Speakers and Award Recipients

Oberlin’s annual Commencement ceremony honors the 2021 graduating class. The event will include the Commencement address from Peter Baker of The New York Times, and the presentation of honorary degrees.

Commencement Speaker

Peter Baker, Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts

Peter Baker.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Peter Baker

Peter Baker is the chief White House correspondent for the New York Times responsible for reporting on President Joe Biden, the fifth president he has covered. He previously wrote about presidents Donald J. Trump and Barack Obama for the Times and presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton for the Washington Post. He also is a political analyst for MSNBC.

Baker joined the Times in 2008, after 20 years at the Post and has reported on some of the most important stories in Washington in recent times, including elections, inaugurations, economic crises, foreign policy, natural disasters, legislative battles, and Supreme Court nominations. He coauthored the original story breaking the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the Post and served as the paper’s lead writer on the impeachment of President Clinton. He covered the ups and downs of the Bush and Obama presidencies, including the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. And he chronicled the tumultuous Trump administration through the coronavirus pandemic, the storming of the Capitol, and both impeachments.

In between stints at the White House, Baker and his wife, Susan Glasser, spent four years as Moscow Bureau chiefs for the Post, documenting the rise of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, the rollback of Russian democracy, the second Chechen War, and a variety of terrorist attacks. Baker also covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was the first American newspaper correspondent to report from rebel-held northern Afghanistan after September 11, 2001, and he spent the next eight months covering the overthrow of the Taliban and the emergence of a new government. He later traveled in the Middle East for six months, reporting from inside Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and around the region before embedding with the U.S. Marines as they drove toward Baghdad. He briefly served as the Jerusalem Bureau Chief for the Times.

Baker is author or coauthor of six books, most recently the bestselling The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III (Doubleday, 2020), which he wrote with Glasser and which was named one of the books of the year by the New York Times, the Washington Post, Financial Times, Fortune and Bloomberg. His previous books include Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House (Doubleday, 2013), which was named one of the five Best Non-Fiction Books of the year by the New York Times, and The Breach: Inside the Impeachment and Trial of William Jefferson Clinton (Scribner, 2000), a New York Times bestseller. He and Glasser wrote Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution (Scribner, 2005), named one of the Best Books of the year by the Washington Post, and they are currently working on a book about President Trump.

Baker has won all three major awards devoted to White House reporting: the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Coverage of the Presidency (twice), the Aldo Beckman Memorial Award (twice) and the Merriman Smith Memorial Award. He is a frequent panelist on PBS’s Washington Week.

A native of the Washington area, Baker attended Oberlin College and worked for the Washington Times for two years before joining the Post in 1988 as a Virginia reporter. Glasser is now a staff writer for the New Yorker and the two live in Washington with their son Theodore.

Honorary Degree Recipients

Renata Adler, Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts

An award-winning journalist, novelist, and film critic, Renata Adler is known for her analytic essays and reviews for New Yorker magazine, where she was a staff writer-reporter from 1962 to 1968 and 1970 to 1982. Adler won first prize in the O. Henry short-story awards competition in 1974 and her first novel, Speedboat, won the1976 Ernest Hemingway Prize for best first novel. Additional works by Adler include Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker (1999) and Irreparable Harm: The U.S. Supreme Court and the Decision That Made George W. Bush President (2004).

Renata Adler has reported on some of the most defining historical moments of the last fifty years. Her searing depictions of struggles for civil rights at home, in the Middle East, and in Africa; her clear-eyed analysis of the Supreme Court and executive branch; her sharp critique of journalistic ethics at some of the most powerful media organizations in the country; and her insight into how criticism affects artists and patrons.

In addition to her work at the New Yorker, Adler has been a contributor to Vanity Fair, the New York Review of Books, Harper’s, the Atlantic, and the New Republic. She was also chief film critic for the New York Times, professor of journalism at Boston University, and a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Adler calls herself part of the ‘radical middle,’ politically unaligned on principle, and suspicious of what might be called ‘institutional thought.’ Her one enduring interest has been to uncover the ways that organizations (political, media, arts) press their members into thinking a certain way, whether by intimidation, by prestige, or by reward. Her reporting remains at all times wary of frenzy and hype, and throughout her career, her goal has been to deflate bluster through meticulous analysis and to arrive at the hidden story that sits unnoticed beneath the sloganeering.

Despite her meticulous evidence and analysis, her interests remain deeply ethical, deeply human. Adler’s work constantly reminds us that, at the heart of every Constitutional ruling, behind every world-altering conflict, beneath the ballyhoo of every national headline, under every totalizing political philosophy, lie humans. She reminds us that they, too often, get lost in the fray. Adler has spent her career fighting for them with her evidence and her words.

John Harbison, Honorary Doctor of Music

John Harbison
Photo credit: Jonathan Bullitt

Composer John Harbison’s concert music catalog of more than 300 works is anchored by three operas, seven symphonies, 12 concerti, a ballet, six string quartets, numerous song cycles and chamber works, and a large body of sacred music that includes cantatas, motets, and the orchestral-choral works Four Psalms, Requiem, and Abraham. He also has a substantial body of jazz compositions and arrangements.

Harbison has received commissions from most of America’s premiere musical institutions, including the Metropolitan Opera, Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

One of America’s most distinguished artistic figures, he is a recipient of numerous awards and honors, among them a MacArthur Fellowship and a Pulitzer Prize. He has been composer-in-residence with the Pittsburgh and Los Angeles orchestras, the American Academy in Rome, and numerous festivals including Tanglewood, Aspen, Marlboro, Santa Fe, and Songfest.

Harbison is Institute Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, principal guest conductor at Emmanuel Music, and past music director of Cantata Singers. He was president of the Copland Fund and a trustee of the American Academy in Rome. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a trustee of the Bogliasco Foundation.

He and violinist Rose Mary Harbison, the inspiration behind many of his works for violin, have been artistic codirectors of the annual Token Creek Chamber Music Festival since its founding in 1989.

Harbison’s 80th birthday was celebrated worldwide during the 2018–2019 season, marked by three major premieres, several new recordings, performances across the globe, and his first book, a compilation of essays on Bach. The 2020 pandemic year saw a flood of new compositions, especially works for voice, solo keyboard, and chorus, including children’s choir.

Michael J. Sorrell ’88,  Honorary Doctor of Humanities

Michael J Sorrell.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Paul Quinn College

Michael J. Sorrell is the longest-serving president in the 148-year history of Paul Quinn College. During his 13 years of leadership, Paul Quinn has become a nationally regarded institution for its efforts to remake higher education in order to serve the needs of under-resourced students and communities.

Included among Paul Quinn’s numerous accomplishments during President Sorrell’s tenure are the following: winning the HBCU of the Year, HBCU Student Government Association of the Year, and HBCU Business Program of the Year awards; achieving recognition as a member of the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll; creating the New Urban College Model; demolishing 15 abandoned campus buildings; partnering with PepsiCo to transform the football field into the WE over Me Farm; achieving full-accreditation from the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS); creating the college’s first faculty-led study abroad program; and rewriting all institutional fundraising records.

Sorrell is one of the most decorated college presidents in America. Recently, President George W. Bush and the George W. Bush Presidential Center awarded him the Bush Institute Trailblazer Citation. He has been named one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders by Fortune Magazine; is the only three-time recipient of the HBCU Male President of the Year Award; won Higher Education’s President of the Year award as named by Education Dive; and Time Magazine listed him as one of the “31 People Changing the South.” Washington Monthly Magazine identified him as one of America’s 10 Most Innovative College Presidents and Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. and PUSH/Excel honored him with its Education Leadership Award. Sorrell is the recipient of both the Dallas Bar Association’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Justice Award and the City of Dallas’ Father of the Year Award. In addition to being a member of the “Root 100” (a list of the top 100 emerging leaders in America) by the Root Online Magazine, Sorrellhas received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Duke University, the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago, Illinois; the A. Kenneth Pye Award for Excellence in Education from Duke University’s School of Law Alumni Association; the Social Innovator Award from Babson College; the Vision Award, Center for Social Entrepreneurship, Middlebury College; Luminary Award from SMU; and the TRACS Leadership Award. The Dallas Historical Society honored Michael for Excellence in Educational Administration. He is a past recipient of the Dallas Urban League’s Torch for Community Leadership and both the President’s and C.B. Bunkley Awards from J.L. Turner for his outstanding contributions to the Dallas legal community. Sorrellalso has an honorary degree from Austin College.

Sorrell earned a JD and MA in public policy at Duke University and a Ed D at the University of Pennsylvania. While in law school, he was one of the founding members of the Journal of Gender Law & Policy and served as the Vice President of the Duke Bar Association. Sorrell was a recipient of a Sloan Foundation Graduate Fellowship, which funded his studies at both Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government (as a graduate fellow) and Duke University. He graduated from Oberlin College with a BA in government, served as secretary-treasurer of his senior class, was a two-time captain of the men’s varsity basketball team, and graduated as the school’s fifth all-time leading scorer.

Among the entities that Sorrell serves as a trustee or director for are Duke University’s School of Law, the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, JP Morgan Chase’s Advancing Black Pathways, Amegy Bank, the Hockaday School, the Dallas Advisory Board of Teach for America, the Dallas Foundation, and EarthX.

Sorrell is married to the former Natalie Jenkins, who is an alumna of Spelman College and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. They have two children, Michael Augustus and Sage Louise-Sinclair.

Gail Horn Wood ’70, Distinguished Service Award

Gail Horn Wood.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Gail Wood

Gail Horn Wood ’70 has been a resident of Oberlin since Commencement/Reunion Weekend 1970 when she and classmate Reid Wood ’70 married and received their BA degrees. They are the parents of Alex B. Wood and Eli D. Wood and have two grandchildren. In service to Oberlin College, Gail and Reid volunteered as the first class agents for the Class of 1970 and worked on reunion committees every five years including the 50th Reunion Committee that is still planning a delayed gathering.

She retired in 2007 after 37 years of teaching in the elementary grades, first at Western Reserve School District and then 31 years in the Oberlin Public School District. Wood earned a master’s degree in elementary education at Bowling Green State University in 1975. Her Prospect School third- and fourth-grade team-taught “Open Room” classroom was recognized in 1990 as a Center for Excellence for Students at Risk by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Between 1994 and 2007, she and her teaching partner collaborated with Cleveland Opera on Tour as part of its Music! Words! Opera! program leading to the production of nine original student written and composed operas. In 1996 and 2005, she organized the revision and coedited with third grade colleagues the textbook for third graders Oberlin: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow and with those colleagues, received the History Teacher of the Year award from the Oberlin Heritage Center in 2005. She achieved national board certification as a middle childhood generalist in 2001 from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. As an educational leader, she led numerous conference workshops for teachers locally and throughout the United States and served for three years on the NCTE Editorial Board.

During her teaching career, she was an advocate for quality education through her active and long-term work on curriculum committees and advisory councils and as a District Lead Mentor for new teachers and Chair of the Local Professional Development Committee. She held a variety of leadership positions in two teachers’ associations, including 24 years on the Executive Committee of the Oberlin Ohio Education Association (OOEA) with seven years as President. She was part of the bargaining team that crafted the first negotiated contract between teachers and the Western Reserve School District and helped secure and maintain protections for teachers and students as a bargaining team member of OOEA. She served on the Oberlin College Graduate Teacher Education Planning Committee and the College-Public School Partnership Steering Committee.

Wood has been devoted to service in the Oberlin Community since her retirement from teaching. She was the chair of the annual Art & Wine fundraising event of the Firelands Association of Visual Arts for 10 years and she served seven years on the Oberlin Schools Endowment Board, including five years as chair of the Grant Review Committee. She has been on the Board of Trustees of the Oberlin Heritage Center since 2010, currently serving in her fifth year as president while continuing as chair of the Development Committee and Tour Docent. She has been a counselor for the AARP Tax-Aide program in Lorain County since 2009 and has been the local coordinator of the Oberlin site since 2019.

Baccalaureate Ceremony and Keynote