The University of Michigan’s Board of Regents announced last week that former racecar driver and auto industry mogul Roger Penske will receive an honorary law degree as this year’s Winter Commencement speaker.

Penske, a Bloomfield Hills resident and the world’s 382nd richest person according to Forbes magazine, owns companies which race, sell, lease and repair cars and trucks. Between 1976 and 2006, Penske Racing, Inc. has won the Indianapolis 500 a record 14 times.

Penske is also a corporate director of General Electric and was chairman of the 2006 Super Bowl in Detroit.

He began his career as a teenager in Cleveland by buying run-down cars, repairing them and selling them for a profit. After graduating from Lehigh University, he became a racecar driver, earning the New York Times’ title of Driver of the Year in 1962. Three years later, at 28, Penske retired from racing and pursued his love of cars in the business world.

Ross School of Business senior Ari Siegel, who will graduate this winter, said while he hadn’t heard of Penske, his expectations are lower for the winter ceremony’s speaker than the spring’s.

“I’m not bothered by it. It depends on his quality, really,” he said. “But I understand that there are so few students that graduate in the winter that they don’t have the budget to get a big name person every year.”

Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project and a former University professor, spoke at last year’s winter commencement.

A University committee decides who will receive honorary degrees from a list of nominees submitted by faculty members. University President Mary Sue Coleman then chooses the commencement speaker from the list of recipients.

Committee member Lisa Connolly said the group chooses recipients based on contributions to their field or other service work, adding that the committee tries to ensure honorary degrees are given in a wide range of disciplines.

“It’s just putting a puzzle together,” she said. “Just getting a good fit of nominees that make a good slate and then seeing who is interested in accepting the invitation.”

Coleman sent an e-mail to faculty members Sept. 5, saying that “nominations of women and members of minority groups are encouraged, as are nominations of individuals whose achievement and distinction have not already been recognized by a number of other institutions.”

Coleman said she chose Penske because of his business and racing endeavors in Detroit, which have helped bolster the city’s economy. She cited his recent introduction of Grand Prix racing to Detroit and Belle Isle as an example of Penske’s impact on the city.

“He understands that if we are to attract and retain young people (like graduates from UM) to southeast Michigan, we need to have cities that are economically vibrant and filled with interesting activities,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Also receiving honorary degrees at the ceremony will be poet Anne Stevenson, who will receive a Doctor of Humane Letters degree, and artist and writer Faith Ringgold, who will receive a Doctor of Fine Arts degree.

Stevenson attended the University as an undergraduate and graduate student, where she wrote the first critical study of famed poet Elizabeth Bishop. Ringgold is best known for her “painted story quilts,” which combine painting and fabric to tell stories. Her works are in permanent collections at museums like the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Winter Commencement will take place on Dec. 14 at 2 p.m. in Crisler Arena.

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