Head of NASA to address graduates at Winter Commencement

By Claire Bryan, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 16, 2014

This year’s Winter Commencement speaker is a man who names both fictional astronaut Buck Rogers and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as inspirations.

NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr. will be the commencement’s honorary guest speaker, the University announced early Monday.

The commencement ceremony will take place at 2 p.m. on Sun., Dec. 14 at the Crisler Center.

Under Bolden’s leadership, NASA has launched a spacecraft to Jupiter, landed a Mars rover and enhanced Earth-observing satellites. NASA aims to create U.S. vehicles to travel to the International Space Station by 2017 and launch the James Webb Space Telescope, which has been created to succeed the Hubble Space Telescope, by 2018.

President Barack Obama's tenure has seen a fundamental reorientation of NASA. Bolden increased public-private partnerships during a time of major budget cuts to NASA.

Bolden is the first Black administrator of NASA.

Bolden is a veteran of four spaceflights, two of which he commanded. In 1990, he commanded Space Shuttle Discovery and its deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope, and in 1994 he commanded the first joint U.S. and Russian Space Shuttle mission.

Born in Columbia, S.C., Bolden was captivated by the adventures of fiction hero Buck Rogers as a child.

He graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical science. After graduating, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, where he flew more than 100 combat missions in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

Bolden returned to the United States and earned his master’s degree in systems management from the University of Southern California in 1977.

He joined NASA in 1980 where his many roles have included technical assistant to the director of Flight Crew Operations, lead astronaut for vehicle test and checkout, chief of the Safety Division at Johnson Space Center and assistant deputy administrator.

In 1994, Bolden returned to active duty with the Marine Corps. He served as deputy commandant of midshipmen at the Naval Academy and then as deputy commander of the United States Forces Japan, among other leadership positions.

In their communication to the regents recommending Bolden, the Committee on Honorary Degrees highlighted his passion for ameliorating disparities in education, heath, employment and income.

In 2003, Bolden filed amicus curiae briefs supporting the University’s affirmative action policy during the contentious lawsuits Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger.

Bolden worked with University President Emeritus James Duderstadt and the late MIT President Emeritus Chuck Vest on diversity initiatives throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Bolden also helped in engaging University engineering and science initiatives to attract more minority students to careers in these fields.

“You have been an exemplar of leadership and courage throughout your illustrious career as a public servant,” the committee wrote. “You also are admired and respected for your unwavering support of diversity, social justice and programs that encourage students to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

At the Winter Commencement, Bolden and three others will receive honorary degrees from the University. Bolden will earn a Doctor of Science honorary degree, joined by atmospheric scientist Ralph J. Cicerone and geneticist Hamilton O. Smith. Susanne Baer, a judge in Germany’s highest court, will earn the Doctor of Laws honorary degree.

Susanne Baer

The recipient of the Doctor of Laws honorary degree is a judge in the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany and a professor of public law and gender studies at Humboldt University of Berlin. Baer earned her Master of Laws degree at the University.

At Humboldt, Baer directs the Law and Society Institute Berlin and co-founded its Center for Transdisciplinary Gender Studies. She served as the law faculty’s dean of academic affairs and vice president for academic and international affairs. She also co-directs the Law in Context project at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin.

Baer works to advance feminist legal theory through her teaching and writing. Publishing in both English and German, she proposed allowing women’s groups to file suit against pornography that depicts degrading subordination of women and men.

The Federal Constitutional Court hears all cases brought to it by individuals who believe their rights have been violated under the German Constitution. The German Parliament elected Judge Baer to a 12-year term in 2011. She is one of five women on the 16-member court and the first openly gay member.

She has created opportunities for University of Michigan Law School graduates to clerk at the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany.

Ralph J. Cicerone

The Committee on Honorary Degrees will award a Doctor of Science to Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences and one of the world’s foremost atmospheric scientists.

Cicerone often testifies before Congress and advises the White House on issues such as greenhouse gases and ozone depletion.

He served as a researcher in electrical engineering at the University from 1970 to 1978. In 2007, the University established the Ralph J. Cicerone Distinguished University Professorship of Atmospheric Science in his honor.

He spent much of his career at the University of California, Irvine. There, he founded the Department of Earth System Science and served as dean of UC Irvine’s School of Physical Sciences from 1994 to 1998 and as chancellor from 1998 to 2005.

In 2001, Cicerone led a climate study at the National Academy of Sciences confirming the role of human activities in global warming. He was elected NAS president and chair of the National Research Council in 2005.

Cicerone is a trustee of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and was president of the American Geophysical Union.

Hamilton O. Smith

Smith, a Nobel laureate, will be the third recipient of the University’s Doctor of Science award.

Smith and his colleagues received the Nobel Prize in 1978 for discovering restriction enzymes and their application to problems of molecular genetics. Currently, he researches genomics at the J. Craig Venter Institute and is an adjunct professor at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.

Smith was born in New York City, received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley and an M.D. from Johns Hopkins University. He served two years in the Navy and completed his medical residency at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. In 1962, Smith began research as a postdoctoral fellow at the University’s Department of Human Genetics.

Apart from his Nobel-winning research, Smith has made many important discoveries in the field of genetics. He found one of the first types of restriction enzymes, worked on gene arrangement and sequence and was part of the team that sequenced the first genome of a self-replicating, free-living organism — the Haemophilus influenzae bacterium.

In 2002, Smith became the Venter Institute’s scientific director of synthetic biology and bioenergy. In 2010, the institute created the first bacterial cell running entirely from a chemically synthesized genome.

Smith was inducted into University’s Medical Center Alumni Society Hall of Honor in 2006.