Also during the main ceremony, the University will confer honorary degrees on Zaven Khachaturian, Ph.D., widely considered the “father” of modern Alzheimer’s disease research; Wendy Schmidt, president of The Schmidt Family Foundation; and Clint Smith, an interdisciplinary scholar and inspirational social justice educator, poet, author and speaker.
“We are so pleased to have Terry Tempest Williams deliver this year’s commencement address,” URI President Marc Parlange said. “Not only a prolific writer, Professor Williams is a powerful and moving speaker. Last year she gave a poignant and thought-provoking talk on campus, and we are honored to have her back for this momentous University celebration.
An award-winning author who has shown how environmental issues are social issues that become matters of justice, Williams asks tough and challenging questions, such as “What might a different kind of power look like, feel like, and can power be redistributed equitably even beyond our own species?"
She has testified before Congress on women’s health, been a guest at the White House, camped in the Utah and Alaska wildernesses, and worked as "a barefoot artist" in Rwanda.
Williams is the author of the environmental literature classics: Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place; An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field; Desert Quartet; Leap; Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert; The Open Space of Democracy; Finding Beauty in a Broken World; When Women Were Birds; The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks; and The Story of My Heart by Richard Jeffries, as rediscovered by Brooke Williams and Terry Tempest Williams. Her most recent books are Erosion -- Essays of Undoing and The Moon Is Between Us with photographer Fazal Sheikh.
Among the honors bestowed on Williams are the 2006 Robert Marshall Award from The Wilderness Society, the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Western American Literature Association, the Wallace Stegner Award given by The Center for the American West, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in creative nonfiction.
In 2009, Williams was featured in Ken Burns' PBS series on the national parks. In 2014, on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, she received the Sierra Club’s John Muir Award, and in 2017 she was presented the Audubon New York Award for Environmental Writing. In 2019, she was given The Robert Kirsch Award, a lifetime achievement prize given to a writer with a substantial connection to the American West. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Williams served as the Annie Clark Tanner Fellow in the University of Utah’s environmental humanities graduate program, which she co-founded in 2004; was the Provostial Scholar at Dartmouth College; and served as a Montgomery Fellow twice. Williams is writer-in-residence at the Harvard Divinity School. She divides her time between the red rock desert of Utah and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Honorary Degree Recipients
Zaven Khachaturian, Ph.D.—Honorary Doctor of Pharmaceutical Sciences
Zaven Khachaturian is widely recognized as the “father” of modern Alzheimer’s disease research. His scientific interest in brain mechanism of memory and his academic career in brain research began in the late 1950s at Yale University. In the span of subsequent decades, he has served in high-level positions in academia, private sector and government. During his tenure at the National Institutes of Health (1977-1995), with the dual role of director, Office of Alzheimer's Disease, NIH, and director, Neuroscience of Aging Program,NIA/NIH, he had responsibilities for strategic planning and decisions regarding government policies for funding-administering major national programs of research on Alzheimer's disease and brain aging. He was responsible for launching major national research programs. He was also instrumental in making Alzheimer’s disease a top priority of the government and the subsequent unlocking of federal funding for research. Throughout his career he has served as mentor to countless investigators. He had a direct hand in launching the scientific-academic calling careers of many prominent and successful researchers in the field of dementia-Alzheimer syndrome in the U.S. as well as other countries. As the emeritus Founding Editor-in-Chief of Alzheimer's & Dementia, which is now the top-rated journal for dementia, he continues to serve as a deeply committed mentor to successive generations of scientists.
Wendy Schmidt—Honorary Doctor of Science
Wendy Schmidt is a philanthropist and investor who has spent nearly two decades creating innovative non-profit organizations to work with communities around the world for clean, renewable energy, resilient food systems, healthy oceans and the protection of human rights.
Through her grant-making and investing with the Schmidt Family Foundation, founded in 2006 with her husband Eric, communities from the Navajo Nation in Arizona to the Democratic Republic of the Congo have access to clean solar and micro-hydropower energy and the economic, social and educational opportunities that come with reliable power.
The Envision Resilience Challenge, a project of another organization Schmidt founded, ReMain Nantucket, calls on professionals and students to develop solutions for communities facing sea-level rise. The Challenge began in Nantucket before moving in 2022 to Narragansett Bay, where the six participating universities included URI, Rhode Island School of Design and Roger Williams University.
The first woman and first American to win the world’s largest sailing race, the Barcolana 54 in 2022, Schmidt co-founded 11th Hour Racing to work with the sailing community and maritime industry to advance sustainable solutions and practices. Based in Newport, Rhode Island, 11th Hour has worked to raise awareness of the importance of ocean health.
Schmidt has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley, and she graduated magna cum laude from Smith College with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and anthropology.