Skip to main content
gallery of 8 Northwestern honorary degree recipients

Looking Back at Northwestern’s International Honorary Degree Recipients

Last week, Northwestern community members gathered for the 163rd annual commencement. Though commencement was virtual this year, graduating students and their families still celebrated their achievements.

In addition to celebrating this year’s 5,973 graduates, Northwestern also awarded honorary degrees to several influential people: Northwestern alumna Gwynne Shotwell, COO of SpaceX; Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement; Northwestern alumnus George R.R. Martin, best-selling author and creator of HBO’s television series “Game of Thrones;” and Dr. Helen H. Hobbs, a medical researcher at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Texas and 2016 awardee of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Science. 

Since the 1870s, when Northwestern began awarding honorary degrees, many distinguished individuals from across the globe have received the accolade. As part of our #NUGlobalJourney series, we revisit some of these notable international recipients.

Marie Curie, 1921

Precisely 100 years ago, in 1921, Nobel-prize-winning chemist Marie Curie arrived on campus with her daughter to receive an honorary degree in chemistry. While she was in Chicago, 100 area women raised over $100,000 for Madame Curie to purchase one gram of radium, an element that she discovered, and other chemicals in order for her to continue her studies. Marie Curie is the first person ever to win two Nobel Prizes, and, in addition to radium, she discovered polonium with her husband, Pierre.

Alberto Gainza Paz, 1951

Alberto Gainza Paz was an Argentinian journalist and publisher of La Prensa, a conservative newspaper based in Buenos Aires. In 1945, Gainza Paz and a handful of other editors were arrested and charged with conspiring against the government. After the election of populist president Juan Perón in 1946, La Prensa was seized. Gainza Paz, who lived in exile in Uruguay at that time, was ordered for arrest again. In 1951, Gainza Paz was awarded by the Medill School of Journalism with an honorary degree for his fight for freedom of information. During his visit to campus for the ceremony, Sigma Delta Chi hosted a banquet for Gainza Paz, where he became a Fellow of the journalism fraternity. The event was attended by many prominent publishers of the time, including William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, and John Knight, who together with 40 other leading U.S. journalists also attended a journalism conference hosted in honor of Alberto Gainza Paz at Northwestern. In 1956, after Perón was overthrown, Gainza Paz returned to Argentina and resumed control of La Prensa.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1963

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, sometimes known simply as Mies, was one of the preeminent architects of the modern era. Born in Germany in 1886, he established himself as an architect early on, designing the Barcelona Pavilion in Spain and serving as director of the Bauhaus. In 1938, he arrived in Chicago and became head of the architecture department at the Illinois Institute of Technology, redesigning the department’s curriculum, and later, the campus itself. His work revolutionized architecture, both in Chicago and beyond. In 1963, he received an honorary degree from Northwestern for his contributions to the City of Chicago.

Ingvar Carlsson, 1991

Ingvar Carlsson, who twice served as Prime Minister of Sweden, attended Northwestern in 1965 as a Fulbright scholar studying economics. After returning to his home country, Carlsson was elected to the Swedish Parliament as the youngest member ever at the age of 31. Following several political posts as Minister of Education, Minister of Housing, and Deputy Prime Minister, he was elected Prime Minister of Sweden in 1986, serving until 1991 and then again from 1994 to 1996. During his tenure, Carlsson led Sweden into the European Union. He returned to Northwestern in 1991 to receive an honorary degree and give that year’s commencement speech.

Hélène Cixous, 1996

Algerian-French writer Hélène Cixous received an honorary doctorate from Northwestern in 1996. Cixous has been praised as one of the most incisive feminist authors of the modern era, writing in the genres of poetry, feminist analysis, literary theory, and drama. She is known for using her experiences as a Jewish woman to interrogate and explain her philosophies. Cixous published several books with Northwestern University Press, including Reveries of the Wild Woman: Primal Scenes, published in 2006.

Kofi Annan, 2002

In 2002, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, gave the commencement address at Northwestern and received an honorary Doctor of Law. During his speech, Annan encouraged students to see themselves as global citizens and to fight poverty worldwide. Originally from Ghana, Annan served as Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1997-2006 after serving in the U.N. for more than 30 years. As Secretary-General, he sought to strengthen the international system by implementing more robust peacekeeping initiatives and undertaking numerous diplomatic negotiations.

Mikhail Baryshnikov, 2013

Considered one of the greatest dancers of our time, Mikhail Baryshnikov was born in the Soviet Union in 1948. After a career with the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad and feeling increasingly resentful over communist Russia, he immigrated to the United States in 1974. He became a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet, working with George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Eventually, he made his way to Hollywood, starring in films such as The Turning Point and White Nights. Baryshnikov received an honorary degree and delivered Northwestern’s commencement address in 2013, advising graduates to challenge their ideas of success and to follow their passions. His daughter, Anna, graduated from Northwestern a year later, in 2014.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2019

Nigerian author and activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was given an honorary doctorate by Northwestern in 2019 for her role as a leader in the arts field. Adichie grew up in Nsukka, Nigeria, and came to the United States for higher education. Her books have received many awards, including the 2013 U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award for her novel Americanah. She’s also given two TED talks, both of which sparked international conversation: The Danger of a Single Story about representation in arts and media, and We Should All Be Feminists about feminism.