Rutgers University − Newark Announces 2021 Commencement Speaker and Honorary Degree Recipients


The Rutgers University Board of Governors confirmed today that acclaimed actor, author, radio personality, and humanitarian Wendell Pierce, will deliver the keynote address at the Rutgers University − Newark Virtual Commencement Ceremony on May 16, 2021. Selected for this honor by a committee of students, faculty, and staff, Pierce also will receive an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree.

In advancing the committee’s recommendation of Pierce to the Board for this honor, Rutgers-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor stated, “Beyond Pierce’s prodigious talents, he is a deeply engaged citizen-artist who we know will inspire our graduates, their families, and our university and city, bringing a unique perspective to us as we strive to fulfill our role as an anchor institution in Newark at this moment when leaders are stepping forward across the city and the university to galvanize our community to advance racial equity and equitable growth. The many convergences between what Wendell Pierce is about and what Rutgers University – Newark is about make inviting him to be our commencement speaker and accept an honorary degree, frankly, irresistible.”

An NAACP Image Award winner, Pierce is renowned for his roles on HBO’s The Wire and Tremé, the landmark 2014 film Selma, and currently on the acclaimed Amazon television series Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. Born into modest circumstances in New Orleans, he developed his prodigious talent as an actor by seizing educational opportunity, going from a regular public high school, to arts magnet school, to Juilliard. Throughout his career, he has chosen roles that confront issues related to race, as in his current portrayal of a Black, Muslim, senior CIA agent in Jack Ryan and his critically acclaimed stage performance last year as Willy Loman in an electrifyingly reimagined version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in London. Similarly, The Wire, set in Baltimore, Maryland, grappled with fundamental issues facing urban America: the struggles and hopes of working class people, the struggles of legacy cities to reinvent themselves, blight and crime, and how those issues intersect with the more personal, such as masculinity, ethics, care, surveillance, sexualities, kinship, and race, class, and gender. Indeed, the show became a vehicle for exploring urban issues through a popular interdisciplinary course, as well as a lecture series, at Rutgers–Newark.

Pierce also leverages his visibility as an artist to make an impact in his community, most notably by founding a nonprofit organization to help his hometown recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. His neighborhood was devastated by the storm and its aftermath in 2005, including his family home, which was flooded with 14 feet of water. Since then, he has worked tirelessly to help the neighborhood recover, forming the Ponchartrain Park Neighborhood Association, a non-profit corporation that is rebuilding 350 affordable and environmentally friendly homes that will preserve the community character and help longtime residents come back to and remain in their neighborhood. These efforts have garnered wide acclaim, especially for their integration of the arts in telling the story of the people who were the victims of that combination natural and human-made disaster.

Rutgers-Newark also will confer an honorary Doctor of Laws degree upon Robert Parris Moses. A hero twice over, Moses was born and raised in Harlem, New York, attending public schools before going on to receive a B.A. in Philosophy from Hamilton College in 1956 and M.A. in Philosophy from Harvard University in 1957. He then became a leader of the Civil Rights movement, directing the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s Mississippi Voter Registration Project in the early 1960s, and subsequently was a lead organizer for the 1964 Mississippi “Freedom” Summer Project. After returning to Harvard to earn his Ph.D. in philosophy, he founded The Algebra Project, which to date has helped thousands of middle and high school students move from the lowest quartile on standardized exams to graduating high school prepared to take college level math, for which he earned a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (the “Genius Grant).

An honorary Doctor of Fine Arts also will be conferred on rap music pioneer and radio personality Angela “Angie” Martinez, who was the May 2020 commencement speaker. Born in New York City to a mother of Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican ancestry and a father of Puerto Rican ancestry, she followed her childhood aspirations to pursue a career in broadcasting, advancing through hard work in the male-dominated profession to reach the pinnacle of success, always maintaining acute awareness of where she came from and leveraging her good fortune to make a difference in the world. Today, she is recognized as one of the most influential personalities in popular culture and media. In addition to her more than 25 years of radio and television hosting experience, she has a diverse portfolio of entrepreneurial endeavors. She is a pioneer in popularizing hip-hop music, having earned a Grammy nomination in the genre in 1998 and having established herself as one of its leading on-air radio personalities through her shows on stations Hot 97 and then Power 105.1, as well as Martinez’ 2016 book, My Voice: A Memoir (Celebra-Penguin Random House), spent two weeks at the top of The New York Times bestseller list.