President Alison Byerly awarded honorary degrees at Lafayette’s 182nd Commencement to Commencement speaker Ron Chernow, award-winning biographer (Doctor of Letters); Laneta Dorflinger ’75, distinguished scientist and director of contraceptive technology innovation at FHI 360 (Doctor of Science); Seifollah Ghasemi, chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Air Products (Doctor of Science), who was unable to attend; and Meredith Monk, recipient of the National Medal of Arts (Doctor of Arts).
Byerly read the following introductions and citations at the ceremony:
In the history of Lafayette’s Board of Trustees, Dr. Laneta Dorflinger ’75 was the second Lafayette alumna to be elected to the board. Last year, Dr. Dorflinger began her IntraHealth International program on global family planning by asking spectators to yell “contraception,” to change the perception of a word from bad to better. Then she made a careful, compelling case for improving contraceptive devices as agents of health, welfare, and social justice. In the process, she confirmed herself as an ambassador of science, alliance, and defiance.
Dr. Laneta Dorflinger ’75, we honor you for your passionate, compassionate goal of making contraception more effective and more available around the world. As distinguished scientist and director of contraceptive technology innovation for FHI 360, a nonprofit active in 60 countries, you are leading a drive to create a biodegradable implant and an injectable contraceptive that lasts six months longer. As you have pointed out, these devices would be especially valuable in poor rural countries, where women avoid contraception for reasons ranging from fear of losing their fertility to monsoons preventing them from reaching health centers in time. These devices will not only prevent tens of millions of unwanted pregnancies and abortions; they will lower the risk of maternal deaths, sexually transmitted diseases, and cancers. You have relentlessly promoted partnerships between nonprofits, universities, and research centers, as well as dramatic increases in funding for research and development. As you have pointed out, the $63 million spent on research and development in low-resource settings in 2013 was five times less than Americans spent that year on Halloween costumes for their pets.
In many ways, your journey began at Lafayette, where you were guided by retired chemistry professor Joseph Sherma, an esteemed mentor for fellow ambitious innovators. You have served your alma mater as a trustee and made a difference for our students by endowing—with your husband Dr. Mark Graham, a hematologist/oncologist—a fund for supporting internships with first-rate scientists at graduate schools and laboratories. We heartily endorse the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s title for you: “Impatient Optimist.”
THEREFORE, by the authority granted by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to the Trustees of Lafayette College and by them delegated to me, I award you the degree of DOCTOR OF SCIENCE, honoris causa, with all the rights, honors, and privileges thereto appertaining, in token whereof I present you with this diploma and direct that you be vested in the hood emblematic of the degree.
In 1969, Seifollah Ghasemi put his new master’s degree in mechanical engineering to quick, visionary use. In just five months, he designed and built a generator for a steam-powered car funded by William P. Lear, the fabled inventor of the Lear Jet and the eight-track cartridge player. While Lear’s automobile remained a dream, the experience ignited Mr. Ghasemi’s quest to develop vehicles that are cleaner, smarter, and more sensible. Unfortunately, Mr. Ghasemi is unable to join us for today’s ceremony, so we will award his well-deserved honorary degree in absentia.
Seifollah Ghasemi, we salute you as an essential leader of companies that provide essential elements. You have had a truly remarkable journey since leaving your native Iran, where you tried to build a steel industry before the 1979 overthrow of the Shah. As chief executive officer of Rockwood Holdings, you significantly strengthened the specialty chemicals/advanced materials corporation by taking it public, selling non-core businesses, and focusing on the supply of lithium for rechargeable batteries for everything from laptops to mobile phones to electric vehicles.
You have made Air Products more profitable and more responsible during your three years as chief executive officer, by spinning off divisions, concentrating on gas, and improving records of safety and lost time due to injury. This year the Société de Chimie Industrielle rewarded you as a chemical-industry steward with the International Palladium Medal, a biennial award given to only 28 individuals. As a member of the Electrification Coalition you have lobbied, tirelessly and comprehensively, for the mass production in America of electric vehicles, to reduce pollution and dependence on oil, as well as dependence on hostile foreign oil suppliers. The honorary degree that we bestow on you today continues your relationship with Lafayette that began when you attended the Abadan Institute of Technology, where in the 1950s and 1960s Lafayette associates designed a general six-year program in engineering, taught Persian and Western literature, coached a winning basketball team, and mentored global citizens like yourself.
THEREFORE, by the authority granted by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to the Trustees of Lafayette College and by them delegated to me, I award you the degree of DOCTOR OF SCIENCE, honoris causa, with all the rights, honors, and privileges thereto appertaining.
In 2008, Meredith Monk christened her composition Songs of Ascension while christening an eight-story cement silo, a roofless sanctuary/laboratory in northern California. Vocalists and instrumentalists performed a radiating, levitating soundscape while moving around a pair of spiraling staircases. It was a quintessential example of Ms. Monk’s renowned fusion of singing body, dancing voice, and spiraling imagination.
Meredith Monk, we celebrate you as a poet of the senses and a choreographer of being who aims to shatter silos of solitude. For more than a half a century, you have seamlessly and inventively mixed media in works that are minimalistic and operatic, contemporary and ancient, topical and timeless. Your marvelously expansive, expressive voice has anchored your mission to make the voice an amazing maze of notes, sounds, and noises.
The range of your partners is exemplary: your vocal ensemble; the Kronos Quartet; the San Francisco Symphony; the Guggenheim Museum; players of Jew’s harp and bowed psaltery. The spectrum of your themes is equally impressive: violence and mercy; integration and disintegration; the politics of quiet. Your characters occupy a cosmic gallery: the ghosts of Ellis Island; Alexandra David-Neel, the Buddhist explorer/anarchist who visited Tibet when it was closed to foreigners; the Dalai Lama, who smiled at your vocal offering to him in a Los Angeles synagogue.
You have also crisscrossed boundaries as an honoree, receiving mainstream awards—the National Medal of Arts, a composer’s residency at Carnegie Hall—as well as non-mainstream tributes. DJ Shadow sampled your Dolmen Music in his tune, Midnight in a Perfect World; your Walking Song accompanies a performance artist on a pulley in the movie, The Big Lebowski. Here at Lafayette, we were privileged to host your exhibit, Archeology of an Artist 2, and your science-fiction chamber opera, Magic Frequencies, both of which advance your belief that art is a bountiful garden for annual ideas and perennial ideals.
THEREFORE, by the authority granted by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to the Trustees of Lafayette College and by them delegated to me, I award you the degree of DOCTOR OF ARTS, honoris causa, with all the rights, honors, and privileges thereto appertaining, in token whereof I present you with this diploma and direct that you be vested in the hood emblematic of the degree.
Two years ago, Ron Chernow began campaigning to save Alexander Hamilton’s top billing on the $10 bill. The Hamilton biographer argued that Hamilton deserved to be front and center because he was a truly minted American inventor: a Revolutionary War hero, the first Treasury secretary, and an architect of the Constitution and the currency system. It was an eloquent defense from a founding father of a founding father’s renaissance in reputation.
Ron Chernow, we praise you for writing monumental, magisterial portraits of magisterial, monumental men. Your biographies of titanic financial families—the Morgans, the Warburgs, and the Rockefellers—are robust explorations of economics and politics, sociology, and psychology. Your biographies of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington read like epic novels; they’re panoramic, probing, and refreshingly revisionary.
In 2007, you discussed how these philosopher kings helped create the American republic during the second talk in Lafayette’s Lives of Liberty series; you also discussed Washington’s fruitful, familial friendship with the Marquis de Lafayette, another fiery, visionary founding father. All three men share the sensational musical, Hamilton, which was inspired by your book, making you a founding father of history for the hip-hop generation. Thanks largely to the show’s runaway success, the Treasury department fulfilled your wish by reversing its decision to have Hamilton share the $10 bill with a prominent woman.
You richly deserve your many honors: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Humanities Medal, and the presidency of the American branch of PEN, which supports literacy and free expression around the world. You also richly deserve your newly expanded role as a commencement speaker and your new role as a celebrity signer of Playbills. We eagerly await the publication this fall of your biography of Ulysses S. Grant—failed businessman, distinguished Civil War general, two-term president, and best-selling memoirist. We expect another insightful, incisive portrait of another Mount Rushmore giant with giant fissures.
“THEREFORE, by the authority granted by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to the Trustees of Lafayette College and by them delegated to me, I award you the degree of DOCTOR OF LETTERS, honoris causa, with all the rights, honors, and privileges thereto appertaining, in token whereof I present you with this diploma and direct that you be vested in the hood emblematic of the degree.”