Wesleyan Announces Its 2021 Honorary Degree Recipients

Wesleyan has announced the speaker and honorary degree recipients for its 189th Commencement.

The date of Commencement was previously announced as May 30th; however, given current pandemic conditions, the University is reviewing other options for the last week of May. The University is currently planning to hold the ceremony in-person on Wesleyan’s Middletown campus, though off-campus guests will be restricted to virtual attendance given the ongoing threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. More details about the ceremony and a definitive date for Commencement will be announced by the end of March.

Reginald Dwayne Betts, an award-winning poet, memoirist, and teacher, is this year’s commencement speaker. MacArthur-winning researcher, writer, and activist Catherine Coleman Flowers and Scott Gottlieb ’94, a physician and former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, also will be honored. The recipients were chosen on the basis of their significant contributions to the social, environmental, and public health of the United States.

“Be it through teaching, art, advocacy, medicine, or policy-making, these three individuals offer us shining examples of how we can work to forge better futures,” said Wesleyan President Michael Roth ’78. “Despite difficult circumstances, like the current public health situation, Reginald, Catherine, and Scott represent our ability to make progress on seemingly intractable problems, and, through their efforts, inspire us to direct our talents toward meaningful action.”

Reginald Dwayne Betts

Reginald Dwayne Betts (photo by Mamadi Doumbouya)

Reginald Dwayne Betts is the award-winning author of four collections of poetry, a nonfiction memoir, and a powerful body of essays and scholarship that has been featured in such publications as The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post. The founder and director of the Million Book Project, his work has earned him a Radcliffe Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, NEA Fellowships, and a PEN New England Award for poetry, among many other recognitions.

In his National Magazine Award–winning essay “Getting Out,” published in The New York Times Magazine in 2018, Betts explores the central themes of self-reflection and self-actualization, and the effects of incarceration on individuals, families, and communities. A gifted student in elementary and high school, Betts was himself sentenced to nine years in maximum security prison at age 16. During that time, he studied literature and poetry and laid the foundation for a career that has since seen him earn a BA from the University of Maryland, an MFA from Warren Wilson College, and a JD from Yale Law School. Betts has engaged in wide-ranging speaking engagements and has years of experience in public defense, advocacy, and public service. He has received an appointment from Governor Ned Lamont to Connecticut’s Criminal Justice Commission, the state body that hires all state prosecutors.

Betts is currently pursuing a PhD in Law at Yale University and continues to lecture on his formative experiences and the importance that grit, perseverance, and literature have played in his success, as well as the intersection between literature and advocacy. His most recent collection of poems, Felon: Poems (2019) was a winner of the American Book Award and the NAACP Image Award, and a finalist for the LA Times Book Award. He is also the author of the memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, and the poetry collections Shahid Reads His Own Palm (2010) and Bastards of the Reagan Era (2015). 

Catherine Coleman Flowers

Catherine Coleman Flowers

Catherine Coleman Flowers is a renowned environmental health advocate whose work focuses on bringing attention to and developing solutions for failing water and waste sanitation infrastructure in rural areas, and increasing our understanding of how this infrastructure failure perpetuates health and socioeconomic disparities. For her work, Flowers was awarded a 2020 MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a “Genius Grant,” which goes to citizens or residents of the United States who demonstrate “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”

Originally from Lowndes County, Alabama, Flowers earned a BA from Cameron University in 1986 and an MA from the University of Nebraska in 2015, and worked as a high school teacher in Detroit, Mich., and Washington, D.C., before returning to Lowndes to begin her advocacy work. She is the founding director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, an Alabama-based policy and advocacy organization devoted to addressing the root causes of poverty in the state and developing multidisciplinary, grassroots solutions and models that can be replicated in rural communities throughout the country. Part of the organization’s work included a house-to-house survey in Lowndes that confirmed more than half of county households were either piping raw sewage into the ground or had failing septic systems, which led to the first open discussion of flaws in onsite water treatment (which previously had been governed under threat of incarceration by the Alabama Public Health Department). She is currently collaborating with The Guardian on a national study to identify and quantify wastewater infrastructure problems throughout the United States.

Flowers is the author of Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret (2020), and has published articles in Anglican Theological Review, Columbia Human Rights Law Review, and American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, among other journals. She also is the rural development manager for the Equal Justice Initiative, a senior fellow for the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, and a member of the board of directors of the Climate Reality Project and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Flowers was recently appointed to the Biden-Sanders Task Force on Climate Change, co-chaired by United States representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and former Secretary of State John Kerry, who is now a special envoy for climate.

Scott Gottlieb

Scott Gottlieb

Scott Gottlieb ’94 is a physician, public health and policy advisor and advocate, and a special partner with the venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates. He served as the 23rd commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from 2017 to 2019 and is currently a resident fellow at public policy think tank the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

Dr. Gottlieb’s work spans a great many aspects of health care. At the FDA, he oversaw a record number of generic drugs, novel medicines, and innovative medical devices in two consecutive years, helping to make the regulatory process in those areas more efficient; advanced policies to address opioid addiction; reduced death and disease from tobacco; and guided important progress on drug pricing, food safety, and vaccination. At AEI, he has pursued public health improvements through entrepreneurship, and continued to focus on medical innovation and expanding regulatory approaches aimed at patient and physician autonomy.

After graduating from Wesleyan with a BA in economics, Dr. Gottlieb went on to earn his MD from Mount Sinai School of Medicine and conducted his residency in internal medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center. He serves on the boards of Pfizer, Illumina, Aetion, and Tempus; was previously a senior policy adviser to the administrator at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and a clinical assistant professor at New York University School of Medicine, in addition to a practicing physician and hospitalist. He is a frequent contributor to CNBC and CBS’s Face the Nation, and has also published commentary and articles in Health Affairs, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, among many others.

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 presoffice@wesleyan.edu.