Kenya Barris to Deliver 2017 Commencement Address

Film and TV writer and producer, creator of “Black-ish,” is among seven honorary degree recipients
Kenya Barris
“Kenya Barris’ witty and wise work entertains and enlightens millions of viewers every week, using humor to open challenging social issues for discussion without sugarcoating them,” said President Anthony P. Monaco. Photo: Megan Miller
March 15, 2017

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Kenya Barris, an award-winning television writer, creator, director, showrunner, executive producer and feature film screenwriter, will deliver the commencement address to the Tufts University Class of 2017 on May 21.

The Emmy-nominated Barris is best known as the creator, executive producer and co-showrunner of the critically acclaimed ABC television series Black-ish. The show is semi-autobiographical, partly based on Barris’ life with his wife, Rainbow, and their six children in Los Angeles.

Barris’ writing uses comedy and affirmation in reflecting the difficult conversations happening in many homes and workplaces. He received principal writing credit on an episode in which the show’s multigenerational Johnson family discusses black victims of police violence and society’s reaction to those incidents, and another in which characters process their responses to the 2016 presidential election.

“Kenya Barris’ witty and wise work entertains and enlightens millions of viewers every week, using humor to open challenging social issues for discussion without sugarcoating them,” Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco said.

Barris grew up in the Inglewood and Hancock Park neighborhoods of Los Angeles. After a brief stint at UCLA, he moved to Atlanta and attended Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College. He wrote and directed a one-act play and became involved with the Atlanta comedy scene.

After stints in the writers’ rooms for the sitcom Sister/Sister and the late-night comedy program The Keenan Ivory Wayans Show, Barris worked for four seasons on the Showtime series Soul Food, based on the movie of the same name.

With his childhood friend Tyra Banks, Barris co-created the international hit reality TV competition America’s Next Top Model, which just completed its 23rd season on VH1.

After leaving Soul Food, Barris returned to comedy, writing for shows such as Listen Up, Like Family, The Game, Girlfriends and I Hate My Teenage Daughter. He also wrote and created BET’s The Start Up and Hulu’s first half-hour comedy series, We Got Next. Barris’ first feature film, Barbershop: The Next Cut, was released in 2016.

At commencement, which begins at 9 a.m. on the academic quad of Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus, Barris will receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree. Six other distinguished men and women will also receive honorary degrees:

Bruce J. Baum, D71, a pioneering dental researcher and clinician. He is known for his innovative work using gene therapy to repair damaged salivary glands in oral cancer patients and those with extremely dry mouth. He is the former head of the gene transfer section of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Baum is an advocate of the importance of biological science in dental education and the development of strong critical thinking and investigative skills among dental students. He will receive an honorary doctor of science degree.

Sean B. Carroll, S83, an award-winning scientist, science communicator, author and educator who is recognized for his work bridging science and the humanities. He is vice president for science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the largest private supporter of science education activities in the United States. An internationally recognized evolutionary biologist, Carroll is the Allan Wilson Professor of Molecular Biology, Genetics and Medical Genetics at the University of Wisconsin. He received a Ph.D. from the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences in 1983. Carroll will receive an honorary doctor of science degree.

Maria Contreras-Sweet, former administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, corporate executive and entrepreneur. The founder and executive chair of ProAmerica Bank, Contreras-Sweet was also a founding director of the California Endowment, a $3 billion health-care foundation. Early in her career she was a U.S. Senate appointee to the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, where she advocated for the advancement of women in corporate America. Contreras-Sweet will receive an honorary doctorate of public service degree.

Joyce Cummings, J97P, M97P, philanthropist. Along with her husband, William (Bill) Cummings, A58, H06, J97P, M97P, she is founder of Cummings Foundation Inc., which has awarded more than $140 million in grants to nonprofits serving a range of causes in Greater Boston and around the world, including human services, education, health care, social justice, and support of education to help prevent future genocides and other intercultural violence and injustice. The Cummings’ philanthropy has had a significant impact on the Tufts community in particular, including a naming gift in support of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. She will receive an honorary doctor of public service degree.

Jean McGuire, executive director of the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) from 1973 to 2016. The METCO program provides educational opportunities to urban schoolchildren by furthering school desegregation. Through McGuire’s work, more than 3,300 African-American children from across Massachusetts have attended schools in some of the most highly rated public school districts in the United States. She is also the first African-American woman to serve on the Boston School Committee. McGuire will receive an honorary doctor of public service degree.

Joseph W. Polisi, F70, president of the Julliard School since 1984. During his tenure, the school has grown its collaboration with partner institutions and community organizations and expanded educational outreach and global development. He has performed extensively as a bassoonist, both as a soloist and chamber musician. Polisi will receive an honorary doctor of fine arts degree.

In addition, Richard Engel, chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News, will deliver the Class Day speech at the Fletcher School on May 20.