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Commencement Honorees: Wendell Pierce of 'The Wire' and Activist Radhika Coomaraswamy

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Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N) will recognize not one, but two outstanding individuals with honorary degrees at its May 18 main commencement ceremony at the Prudential Center.

At its Feb. 3 meeting, the Rutgers Board of Governors approved the selection of renowned actor, radio personality, author, and humanitarian Wendell Pierce (pictured left), a star of HBO’s The Wire, to receive an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree at the RU-N ceremony, while human rights activist Radhika Coomaraswamy (pictured right) will be given an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. Pierce also will give the main commencement address for RU-N. Coomaraswamy will give a public address in the days preceding commencement. Pierce and Coomaraswamy were nominated by members of the RU-N community and were selected from a field evaluated by an RU-N committee of faculty, staff, and students.

The nomination for Pierce states that the actor, “in his person and in his professional ethos and accomplishments, represents some of the most cherished aspirations we hold for our students at Rutgers University – Newark (RU-N).  Born into humble circumstances in New Orleans, he gained the opportunity to develop his prodigious talent as an actor through education, going from a regular public high school, to arts magnet school, to Juilliard. Throughout his career, he has used his talent to draw attention to the pressing issues of urban America, most famously through his work on The Wire, one of the most acclaimed shows in television history and the inspiration for both a recurring course and a lecture series at RU-N...” 

RU-N’s course, “The Wire: Black Lives Matter,” has exploded in popularity for its dissection of the social and political ills highlighted by The Wire, as they relate to current race relations, police brutality within a fragile justice system, and class divisions in the United States. “[The Wire] reflects how our past was, but still reflects our current situation,” notes Anthony Austin, a Newark College of Arts and Sciences senior enrolled in the course. Initially airing in 2002, The Wire has allowed students to gauge how far society has progressed.  

The nomination also cites Pierce’s work in founding a nonprofit organization to help his hometown recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, ongoing work that has attracted significant media attention in recent months and is the subject of his recently published book, The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken. 

“His life and work speak directly and powerfully to the experience of our students as well as to our strategic plan...the themes of which emphasize the responsibility each of us bears to use our talents to make a difference in our professions and in our communities,” his nomination concludes.

Observer Editor-in-Chief Ray Gnagey, one of six students who served on the RU-N Honorary Degrees committee, stated, “Wendell Pierce was nominated because of his accomplishments in his acting field, and also for his philanthropic contributions. Additionally, I feel he has the charm and charisma to be a dynamic commencement speaker for the university.”

Another committee member, Prof. Bob Puhak, of the Department of Mathematics, agreed. “When considering all the candidates, I believe the comprehensive nature of Wendell's profile -- His background, personal story, and involvement with Rutgers University – Newark – made him stand out.”

Coomaraswamy was the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict from 2006 to 2012 and the U.N.’s first Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, from 1994 to 2003. In her most recent work for the U.N., she was a lead author on a major global study on the implementation of security council resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security; the report, released in October 2015 and titled, “Preventing Conflict, Transforming Justice, Securing the Peace,” already is considered a landmark of international human rights. Since the report’s release, it has been widely praised for significantly elevating discussions to strengthen policies protecting women and children, especially in times of conflict.

Coomaraswamy is revered around the world for serving as a moral voice and independent advocate to build awareness and give prominence to the rights and protection of boys and girls affected by armed conflict, as well as the rights of women and children generally.

More detailed biographies are attached.
Pierce bio
Coomaraswamy bio

For more information, please contact Carla Capizzi, 973/353-5262, capizzi@rutgers.edu, or Ferlanda Fox Nixon, 973/353-5262 or ferlanda@andromeda.rutgers.edu