Azar Nafisi to Give 175th Commencement Address

Thursday, February 9, 2012 - 13:45

Mount Holyoke President Lynn Pasquerella has announced best-selling author Azar Nafisi will deliver the 2012 commencement address and receive an honorary degree when the College celebrates its 175th commencement ceremony on May 20.

Honorary degrees will also be presented to Mallika Dutt '83, the founder and executive director of Breakthrough; Bernard LaFayette, a leader in the civil rights movement and cofounder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; and astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, director of New York City's Hayden Planetarium.

Azar Nafisi (pictured at right), best known as the author of the highly acclaimed Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (2003), is currently a visiting professor and the director of Cultural Conversations at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. , where she teaches aesthetics, culture, literature, and the relation between culture and politics.

"Azar Nafisi combines courage, humor, and deep intellect in her work and life. She is a captivating speaker and writer who exemplifies Mount Holyoke's mission of using liberal learning for purposeful engagement in the world," said Pasquerella. "Education has been a tool of liberation and transformation for her students, both in Iran and in the United States. She and our other distinguished honorary degree recipients are sure to inspire and challenge our community to take action in achieving global social justice."

A native of Iran, Nafisi studied in the United States during the 1970s before returning to her home country to teach at the University of Tehran. She was expelled from that position in 1981 for refusing to wear the mandatory Islamic veil; she resumed teaching at the Free Islamic University and Allameh Tabatabai in 1987, and she conducted workshops in Iran for women students on the relationship between culture and human rights. She returned to the United States in 1997.

Nafisi has lectured and written extensively in English and Persian on the political implications of literature and culture, as well as the human rights of Iranian women and girls and the important role they play in the process of change for pluralism and an open society in Iran. She has been consulted on issues related to Iran and human rights by both policy makers and various human rights organizations in the United States and elsewhere.

In Reading Lolita in Tehran, Nafisi offered "a compassionate and often harrowing portrait of the Islamic revolution in Iran and how it affected one university professor and her students," according to reviewers. The award-winning book spent 117 weeks on the New York Times best seller list and has been translated into 32 languages. It was also selected as Mount Holyoke's Common Reading in 2004.

In addition, Nafisi is the author of Things I Was Silent About: Memories (2009), her personal recounting of growing up in Iran, and numerous other publications. She has also written for for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal.

Mallika Dutt '83
Dutt, the founder, president, and CEO of the global human rights organization Breakthrough, is considered one of today's most innovative and effective leaders in cultural transformation. Dutt reinvented the delivery of social and behavioral change through a potent mix of stirring multimedia campaigns, smart social media, cutting-edge pop culture, and authentic on-the-ground community engagement. Breakthrough's unique formula has earned her accolades in the global human rights community, the media, and entertainment industry – and, most recently, the technology community. She has also served on a number of boards and committees, including the Open Society Foundation U.S. Program, WITNESS, the Games for Change Advisory Board, the Rights Working Group Steering Committee, and the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Human Rights.

Prior to founding Breakthrough, Dutt served as program officer for human rights at the Ford Foundation's New Delhi office, where she initiated the foundation's work in police reform. She was also the associate director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University, and she has been at the forefront of the global movement for gaining recognition for women's rights as human rights. Dutt is a co-founder of SAKHI for South Asian Women, a group created in 1989 to challenge violence against women and provide culturally relevant services to women of South Asian origin in New York City. After earning an A.B. in international affairs at Mount Holyoke (1983), Dutt received a master's in international affairs and South Asian studies from Columbia University (1986) and a J.D. from New York University School of Law (1989).

Bernard LaFayette, Jr.
LaFayette has been a civil rights movement activist, minister, educator, and lecturer. An authority on the strategy on nonviolent social change, he cofounded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. He was a leader of the Nashville Movement (1960), the Freedom Rides (1961), and the Selma Movement (1965), and he directed the Alabama Voter Registration Project (1962). He was appointed national program administrator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and national coordinator of the 1968 Poor Peoples’ Campaign by Martin Luther King, Jr.

An ordained minister, LaFayette earned his B.A. from the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, and his Ed.M. and Ed.D. from Harvard University. He currently serves at Emory University in Atlanta as Distinguished Senior Scholar-in-Residence at the Candler School of Theology, where he works with their Religion, Conflict, and Peace Building program.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson
Tyson was born and raised in New York City, where he was educated in the public schools before going on to earn a B.A. in physics from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Columbia University. Tyson is a recipient of the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest award given by NASA to a nongovernment citizen, and he is the first occupant of the Frederick P. Rose Directorship of the Hayden Planetarium.

In addition to dozens of professional publications, Tyson has written nine books, including his memoir The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist, and Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution, cowritten with Donald Goldsmith. Origins is the companion book to the PBS-NOVA miniseries Origins, in which Tyson serves as on-camera host. His latest two books are Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries, which was a New York Times best seller, and The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet, chronicling his experience at the center of the controversy over Pluto's planetary status.

(Photo credit: S. J. Staniski)