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Cornel West

2009 Commencement Address

Cornel West

Press Release


Judith Jamison, Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears receive Honorary Degrees Helene Gayle to Receive National Community Service Award

ATLANTA (April 24, 2009) Activist, philosopher, scholar, sociopolitical critic and one of the most provocative and influential intellectuals of our time, Cornel West, Ph. D., will serve as the keynote speaker for Spelman College’s commencement exercises, Sunday, May 17, 2009, at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church at 5 p.m. Considered a drum major for justice and a tireless, fearless change agent in America’s discourse on race, justice and democracy, Dr. West will charge the class of 2009 to challenge the status quo as they go forth to fulfill their commitment to change the world. He will also receive an honorary doctorate of humane letters.

“In these turbulent times our graduates must be ready to ask hard questions - of themselves as well as others. Dr. Cornel West models that willingness,” said Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum. “Described by some as an ‘intellectual provocateur,’ Dr. West challenges us to think critically, act globally, and lead with integrity – just as the class of 2009 must do as they leave the gates of Spelman College.”

Currently the Class of 1943 Professor at Princeton University, Dr. West burst onto the national scene in 1993 with his bestselling book, “Race Matters,” a powerful examination of racism in American democracy. “Race Matters” has become a contemporary classic, selling more than half a million copies to date. His latest work, “Hope on a Tightrope,” offers bold commentary on issues that affect all Americans. Additionally, Dr. West has recently released a CD titled, “Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations,” a collection of socially conscious music featuring collaborations with Prince, Outkast, Jill Scott, and Talib Kewli. He also offers commentary weekly on “The Tavis Smiley Show” from Public Radio International.

In addition to Dr. West, Judith Jamison, artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for the past 20 years, and Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, will both receive honorary degrees as well. Helene Gayle, president and CEO, CARE USA, will receive the National Community Service Award.

Honorary Degree Recipient: Judith Jamison, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Judith Jamison was appointed artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in December 1989 at the request of her mentor, Alvin Ailey, who personally chose her to succeed him. A native of Philadelphia, she became a member of the Ailey Dance Theater in 1965 and danced for the company for 15 years to tremendous acclaim. Recognizing her extraordinary talent, Mr. Ailey created some of his most enduring roles for her, most notably the tour de force solo, “Cry.” Between 1980 and ’89, Jamison performed as guest artist with ballet companies throughout the world, and also starred in the hit Broadway musical “Sophisticated Ladies.” In ’88, she formed her own company, The Jamison Project, and a PBS special focusing on her creative process, titled “Judith Jamison: The Dancemaker,” aired nationally that same year. A highly regarded choreographer, Jamison’s most recent ballet, “Reminiscin’,” was inspired by great female jazz artists and Edward Hooper’s famous painting “Nighthawks.”

Honorary Degree Recipient: Leah Ward Sears, Chief Justice, Supreme Court of Georgia

Chief Justice Sears is also chair of the Judicial Council of Georgia, the $200 million agency in charge of the state judicial system. Sears became the first African-American female Chief Justice in the United States in 2005. When she was first appointed as justice in 1992, Sears became the first woman and the youngest person to sit on the Supreme Court of Georgia. Chief Justice Sears practiced law with the Atlanta-based firm Alston & Bird, 1980-1985, and was also an adjunct professor of Law at Emory University School of Law for many years. Last year, Chief Justice Sears announced that she will retire from the state Supreme Court when her term as Chief Justice ends in June 2009.

National Community Service Award Recipient: Helene D. Gayle, M.D., President and CEO, CARE USA

Helene Gayle, M.D., heads one of the world’s premier international humanitarian organizations, with programs in 70 countries focused on ending poverty. She is responsible for providing overall leadership, management and direction to CARE as its president and CEO. Dr. Gayle spent 20 years with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, focused primarily on combating HIV/AIDS. She rose through the ranks at CDC to become the first director of the National Center for HIV, STD, and TB Prevention, at that time the CDC’s largest Center. She has served as a health consultant to international agencies including the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the World Bank and UNAIDS and has worked extensively in Africa, Asia and the Americas. Named one of Newsweek’s top 10 “Women in Leadership” in October 2008 and the Wall Street Journal’s “50 Women to Watch” in 2006, Dr. Gayle has published numerous scientific articles and has been featured in The New York Times, Washington Post, Glamour, O magazine, Ebony, Essence, the Financial Times, National Public Radio and CNN.

For more information about the Spelman College 122nd Commencement and Baccalaureate ceremonies go to