Commencement 2021: University of Rhode Island announces 4 honorary degree recipients

Media Contact: Dave Lavallee, 401-874-5862 |

KINGSTON, R.I. — April 1, 2021 — A doctor who exposed the water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan; an environmental scientist who exhibited bravery when public officials questioned the legitimacy of her scientific research; a decorated Vietnam War veteran who continues to support veterans, his community and his alma mater; and an entrepreneur and advocate who is fighting starvation around the world will be awarded honorary degrees by the University of Rhode Island during its 135th commencement ceremonies.

Mona Hanna-Attisha, M.D., M.P.H., the Michigan doctor who was responsible for uncovering the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which began in 2014, will give the keynote address at the University of Rhode Island’s 2021 Commencement.

Hanna-Attisha will give her remarks and receive her honorary doctorate virtually during URI’s main Commencement ceremony that will run May 21 through May 23.  The University plans to hold in-person college ceremonies for the graduates only and a reduced number of faculty and staff at Meade Stadium.

In addition, honorary degrees will be presented to: Linda S. Birnbaum, Ph.D., the former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health, and the National Toxicology Program;  Col. William P. Babcock, ‘68, M.A. ‘72, U.S. Army, retired, recipient of the Silver Star, the Combat Infantry Badge, two Bronze Star medals, Purple Heart, Air Medal, and the Rhode Island Cross; and Navyn Salem, founder and CEO of Edesia, a U.S. nonprofit, social enterprise, with a mission to treat and prevent malnutrition in developing countries worldwide will.

The honorary degree is the highest honor bestowed by the University, and these four recipients will join 438 individuals recognized with this distinction since URI’s founding.

“We ask our students to think bigger themselves, and these outstanding public and community servants are the epitome of this University value,” said URI Provost Donald H. DeHayes.  “Throughout their careers, they have demonstrated courage, a commitment to the public good in their own communities and around the world and a thirst for lifelong learning. We are proud to honor these degree recipients, and I know they will serve as role models for the entire University community.”

Mona Hanna-Attisha, M.D., M.P.H.
Mona Hanna-Attisha, M.D., M.P.H.

Mona Hanna-Attisha, M.D., M.PH., Honorary Doctor of Science, founder and director of the Michigan State University and Hurley Medical Center Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative, was responsible for uncovering the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which began in 2014 when the city switched its water supply from the Detroit system to the Flint River. The cost-cutting move resulted in toxic lead contamination and coinciding outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease.

A pediatrician, scientist, and activist, Hanna-Attisha has testified twice before Congress, was awarded the Freedom of Expression Courage Award by PEN America, and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. She has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, and countless other media outlets championing the cause of children in Flint and beyond. She is founding donor of the Flint Child Health and Development Fund.

Hanna-Attisha earned her bachelor’s and master of public health degrees from the University of Michigan and her medical degree from Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. She is an associate professor of pediatrics and human development at MSU’s College of Human Medicine.

Her bestselling book, What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City, is a riveting, beautifully rendered account of a disaster that became a tale of activism and hope, the story of a city that came together to fight for justice and the right to build a better world for their—and all of our—children.

Linda S. Birnbaum, Ph.D., Honorary Doctor of Science, has exhibited bravery during a time when science, es

Linda S. Birnbaum, Ph.D.
Linda S. Birnbaum, Ph.D.

pecially environmental science, has been marginalized. She is a pioneer, leader, researcher, and environmental health advocate.

Birnbaum is the former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health, and the National Toxicology Program. A board-certified toxicologist, Birnbaum served as a federal scientist for 40 years, and was granted scientist emeritus status when she retired. She spent 19 years at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where she directed the largest division focusing on environmental health research.

In 2016, she was awarded the North Carolina Award in Science. She was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, one of the highest honors in the fields of medicine and health, and to the Collegium Ramazzini, an independent, international academy of internationally renowned experts. She earned honorary doctorates from the University of Rochester, Ben-Gurion University in Israel, and Amity University in India. Named a Distinguished Alumna by the University of Illinois, she received the Surgeon General’s Medallion in 2014.

President of the Society of Toxicology and vice president of the International Union of Toxicology, the umbrella organization for toxicology societies in more than 50 countries, she is the author of more than 1,000 peer-reviewed publications. She is an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and was recently appointed a Scholar in Residence at Duke University.

Col. William P. Babcock, ‘68, M.B.A ‘72, U.S. Army, retired
Col. William P. Babcock, ‘68, M.B.A ‘72, U.S. Army, retired

Col. William P. Babcock, U.S. Army, retired, Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, is a 1968 graduate of the University of Rhode Island who has served his country, Rhode Island, and his alma mater with honor. At URI, he completed the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps program, earned his bachelor’s degree in history, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.

In August 1969, Babcock was assigned to the Republic of South Vietnam. During one of his missions in Cambodia, his company commander was killed. Babcock immediately took command of the company and also rescued a wounded comrade. He was awarded the Silver Star for his actions.

After his first active-duty tour, Babcock earned a master’s degree in education from URI and worked for the next 15 years as a student personnel administrator at various colleges and universities. He also completed a master’s degree in business administration at Bryant University. He is a graduate of the Army War College.

Babcock served full time in the Rhode Island National Guard for 21 years, and volunteered for active-duty tours in Afghanistan in 2003 and Iraq in 2005.

He retired as a brigade commander and is a founding member and first president of the URI ROTC Alumni chapter.

His awards include the Combat Infantry Badge, Silver Star, two Bronze Star medals, Purple Heart, Air Medal, and the Rhode Island Cross.

He now serves as coordinator of Veteran Mentors for the Rhode Island Veterans Treatment Court.

Navyn Salem
Navyn Salem

Navyn Salem, Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, set out in 2009 to help end the crisis of global malnutrition by founding Edesia, a U.S. nonprofit, social enterprise, with a mission to treat and prevent malnutrition in developing countries worldwide. She is founder and CEO of the company, whose Rhode Island factory produces a range of fortified, peanut-based products like Plumpy’Nut for such humanitarian agencies as UNICEF, World Food Programme, USAID, and other non-governmental organizations working in emergency and conflict zones. Since 2010, Edesia has reached more than 13 million children in over 58 countries, including Somalia, Venezuela, Yemen, and Syria.

In 2019, Salem launched a new line of nut butters called MeWe, developed to address hunger and the nutritional challenges through the ages and stages of life here in the United States from babies to the elderly. MeWe is also used as a snack in school lunch programs and for food banks here in the United States as part of the COVID-19 emergency response.

Salem was named Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year/New England in 2018, New Englander of the Year by the New England Council in 2017 and New England Business Woman of the Year by Bryant University. She was awarded honorary degrees by her alma mater, Boston College (2012), as well as Bryant University (2014), Providence College (2017), and Curry College (2018). She is a trustee of Boston College. She is a 2014 Henry Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute and a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network. Salem’s father is from Tanzania, and she has four daughters, all of whom were the inspiration for the creation of Edesia.