third headed an organization that has saved lives around the world. The fourth uses the medium of television to connect viewers interested in philanthropic giving with nonprofits. Meet the quartet who will receive honorary degrees from BU at its 146th Commencement on Sunday, May 19.

Commencement Speaker: Marcia McNutt, honorary Doctor of Science

Marcia McNutt

Marcia McNutt, the first woman president of the National Academy of Sciences, will receive an honorary Doctor of Science at Sunday’s Commencement. Photo courtesy of the Royal Society

The woman who led the cleanup following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was once dismissed by a professor for her “silly” desire to major in physics at Colorado College. Marcia McNutt dismissed the diss, went on to become her school’s first female physics graduate (summa cum laude), and serves today as the first woman president of the National Academy of Sciences.

Before that, she broke the glass ceiling as the first woman editor in chief of the respected Science journals. And before that, she headed the US Geological Survey, the federal agency that led the response to BP’s Gulf oil spill, teaming with the company to cap its ruptured well. Water is as familiar a medium as air to McNutt, who has been on more than a dozen deep-sea expeditions (as chief scientist on most of them), and whose awards include the Coast Guard’s Meritorious Medal and the American Geophysical Union’s Maurice Ewing Medal for contributions to deep-sea exploration.

She hopes her Commencement address will “convince the graduates to open their minds to sound and reliable evidence to help make wise decisions, for themselves and future generations.…BU graduates are internationally known for their quality education, excellent preparation with real-world experience, and notable accomplishments across many fields. I couldn’t be more delighted to join the select ranks of BU alumni.”

Oh, that professor who considered a woman physicist “silly”? McNutt took several classes with him—and nailed them all.

McNutt will deliver this year’s Commencement address at Nickerson Field on Commencement Sunday, May 19, at 1 pm.

Baccalaureate Speaker: John P. Howe III (MED’69), honorary Doctor of Science

John P. Howe III (MED’69), honorary Doctor of Science

Photo courtesy of Project HOPE

Who knows how many people are alive today because of BU trustee John P. Howe? As president and CEO of Project HOPE from 2001 to 2015, he led the Maryland-based international nonprofit that provides medical care to some of the world’s most desperate people: treatment for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS; medicines and supplies in disaster-stricken regions, including Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria; maternal and neonatal care training and services in 28 nations; and education and policy help with diseases from diabetes and hypertension to respiratory illness.

“It is the groundwork established by HOPE,” he wrote in one of his final annual messages, “that is providing nearly two million health services to women and children today.”

Howe’s work in medicine didn’t begin there, of course. As the CEO of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, he had a hand in making several programs national powerhouses in their fields. He was instrumental in developing the University of Massachusetts Medical School, according to his BU honorary degree citation, and has been a member of the BU School of Public Health Board of Visitors and of Harvard’s Board of Overseers. He has served as chairman of the Texas Statewide Health Coordinating Council and was founding president of that state’s Society for Biomedical Research. He is the recipient of numerous awards, among them the School of Medicine’s 1994 Distinguished Alumnus Award.

Howe will deliver this year’s Baccalaureate address at Marsh Chapel on Commencement Sunday, May 19, at 11 am.

Lauren Shuler Donner (CGS’69, COM’71), honorary Doctor of Humane Letters

Lauren Shuler Donner

Photo by Greg Gorman

X-Men. That blockbuster franchise normally would be all you’d need by way of introducing its producer, except that Lauren Shuler Donner’s résumé also includes a string of other Hollywood hits: Free Willy, Pretty in Pink, St. Elmo’s Fire, Mr. Mom, You’ve Got Mail, Any Given SundayDave, The Secret Life of Bees, and Deadpool, nominated for a 2017 Producers Guild of America award. These movies have racked up more than $7 billion at the box office and earned Shuler Donner a star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame; they’ve also helped to define film genres—superheroes, “Brat Pack” coming-of-age films—and depicted cultural memes from racism to sports.

Shuler Donner is also executive producer of the TV series Legion, on FX, and The Gifted, on Fox. In sheer numbers, her awards rival her credits: Lifetime Achievement (Ojai Film Festival), Producer Icon (Premiere magazine), two Crystals (Women in Film), and recognition for her charitable work from the American Cancer Society and Lupus L.A.

With that résumé, an honorary degree might seem small potatoes. “On the contrary,” says Shuler Donner, “I am truly, truly honored. I have been successful, but to have an honorary degree—I wish my parents were alive.” Although “I wasn’t the greatest student,” she says, she flourished at BU, crediting the College of Communication for forging “my direction and some of my training” in filmmaking.

The honorary doctorate also prompted a question from her six-year-old nephew, who calls her by the nickname Nonny: “Do I have to call you Dr. Nonny now?”

Shuler Donner will deliver COM’s undergraduate convocation address on Friday, May 17, at 9 am, at Agganis Arena.

Karen Holmes Ward (COM’77), honorary Doctor of Humane Letters

Karen Holmes Ward

Photo courtesy of WCVB-TV

From the “vast wasteland” of TV to online platforms vulnerable to verbal venom, the media has endured decades of you-dumb-us-down criticism. Karen Holmes Ward proves it can transcend all that. As public affairs and community services director for WCVB-Channel 5, Boston’s ABC affiliate, she’s the brains behind CommonWealth 5, the station’s initiative linking viewers interested in philanthropy to a range of nonprofit groups.

She also hosts CityLine, the weekly public affairs magazine show about issues facing greater Boston’s communities of color. And she was executive producer of Return to Glory, a documentary about the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment, the groundbreaking African American regiment that fought in the Civil War.

A multiple Emmy Award nominee, Ward is a member of several nonprofit boards, which she advises in using TV to promote their various missions. She has been inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame and the Silver Circle of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, recognizing lifetime achievement and professional excellence.

An honorary degree is all the sweeter, she says, as her alma mater “focused my interest in journalism and launched me on my career path. The education that I received…prepped me for what has been a fulfilling career in a very competitive industry.”

The COM convocation, where Shuler Donner will speak, is Friday, May 17, at 9 am, at Agganis Arena. The Baccalaureate service, where Howe will speak, is Sunday, May 19, at 11 am, at Marsh Chapel. The All-University Commencement, where McNutt will speak, is May 19, at 1 pm, at Nickerson Field.

Find more information about Commencement on the Commencement website.

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Rich Barlow, Senior Writer, BU Today, Bostonia, Boston University
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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