Honorary Degree Recipients Named for 2010
by Alisa Giardinelli
Swarthmore College President Rebecca Chopp will award honorary degrees to distinguished biologist Bonnie Bassler, educator and labor leader John Braxton '70, Morehouse College President Robert Michael Franklin, and actor and author Stephen Lang '73 at the College's 138th Commencement on May 30. In addition, approximately 350 undergraduates will receive degrees at the ceremony in the Scott Amphitheater.
Princeton University molecular biologist Bonnie Bassler discovered that bacteria communicate with each other using a chemical language that lets them coordinate defense and mount attacks. The implications of this process — called quorum sensing — for medicine, public health, and industry are vast and give hope to those seeking new weapons against deadly strains of bacteria such as those causing cholera, food poisoning, and toxic shock.
Bassler earned a B.S. in biochemistry from UC–Davis and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Johns Hopkins University. She performed postdoctoral work in genetics at the Agouron Institute in California, and in 1994, joined Princeton's faculty, where she has received the President's Award for Distinguished Teaching. "Bonnie's wit, energy, and enthusiasm are palpable, but underlying these overt actions is a deep commitment to engaging students in understanding science," wrote one colleague in nominating her for the award.
Bassler, an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, won a 2002 MacArthur Fellowship and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2006 and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2007. This year, she began her term as the president of the American Society for Microbiology.
John Braxton '70
John Braxton's commitment to social justice began during the summer after his freshman year at Swarthmore, when he traveled by sea to North and South Vietnam to deliver medical supplies to civilians. The voyage to North Vietnam was an act of civil disobedience, as the U.S. government considered the donation to be "trading with the enemy." On his return from Vietnam, Braxton publicly refused to be inducted or report for alternative service, a decision that ultimately led to his arrest seven months after graduation and a two and a half year prison sentence.
After the war, Braxton worked part time for the United Parcel Service (UPS) so he could join and help lead the reform movement within the Teamsters Union. Braxton then worked for the Teamsters Union and helped to lay plans for what would ultimately become a successful nationwide strike against UPS in 1997. As a result of that strike, UPS agreed to create more than 10,000 new, full-time jobs.
In 2003, Braxton drafted a resolution on behalf of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO in opposition to the Iraq War. The wording of that resolution became the basis for the National AFL-CIO's resolution against the Iraq War — the first time in the labor federation's history that it took a major stance against U.S. foreign policy. Since then, Braxton has been a leader in U.S. Labor Against the War, the first national labor organization in the nation's history working to build links between the peace movement and the labor movement.
Currently, Braxton serves as co-president of the American Federation of Teachers at Community College of Philadelphia, where he has taught biology for more than 25 years. In 2007, Braxton led a strike of faculty and staff there that resulted in an additional $800,000 of state funds directed at better pay for low-paid staff.
Braxton received a B.A. in biology from Swarthmore College, where he served as president of Student Council. He also earned an M.S. in ecology from Rutgers University.
Robert Michael Franklin
In 2007, Robert Michael Franklin became the 10th president of Morehouse College, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1975 with a degree in political science and religion. Prior to Morehouse, Franklin was a Presidential Distinguished Professor of Social Ethics at Emory University, where he gained a national reputation as director of black church studies.
An insightful educator, Franklin's major fields of study include social ethics, psychology, and African American religion. He has served on the faculties of the University of Chicago, Harvard Divinity School, Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, and at Emory University's Candler School of Theology. Franklin also has served as program officer in Human Rights and Social Justice at the Ford Foundation and as an adviser to the foundation's president on future funding for religion and public life initiatives.
Franklin earned an M.Div. in Christian social ethics and pastoral care from Harvard Divinity School and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in ethics and society and religion and the social sciences. He is the author most recently of Crisis in the Village: Restoring Hope in African American Communities (2007).
Stephen Lang '73
Perhaps most widely known for his performance as Colonel Quaritch in Avatar, Stephen Lang '73 has more than three decades of distinguished stage and screen credits to his name. From his New York debut in Hamlet in 1975 for Joseph Papp's NY Shakespeare Festival to his portrayal of Happy opposite Dustin Hoffman's Willy Loman in the 1984 Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman; from his creation of the original Colonel Jessep in A Few Good Men to more than 400 performances in his own solo play Beyond Glory, Lang has built a career that prompted the New York Times to dub him, "the actor's actor."
In New York and on the road, Lang has created a memorable gallery of characters in premieres by John Patrick Shanley, Steve Tesich, Aaron Sorkin, Sam Shepard, and Arthur Miller, among others. For his work in the theater, he has received multiple nominations and awards including The Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Helen Hayes, Joseph Jefferson, Lucile Lortel, and the Chairman's Medal for Distinguished Service from the NEA.
Lang received wide recognition for undertaking a performance tour of his play Beyond Glory for the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces stationed across the globe. He also created and guided writing workshops for the troops back from serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of these accounts appeared in Operation Homecoming, an anthology published by the NEA.
Lang earned a B.A. in English literature from Swarthmore, where his family has deep ties. In addition to his father, Eugene M. Lang '38 and his sister, Jane Lang '67, the alumni body includes his daughter, Lucy Lang '03, and niece, Jessica Kosa '92. Another niece, Joanna Lang '11, is a current student, as is his son, Noah Lang '10, who will join him in receiving a degree in May.