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Leading Worldwide Health and Wellness Expert and U.S. Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin Will Speak at 205th Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Commencement May 28

April 20, 2011

Leading Worldwide Health and Wellness Expert and U.S. Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin Will Speak at 205th Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Commencement May 28

Samuel F. Heffner, Retired Rensselaer Board of Trustees Member and Chairman, and G. Wayne Clough, 12th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Also Will Receive Honorary Degrees

U.S. Surgeon General and Vice Admiral Regina M. Benjamin — one of the world’s leading experts on public health and a key player in the national debate on health care reform — will deliver the main address at the 205th Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Commencement on May 28.

Dr. Benjamin will receive an honorary degree, along with fellow honorands G. Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and Samuel F. Heffner Jr. ’56, who recently retired from the Rensselaer Board of Trustees after 15 years as chairman and 33 years as a member.


As “America’s Doctor,” Dr. Benjamin plays a critical role in providing the American public with the best scientific information available on how to improve health. Since her appointment by President Barack Obama in 2009, Dr. Benjamin has been a forceful leader in the national effort to migrate the United States health care system from one focused on sick care to one targeting wellness and prevention of illness. She talked about the issue earlier this year at the Sixth Annual Employer Health, Human Capital and Wellness Congress.

From her early days as the founder of a rural health clinic in Alabama – which she kept running despite damage inflicted by two hurricanes and a devastating fire — to her leadership role in the worldwide advancement of preventive health care, Dr. Benjamin has forged a career that has been recognized by a broad spectrum of organizations and publications, ranging from the MacArthur Fellowship — the “Genius Award” — to Time and People magazines. Dr. Benjamin also was named the United States recipient of the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights.

When he nominated her in 2009, President Obama cited Dr. Benjamin’s passion for providing health care to everyone, which began with her clinic in Alabama: “When people couldn’t pay, she didn’t charge them. When the clinic wasn’t making money, she didn’t take a salary for herself. When Hurricane Georges destroyed the clinic in 1998, she made house calls to all her patients while it was rebuilt,” President Obama said. “When Hurricane Katrina destroyed it again and left most of her town homeless, she mortgaged her house and maxed out her credit cards to rebuild that clinic for a second time.”

“In the course of her distinguished career, Dr. Benjamin has set an extraordinary example for health care professionals, becoming a role model for using advanced science and education in the service of one’s community and those most in need,” said Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson. “We are pleased to have the opportunity to honor her and two other distinguished leaders. They will bring to our graduates and their families at Commencement noteworthy accomplishments in the diverse and critically important fields of science, health, history, higher education, and architecture.

 “Leading the office of the Surgeon General involves not only making sure we all have the best health information available, but also promoting the highest standards for the 6,500 uniformed health officers who protect health of American citizens,” President Jackson said. “As the second decade of the 21st century unfolds, the issue of health care is critical to all of us. Therefore, it is important that among our leaders in this arena is someone who has raised the bar for service and dedication, delivering the best possible medical care despite challenging situations. We look forward to hearing from Dr. Benjamin.”

The Commencement ceremony begins at 9:30 a.m. on May 28 at the East Campus Athletic Village on the Rensselaer campus.

Dr. Benjamin biography:

Dr. Benjamin is founder and former CEO of the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in Alabama, former associate dean for Rural Health at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine in Mobile, and past chair of the Federation of State Medical Boards of the United States. In 1995, she was the first physician under age 40 and the first African-American woman to be elected to the American Medical Association Board of Trustees. She served as president of the American Medical Association Education and Research Foundation, and as chair of the AMA Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs. In 2002 she became president of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama, making her the first African-American female president of a state medical society in the United States.

She has a B.S. in chemistry from Xavier University, New Orleans, an M.D. degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and an MBA from Tulane University. She attended Morehouse School of Medicine and completed her family medicine residency in Macon, Ga.

In July 1987, Dr. Benjamin established a clinic in a small fishing village in Alabama to help its uninsured residents. She persevered through Hurricane Georges in 1998, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and a devastating fire in 2006, often putting up her own money to cover expenses. She also became nationally prominent for her business acumen and humane approach to preventive medicine.

Dr. Benjamin is a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science, and a fellow of the American Academy of Family Physicians. She was a Kellogg National Fellow and a Rockefeller Next Generation Leader. Some of her board memberships have included the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, the Catholic Health Association, and the Morehouse School of Medicine.

In 1998, Dr. Benjamin was the United States recipient of the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights. She was named by Time Magazine as one of the “Nation’s 50 Future Leaders Age 40 and Under.”

Clough biography:

As the 12th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Clough leads the world’s largest museum and research complex with 19 museums, nine research centers, the National Zoo, and research activities in more than 90 countries.

Since Clough began as Secretary in 2008, he has overseen several major openings at the Smithsonian, including the reopening of the National Museum of American History and the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins and Sant Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History.

He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Georgia Tech, and a doctorate in civil engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.

Clough has been a professor at Duke University, Stanford University, and Virginia Tech. He served as head of the department of civil engineering and dean of the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, and as provost at the University of Washington. He served as president of Georgia Institute of Technology for 14 years.

Clough was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2010, and serves on its Commission on the Humanities and Social Science. In 2009, he was inducted into the Technology Hall of Fame of Georgia, and later that year he received the Joseph M. Pettit Alumni Distinguished Service Award that recognizes a lifetime of leadership, achievement, and service to Georgia Tech. In 2012, Georgia Tech is scheduled to open the G. Wayne Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons building to honor his commitment to undergraduate students.

Clough received nine national awards from the American Society of Civil Engineers, including the 2004 OPAL lifetime award for contributions to education. He is one of 14 civil engineers to have been twice awarded civil engineering’s oldest recognition, the Norman Medal, in 1982 and in 1996. He received the George Westinghouse Award from the American Society of Engineering Education in 1986 for outstanding teaching and research. In 1990, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), and in 2008 was recognized with the NAE Bueche Award for his efforts in public policy. He was awarded the 2002 National Engineering Award by the American Association of Engineering Societies and in 2004 was named a Distinguished Alumnus from the College of Engineering at U.C. Berkeley.

Clough chaired the National Research Council Committee on New Orleans Regional Hurricane Protection Projects and serves as a member of the National Science Board. He served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (2001-08) and as co-chair of the 2004 National Innovation Initiative and university vice chair of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness; he chaired the Engineer of 2020 Project for the NAE and served as a member of the National Governors Association Innovate America Task Force (2006-07).

Heffner biography:

Heffner — founder and president of Dickinson-Heffner Inc., a successful building and land development firm in the Baltimore-Washington area — graduated from Rensselaer with a bachelor of architecture degree. Through the years, Heffner has maintained close ties to his alma mater. He was a Board of Trustees member for 33 years, and served as board chair for 15 years, retiring in December 2010. During his term as chair, Rensselaer made significant strides in revitalizing the campus, including the renovations of many of the core campus buildings along with the construction of several new buildings, increasing enrollment and scholastic excellence. Upon his retirement, he was named honorary chairman and trustee emeritus.

After his graduation from Rensselaer in 1956, Heffner served two years in the U.S. Air Force, and then began a career in the real estate development business that has spanned nearly 50 years and resulted in the development of several million square feet of office and industrial space in the Baltimore region, primarily in the vicinity of Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) Airport.

In addition to a wide range of experience in the real estate field, Heffner participates in a broad range of outside civic, business, and educational activities. He has served on numerous civic boards and is a founder and former chair of the BWI Business Partnership Inc, devoted to the fostering of economic development and transportation interests by businesses in the BWI area.

He served for many years on the board of Mannington Mills Company, a national flooring manufacturer; the board of the University of Maryland Medical System; and he is currently a member of the board of the Greater Baltimore Medical Center Hospital.

During his tenure on the Rensselaer Board of Trustees, Heffner chaired two presidential search committees, the Advancement Committee, and the Rensselaer Technology Park Committee. He was also chair of Rensselaer’s New Century Campaign. He is a member of the Stephen Van Rensselaer Society of Patroons of Rensselaer, and received the Rensselaer Alumni Association’s Alumni Key Award in 1980, the Albert Fox Demers Medal in 1984, the Distinguished Service Award in 1987, and the 1993 Fellows Award from the School of Architecture. He served as chairman of the Board of Trustees from December 1995 until December 2010. Another significant contribution to Rensselaer was his leadership effort in the construction of the Samuel F. Heffner Jr. ’56 Alumni House — fully designed, constructed, and funded by Rensselaer alumni/ae.

Heffner has been an avid airplane pilot for over 42 years and continues to pilot his own airplane.

Honorands and President Jackson To Conduct May 27 Colloquy: “The Architecture of Change: Action to Impact”

On the eve of Commencement, Rensselaer will convene the 2011 President’s 2011 President’s Commencement Colloquy, during which all three honorands will participate in a discussion led by President Jackson. The title of the event is “The Architecture of Change: Action to Impact.” According to President Jackson, the Rensselaerean ideal is to take on the problems of the day and find practical solutions. But action must be predicated on a clear understanding of the core mission and values of any endeavor. With this foundation established, the potential for renewal and reinvention allows us to build on past achievements, while adapting to a changing world. All four Colloquy participants will focus on the question: What can committed innovators across different sectors teach us about how best to meet the great challenges of our time? The Colloquy will be held in the Concert Hall of the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), on the Rensselaer campus, beginning at 4 p.m. on Friday, May 27.

For more details on Commencement, go to

Contact: Mark Marchand
Phone: (518) 276-6098


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About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Founded in 1824, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is America’s first technological research university. Rensselaer encompasses five schools, over 30 research centers, more than 140 academic programs including 25 new programs, and a dynamic community made up of over 6,800 students and 104,000 living alumni. Rensselaer faculty and alumni include upwards of 155 National Academy members, six members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, six National Medal of Technology winners, five National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With nearly 200 years of experience advancing scientific and technological knowledge, Rensselaer remains focused on addressing global challenges with a spirit of ingenuity and collaboration. To learn more, please visit