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Seven to Receive Honorary Degrees at 2017 Duke Commencement

2017 honorary degree recipients: Clockwise from left, Clayton Christensen, Marilynne Robinson, Deborah Lee James, Loretta Lynch, Stanley Nelson, George Church and Luis von Ahn.
2017 honorary degree recipients: Clockwise from left, Clayton Christensen, Marilynne Robinson, Deborah Lee James, Loretta Lynch, Stanley Nelson, George Church and Luis von Ahn.

Duke University will award seven honorary degrees at its commencement exercises on Sunday, May 14, Duke President Richard H. Brodhead announced Monday.

This year’s recipients are Clayton Christensen, a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School; George Church, a geneticist, molecular engineer and chemist; Deborah Lee James, former secretary of the Air Force; Loretta Lynch, former U.S. attorney general; Stanley Nelson, documentarian; Marilynne Robinson, novelist and essayist, and Luis von Ahn, a computer scientist and entrepreneur.

Commencement, featuring an address by Duke alumnus David Rubenstein, a philanthropist and financier and the current chair of the university’s Board of Trustees, begins at 9 a.m. at Wallace Wade Stadium and is open to the public.

“I’m delighted that Duke will have the opportunity to welcome and honor these extraordinary individuals,” said Brodhead, who will be presiding over his final Duke commencement ceremony before stepping down June 30 after 13 years as president. “As students receive their degrees and look toward their futures, they will be inspired by the distinguished contributions these women and men have made in fields from the arts and the sciences to business and public service.”

Christensen is an expert on innovation and growth, and his ideas, especially his theory of disruptive innovation, have been widely used in industries and organizations throughout the world. His first book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” was named by The Economist in 2011 as one of the six most important books about business ever written. The Rhodes Scholar’s son, Matt, graduated from Duke in 2002 and played on the men’s basketball team, and his daughter Ann graduated in 2001.

Church, a Duke alumnus, is a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, and a professor of health sciences and technology at Harvard and MIT. A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, Church is widely regarded as a pioneer in personal genomics and synthetic biology. He’s a founding core member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard.

James, a Duke alumna, served as the 23rd secretary of the Air Force from 2013-17. She also served as the assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs. She previously served as president of the Technical and Engineering Sector of Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), a Fortune 500 company. James has 30 years of senior homeland and national security experience in the federal government and the private sector.

Lynch served from 2015-17 as the 83rd Attorney General of the United States, the first African-American woman to serve in that role. She graduated from Durham High School and her parents still live in Durham. Lynch, who will also speak at Duke Law School’s hooding ceremony during commencement weekend, previously served two separate stints as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. While in private practice, she performed extensive pro bono work for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.  

Nelson’s more than 20 documentary films have primarily focused on the African-American experience. A MacArthur Fellow, Nelson has received numerous awards, including five Primetime Emmys and Lifetime Achievement Awards from the National Academy of Television Arts Sciences. In 2013, he received the National Medal in the Humanities from President Obama. In 2010, he and his wife founded a nonprofit production company to advance social justice causes and mentor diverse young filmmakers.

Robinson has published four acclaimed novels -- “Housekeeping” (1980), “Gilead” (2004), “Home” (2008) and “Lila” (2014) -- and four works of nonfiction. “Gilead” won the Pulitzer Prize, and “Gilead” and “Lila” both won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and were finalists for the National Book Award. In 2012, Robinson received the National Humanities Medal for “grace and intelligence in writing.” 

Von Ahn, a Duke alumnus and MacArthur Fellow, is the founder of a subdiscipline of computer science called human computation. After selling two of his companies to Google, von Ahn co-founded Duolingo, the free language education platform now adopted by more than 170 million people around the world. Apple named Duolingo the iPhone App of the Year and Google called it the Best of the Best Android App.