At the University’s 188th Commencement on May 24, Wesleyan will present honorary degrees to three recipients whose work exemplifies inclusive engagement.
Jacqueline Woodson, an award-winning and best-selling author, is this year’s speaker. Actor and political activist Bradley Whitford ’81 and William Joseph Barber II, a social justice advocate and pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church, will also be honored. The recipients were chosen on the basis of their significant contributions to civic life in the United States, including the example they set in bringing new voices into the public sphere and spurring others to productive dialogue and action.
“I am honored to celebrate at Commencement three remarkable individuals whose work has educated people across the country,” President Michael Roth ’78 said. “Through their creative and inspiring contributions, they empower and encourage us to work toward creating a better world.”
Jacqueline Woodson is the author of more than 30 award-winning books for young adults, middle graders, and children. Her New York Times best-selling memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming—about her family and segregation in the South—was the 2014 National Book Award Winner, as well as the recipient of the prestigious Coretta Scott King Award, a Newbery Honor, the NAACP Image Award, and a Sibert Honor. She also wrote the adult books Red at the Bone (also a New York Times best seller) and Another Brooklyn (a 2016 National Book Award finalist).
Drawing on authorial influences like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Virginia Hamilton, Woodson’s work explores the boundaries and liminal cultural spaces around important issues like race, gender, and sexuality. She has been the recipient of many honors, such as the 2018–2019 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, the 2018 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, and the 2018 Children’s Literature Legacy Award. In 2015, Woodson was named the Young People’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation. A four-time Newbery Honor winner, a four-time National Book Award finalist, and a two-time Coretta Scott King Award winner, her other books include: The Day You Begin; Harbor Me; The Other Side; Each Kindness; Caldecott Honor book Coming On Home Soon; Feathers; Show Way; After Tupac and D Foster; and Miracle’s Boys.
Woodson is the recipient of the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement for her contributions to young adult literature and a two-time winner of the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, and has written extensively for The New York Times on a wide range of issues, from the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the Underground Railroad to travel, television, and style. She currently lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with her partner and two children.
Bradley Whitford ’81 is a classically trained and critically acclaimed theater, television, and film actor. Known for his Emmy Award–winning performance as Josh Lyman on the popular political drama series The West Wing and more recently his Emmy Award-winning guest roles on Transparent and The Handmaid’s Tale, Whitford has also built an extensive film resumé that includes credits like Get Out, Bicentennial Man, Scent of a Woman, Philadelphia, My Fellow Americans, and The Cabin in the Woods, directed by fellow Wesleyan graduate Joss Whedon ’87, Hon. ’13.
After studying theater and English literature at Wesleyan, Whitford earned a master’s degree from the renowned Juilliard Theater Center. He appeared in the off-Broadway production of Curse of the Starving Class alongside actress Kathy Bates, and starred in noted writer Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway production of A Few Good Men. Some of his other theater credits include Three Days of Rain at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Measure for Measure at Lincoln Center, and the title role in Coriolanus at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C.
In addition to his many on-stage and on-screen successes, Whitford is a noted political activist, serving on the board of Let America Vote—a political action organization working to end voter suppression in the United States—and was honored in 2007 by judicial advocacy group Alliance for Justice for his work around constitutional rights awareness. He has also served on the Wesleyan Board of Trustees.
William Joseph Barber II is a pastor and social justice advocate building a broad-based grassroots movement to confront systemic racism, poverty, environmental devastation, the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism in America today. As pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina (since 1993), and president of the North Carolina conference of the NAACP (2005–2017), Barber approaches social justice through the lens of the ethical and moral treatment of people as laid out in the Christian Bible, the Reconstruction and civil rights movements of the South, and the United States Constitution.
Barber received a BA (1985) from North Carolina Central University, an MDiv (1989) from Duke University, and a DMin (2003) from Drew University, and has also received eight honorary doctorates. He has been a member of the NAACP’s national board since 2005, and is also a distinguished visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary and an Auburn Seminary Senior Fellow. His publications include the co-authored books Forward Together: A Moral Message for the Nation (2014); The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement (2016); Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing (2018); and We Are Called to Be a Movement (2020). He is a contributing op-ed writer for The Guardian, The New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and The Washington Post.
Barber is a 2018 MacArthur Fellow and a 2018 Tar Heel of the Year, and in 2019 he was the recipient of the North Carolina Award and the Hubert H. Humphrey Award for Civil and Human Rights.
A list of past honorary degree recipients and Commencement speakers is available here. The President’s Office welcomes suggestions for future recipients of honorary degrees. Please contact email@example.com.