Five to receive honorary degrees at Spring Commencement


Five leaders in the areas of information technology, engineering, human rights and the arts have been recommended to receive honorary degrees at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor campus’ 2021 Spring Commencement.

Bryan Stevenson, a human rights attorney, social justice activist and professor of law at New York University, will be the main speaker at the May 1 virtual commencement ceremony. He will receive a Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

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Twyla Tharp, a Tony- and Emmy award-winning choreographer and dancer, will speak at the April 30 Rackham Graduate Exercises. She will receive a Doctor of Fine Arts degree. 

The other honorary degree recipients, which were recommended by President Mark Schlissel and approved by the Board of Regents on March 25, are:

  • Robert Cailliau, a computer science engineer and co-creator of the World Wide Web, Doctor of Science.
  • Janet Guthrie, a pioneering race car driver, member of the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame and former aerospace engineer, Doctor of Laws.
  • James Toy, LGBTQ and human rights activist and co-founder of U-M’s Spectrum Center, Doctor of Humane Letters.

The information below about each recipient was provided by the Office of University Development and Events.

Robert Cailliau

Cailliau is internationally recognized for envisioning information technology’s potential to streamline data sharing, and for proposing the first hypertext system for the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, also known as CERN, an important step in developing the World Wide Web.

Photo of Robert Cailiau
Robert Cailliau

Born in Belgium, Cailliau earned a degree in electrical and mechanical engineering from the University of Ghent. He went on to work at the Ghent Laboratory of Mechanical Engineering and to study at the University of Michigan, where he earned a Master of Science in Engineering degree.

Cailliau joined CERN in 1974. He contributed important developments in the particle accelerator’s computer control systems and led the office computing group in its Data Handling Division before joining the Electronics and Computing for Physics Division in 1989. That same year, he proposed a hypertext system to facilitate access to CERN documents.

In 1990, Cailliau and Tim Berners-Lee co-authored a paper describing the web’s global information system. Cailliau worked with CERN’s Legal Service and Directorate to release the web technology into the public domain in 1993. In addition, Cailliau helped launch the European Commission’s first web-based project for information dissemination and worked to promote the web as an educational resource.

From 1995 to 2000, Cailliau helped transfer web development from CERN to the World Wide Web Consortium. He retired from CERN in 2007 and remains a respected public voice on web developments, speaking authoritatively on the history and future of the web, including his concerns about unbridled social networking and the erosion of privacy.

Among other honors, Cailliau and Berners-Lee, along with Marc Andreesen and Eric Bina, received the Association for Computing Machinery Software System Award for developing the web. Cailliau is a member of the Internet Society Internet Hall of Fame and a recipient of the Flemish Academy of Sciences and the Arts Gold Medal, the Médaille Genève Reconnaissante and several honorary degrees. By decree, Belgium’s King Albert II in 2004 awarded him the title of Commander in the Order of King Leopold. 

Janet Guthrie

Guthrie made history in 1977 as the first woman race car driver to qualify for and start in the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500. A former aerospace engineer, pilot and flight instructor, she shattered gender stereotypes and expanded opportunities for women in male-dominated fields.

Photo of Janet Guthrie
Janet Guthrie

Guthrie received her pilot’s license at age 17. After earning a Bachelor of Science degree in physics from U-M in 1960, she worked as a research and development engineer at Republic Aviation.

Her racing career began with the purchase of a 1953 Jaguar XK120 M coupe. By 1963, she was racing her Jaguar XK 140 in Sports Car Club of America events. Guthrie built engines, did bodywork and slept in the back of her tow car so she could afford car parts and race fees. In 1967 and 1970, she finished first in class at the Sebring 12-Hour International Manufacturers Championship race.

Guthrie began racing full-time in 1972, her physics background providing the foundation to master racing at a time when women were considered incapable of safely driving high-performance race cars. She earned a starting spot in the Indianapolis 500 in 1977, 1978 and 1979, but mechanical problems kept her from completing the races in 1977 and 1979.

In 1978, she formed and managed her own team for Indianapolis, finishing ninth despite problems that included a fractured wrist. She was the first woman to compete in the Daytona 500, where she finished 12th in 1977 and 11th in 1980.

Guthrie authored the 2005 book, “Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle.” She is a member of the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame, the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, the Sports Car Club of America Hall of Fame and the Automotive Hall of Fame. In 2020, she was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame, the Sebring 12-Hour Hall of Fame and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame.

Bryan Stevenson

Stevenson, a social justice advocate and civil rights attorney, is devoted to helping the poor and incarcerated.

Photo of Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson

He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1981 from Eastern University in Pennsylvania and a Master of Arts degree in public policy from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a juris doctorate from Harvard Law School in 1985.

He worked from 1985-1989 at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta and went on to launch the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that represents people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced or abused in jails and prisons. EJI has won reversals, relief or release from prison for more than 135 people on death row and hundreds of others who were wrongly convicted.  

Stevenson has won five U.S. Supreme Court cases, including a 2012 decision that found mandatory life sentences for minors unconstitutional, and a 2019 ruling protecting condemned prisoners who suffer from dementia. He has written extensively on criminal justice, capital punishment and civil rights.

Stevenson led efforts to build the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, both of which opened in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2018.

A film based on his best-selling memoir, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” was released in 2019. He was named to Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People list and the Fortune magazine World’s Greatest Leaders list.

In addition, Stevenson is a law professor at New York University and serves on the boards of the Children’s Defense Fund and Partners in Health, which seeks to bring quality health care to the world’s most vulnerable.

Stevenson is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has received, among other honors, the Olaf Palme Prize, the Gruber Foundation International Justice Prize, the American Bar Association Thurgood Marshall Award, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize from the King Center in Atlanta, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Lifetime Achievement Award.

He is a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship winner and the recipient of U-M’s 2016-2017 Wallenberg Medal.

Twyla Tharp

A world-renowned choreographer and dancer, Tharp has thrilled audiences for more than five decades with her electrifying compositions that combine ballet and modern dance with jazz, rock and other genres of music. She has created more than 160 works, including 129 dances, 12 television specials, six Hollywood movies, four full-length ballets, four Broadway shows and two figure skating routines.

Photo of Twyla Tharp
Twyla Tharp

Tharp began playing piano at age 4. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1963 from Barnard College and launched her own dance company, Twyla Tharp Dance, in 1965.

Tharp choreographed the early ballet-modern dance crossovers “Deuce Coupe” for the Joffrey Ballet and “Push Comes to Shove” for the American Ballet Theatre. Her television credits include choreographing “Sue’s Leg” and co-producing and directing “Making Television Dance.” She won two Emmy Awards and the Directors Guild of America Award for the television special “Baryshnikov by Tharp.”

Tharp has created dances for many leading companies, including the ABT, Australian Ballet, Martha Graham Dance Company, New York City Ballet and Paris Opera Ballet. Her film credits for choreography include “Hair,” “Ragtime,” “Amadeus,” “White Nights” and “I’ll Do Anything.”

Tharp debuted on Broadway with “When We Were Very Young,” followed by “The Catherine Wheel” and “Singin’ In The Rain. Her musical “Movin’ Out,”, set to the music and lyrics of Billy Joel, won a Tony Award for Best Choreography. In addition, she choreographed “The Times They Are A-Changin’” to Bob Dylan’s music and lyrics, and “Come Fly Away” to favorite Frank Sinatra songs.

Tharp has authored four books, including her autobiography, “Push Comes to Shove,” and “Keep It Moving, Lessons for the Rest of Your Life.”

She is the recipient of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. Tharp received a National Medal of Arts in 2004 and was a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2008. The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery featured her in its critically acclaimed “Dancing the Dream” exhibition in 2013-14.

James Toy

Toy has devoted his life to championing the rights of individuals and groups experiencing discrimination. He cofounded the Detroit Gay Liberation Front and the Ann Arbor Gay Liberation Front, and created a safe space for members of U-M’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.

James Toy

Toy earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in French and music in 1951 at Denison University. He taught in France and worked at a hospital blood bank in New York City as a conscientious objector before moving to Detroit in 1957. He publicly came out as gay at an anti-Vietnam War rally in Detroit in April 1970.

In response to a petition from the Ann Arbor Gay Liberation Front, U-M opened the Human Sexuality Office, which was later renamed the Spectrum Center, in 1971. It was the first on-campus office to support queer students at a higher education institution in the United States.

As a human sexuality advocate at the center, Toy educated the university community and others about the nature of sexuality, specifically homosexuality, the oppression facing the LGBTQ community and LGBTQ rights. Toy earned a Master of Social Work degree from U-M in 1981.

Additionally, Toy led the drive to update U-M’s nondiscrimination bylaw and served in U-M’s affirmative action office from 1994 until he retired in 2008. He continues to work as a community counselor and therapist.

He helped draft Ann Arbor’s Lesbian-Gay Pride Week Proclamation and Human Rights Ordinance, and helped found the Ann Arbor Gay Hotline, the HIV/AIDS Resource Center of Washtenaw County and the Washtenaw Rainbow Action Project.

Toy served on the Michigan House of Representatives Civil Rights Committee Task Force on the Family and Sexuality, and helped develop the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan Transgender Advocacy Project. Washtenaw County’s LGBTQ center is named the Jim Toy Community Center in his honor. Toy has been recognized with the Michigan Lesbian and Gay Community Lifetime Achievement Award and the Spirit of Detroit Award.



  1. Rosemary Sarri
    on March 26, 2021 at 11:27 am

    Those who planned and implemented the Graduation Program have done an excellent job for this difficult time.

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