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Posted on Thu, Apr 29, 2010 : 1 p.m.

Susan Stamberg, Ornette Coleman among those receiving U-M honorary degrees with Obama

By Leah DuMouchel

Sharing a stage with a sitting president might be the crowning glory in some people’s lives. But for Jean Campbell, Ornette Coleman, Stanford Ovshinsky, Susan Stamberg and Charles Vest,, it’s just one more in a long list of achievements.

All five will receive honorary degrees, along with President Barack Obama, at Saturday's University of Michigan spring commencement.

“It’s an exciting slate of recipients,” said Lisa Connolly, project manager for the U-M President’s Office and staff member of the Honorary Degree Committee.

The university has been bestowing these honors for more than a century. In that time, the more than 1,000 distinguished individuals who have received honorary degrees include Detroit mayors Dennis Archer and Dave Bing, Michigan governors John Engler and Jennifer Granholm, both George H.W. and Barbara Bush, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Supreme Court justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Ginsburg, filmmaker Ken Burns, Detroit Tigers baseball announcer Ernie Harwell, writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, civil rights leader Rosa Parks and race car driver Roger Penske. Saturday, a journalist, an inventor, a jazz musician, an engineer and a women's education advocate will join their ranks.


Jean Campbell

Jean Campbell made a lasting contribution to the university when she founded the Center for the Continuing Education of Women (now the Center for the Education of Women), becoming its first director in 1964. The center’s first mission was to support women who were returning to higher education after an absence, usually to get married and start a family, by removing barriers and providing a counseling program that integrated their lives with their academics.

During her two-decade-long tenure, the CEW pioneered an evening study program, funded scholarships, launched an administrative intern program, collaborated with other universities and served as the incubator for the Women in Science and Engineering program (now an independent entity). Although Campbell retired in 1985, the Jean Campbell Research Fund continues to support visiting scholars and faculty research.

Campbell got her own bachelor’s degree in 1938 and a master’s in 1939, both from Northwestern University. The Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame inducted Campbell in 1993, saying she “has always been in the forefront in confronting the issues and imbalances affecting equity for women as participants in higher education and in their careers.”


Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman, a jazz musician and composer wasn't satisfied just writing new songs. He developed an entirely new theory called “harmolodics,” a musical concept that doubles as a way of life and the manifesto of which contains sentences like, “In the Harmolodic world the concept of space and time are not past or future but the present. Applied harmolodics will allow equal relationship to any information where an answer or a concept is an opinion.” Or, more simply, “In music, the only thing that matters is whether you feel it or not.”

At the age of 14, Coleman taught himself to play the saxophone his mother saved up to buy him with her seamstress’ wages and began playing with local bands in Fort Worth, Texas. By 1960, he’d landed in Los Angeles and unleashed “Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation” on the American scene, which started out as merely an album title and eventually grew into an entirely new “free jazz” genre. Twenty albums later, he was inducted into the DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1969. His 2006 album “Sound Grammar” won a Pulitzer Prize the following year.


Stanford Ovshinsky

Stanford Ovshinky, an inventor and self-taught genius, also developed a brand-new field, this time in the study of materials science. His method of crystallizing materials that lacked a definite structure started engineers across the country studying “ovonics” and led him to found the Michigan-based company Energy Conversion Devices Inc. with his late wife Iris.

Ovshinsky holds hundreds of U.S. patents and his inventions underpin many of the cornerstones of 21st century life: photovoltaic cells to capture sunlight, solid hydrogen to power fuel cells, reversible optical memory to rewrite CDs and nickel metal-hydride batteries for electric cars. Many of these were concepts scientists thought impossible before Ovshinky, but as he told PBS’s “Scientific American Frontier,” “It's very difficult for somebody to say it ain't going to work when you're driving around in a car with it. … I know what I want, I know what I'm going to do, and I use the periodic chart of atoms as if it's an engineering diagram.”


Charles Vest

In honoring Charles Vest, the university is recognizing one of the scientists it trained, . Vest earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering at U-M, then went on to climb the academic ladder from assistant professor to full professor, associate dean and dean of engineering, provost and vice president of student affairs.

He left in 1990 to be president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he particularly championed increasing diversity among the students and making need-based financial aid more widely available. His administration oversaw the OpenCourseWare initiative, piloted in 2002 as a way to make the entire MIT curriculum available for free online.

In 2006, George W. Bush awarded him the National Medal of Technology “for his visionary leadership in advancing America's technological workforce and capacity for innovation through revitalizing the national partnership among academia, government, and industry.”


Susan Stamberg

Susan Stamberg is well known to fans of National Public Radio. She has been on the staff since its inception in 1971 and earned the nickname of “Founding Mother.” When she began co-hosting “All Things Considered” the following year, it made her the first female journalist to anchor a national nightly news program.

Fourteen years later, Stamberg launched “Weekend Edition Sunday,” bringing the organization’s newsmagazines to a seventh day every week. She continues today as a special correspondent for NPR, a job that includes the popular recital of her mother-in-law’s interesting cranberry relish recipe sometime around Thanksgiving every year. She’s been inducted into both the Radio Hall of Fame and the Broadcasting Hall of Fame, and her two books present her life’s work in print form: “Every Night at Five: Susan Stamberg’s All Things Considered Book” and “Talk: NPR’s Susan Stamberg Considers All Things.”

Leah DuMouchel is a free-lance writer for


Leah DuMouchel

Thu, Apr 29, 2010 : 1:31 p.m.

Spring commencement exercises, held after classes and finals wrap up in late April, fell on May 1 when I graduated in 1999 (we heard from Kofi Annan) and again in 2004 (David Davis, Jr. was the speaker).