UChicago to award seven honorary degrees at Convocation in 2023

Editor's note: This story, originally published Feb. 2, 2023, was revised to reflect the announcement in May that Joseph Neubauer would be an honorary degree recipient.

The University of Chicago will confer honorary degrees upon five renowned scholars at Convocation this June, and it also will honor former Board of Trustees Chair Joseph Neubauer and the late Robert J. Zimmer, former chancellor and president, for their leadership and service to the University.

The scholars who will be honored are Profs. Arup K. Chakraborty, a scientist and engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; James P. Comer, a child psychiatrist at the Yale School of Medicine; Hélène Esnault, a mathematician at the Freie Universität Berlin; Callum Roberts, a scholar of marine conservation at the University of Exeter; and James A. Wells, a pharmaceutical scientist at the University of California, San Francisco.

Learn more about the honorees below:

Joseph Neubauer, MBA’65, former chair of the Board of Trustees, will receive an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws.

During his service as Board chair from 2015 to 2022, the University concluded The University of Chicago Campaign: Inquiry and Impact, the largest and most comprehensive campaign in its history. Neubauer continues to serve the University as a member of the Board, to which he was first elected in 1992, and is a Life Member of the Chicago Booth Council. 

Neubauer is the retired CEO and board chairman of Aramark, which under his leadership, grew into a $13 billion global services provider. Neubauer began his career at Chase Manhattan Bank, where at 27, he became the youngest vice president in its history. He went on to hold several senior positions with PepsiCo, Inc. before joining Aramark. He currently manages his family office, Next Egg Group.

An active alum since his graduation from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business (now Chicago Booth), Neubauer’s involvement with the University is characterized by many years of distinguished service and philanthropic commitment. He and his wife, Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer, were awarded the University of Chicago Medal in 2013, which recognizes rare and distinguished service to the University. Together they support many areas of the University, including the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, the Neubauer Family Assistant Professors Program, an endowed professorship at the Booth School of Business, the Adelante Scholars Program and the Booth Civic Scholars program.

The late Robert J. Zimmer, the former chancellor and president of the University of Chicago, will be honored with the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. 

Zimmer had an immense impact on UChicago and higher education during his tenure as the University’s 13th president from 2006-2021. His commitment to free expression resulted in the creation of a report known as the Chicago Principles, which have now been adopted by more than 70 institutions across the country. Among his accomplishments, Zimmer led the expansion of educational access and financial support for students through the Odyssey Scholarship Program; established ambitious programs and initiatives, including the University’s first engineering program; expanded the University’s global presence through new centers in Beijing, Delhi and Hong Kong; and strengthened partnerships with the city of Chicago and local organizations on the South Side.

A pioneering mathematician, Zimmer had been a UChicago faculty member and administrator for nearly four decades and most recently served as the Edwin A. and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Mathematics and the College. Additionally, he served as Provost for Brown University from 2002 to 2006, and as the University of Chicago’s Vice President for Research and Argonne National Laboratory from 2000 to 2002, and as Deputy Provost and Deputy Provost for Research from 1998 to 2001. He first came to the University as an L.E. Dickson Instructor of Mathematics in 1975.

Arup K. Chakraborty, one of the 12 Institute Professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will receive the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science. Chakraborty is also a Professor of Chemical Engineering, Physics and Chemistry.

A distinguished scientist and engineer, Chakraborty is described as one of the most gifted and creative contemporary thinkers working at the confluence of molecular engineering, theoretical immunology, biophysics and statistical mechanics. His work has changed the direction of immunology research. 

Chakraborty revolutionized the field of computational immunology by helping establish principles that underlie basic immunological phenomena and expanding the computational immunology toolbox. His work has been especially impactful because of his collaborations with basic and clinical immunologists. Over the last 23 years, his work has focused on bringing together immunology and the physical and engineering sciences and applying the principles and tools of statistical mechanics to the behavior of the adaptive immune system and viral infection. His research has explored immunological synapses and cell signaling, development of the immune cell repertoire, immune responses, especially with respect to HIV, and formation of biological condensates and how they play an important role in transcription.

James P. Comer, the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Child Study Center, Yale School of Medicine, will receive the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.

One of the world’s leading child psychiatrists, Comer is a groundbreaking scholar who transformed the fields of education and child development. He is also a renowned clinician and educator whose innovative programs have improved the lives of countless children and families. His seminal contributions have profoundly shaped the field of educational research and practice.

He is known for his creation of the Comer School Development Program, a model that grew from his research with children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and also for his theoretical innovation in relating educational processes to interpersonal relationships at many scales. His work has given rise to powerful ideas that are now common currency in the field of education, including the concept of social and emotional learning, the importance of “soft skills” for children’s learning and the significance of family and community engagement in supporting academic success in disadvantaged children. In 2014, President Barack Obama appointed him to the President’s Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

Hélène Esnault, the Einstein Professor at the Freie Universität Berlin, will receive the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science.

Esnault is a world-renowned mathematician who is noted for her contributions to algebraic geometry, particularly its connection to number theory, and has achieved other successes in a wide breadth of areas. The area in which she works centers on solving systems of polynomial equations, the shapes that these solution sets have and how the shape interacts with the types of solutions that exist. Her work has major intellectual ties to the study of mathematics at the University of Chicago. 

Esnault has been praised for her energy and productivity, support for junior mathematicians and significant work on editorial and advisory boards. She has been a leader in the field of mathematics for 40 years and is at the pinnacle of her discipline. Taken as a whole, her work represents a vision of algebraic geometry that touches upon most of the active branches of that vast field but is nevertheless recognizably her own.

Callum Roberts, Professor of Marine Conservation at the University of Exeter in the U.K., will receive the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science.

His research focuses on threats to marine life and on finding the means to protect them. For decades he has used his science background to make the case for stronger protections for marine life at national and international levels. His team provided the scientific underpinning for a new ocean protection target — 30% by 2030, which was adopted as a global goal at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in 2022.

Roberts leads the Convex Seascape Survey research program into ocean carbon sequestration and is the author of three books: The Unnatural History of the Sea (Island Press 2007), Ocean of Life: How Our Seas Are Changing (Penguin 2013) and Reef Life: An Underwater Memoir (Profile Books 2019). He is the chief scientific advisor to the Maldives Coral Institute and BLUE Marine Foundation and was lead science advisor for the BBC series Blue Planet II.

James A. Wells, the Harry W. and Diana V. Hind Distinguished Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, will receive the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science.

Wells is widely considered to be a pioneer in the exponentially growing field of protein engineering and has been instrumental in establishing its foundational principles and their application to basic research and biomedical goals. His ability to combine protein engineering with chemical biology has had an enormous impact across diverse areas of biology and chemistry.

Wells has been recognized for his seminal contributions to protein science as well as in the field of chemical sciences. His work has made essential contributions to shaping the growth and scope of protein engineering, and he has become a principal thought leader among scientists in this field.