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Last modified: Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Liberian president receiving honorary degree at IU Bloomington commencement

April 8, 2008

Editors: Information about a news conference with Liberian President Sirleaf will be made available in the near future.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected as president of Liberia or of any African country, will receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Indiana University on May 3 (Saturday) in recognition of her efforts to promote peace, justice and democracy, and of the close relations between her country and IU.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Print-Quality Photo

Sirleaf will receive the degree during IU Bloomington's 2008 spring commencement ceremonies, which will begin at 10 a.m. in Assembly Hall. She also will join IU President Michael McRobbie and other IU faculty leaders at the afternoon commencement session beginning at 3 p.m.

The day before (May 2), she will meet with the news media and present a short lecture to invited guests at the Lilly Library, 1200 E. Seventh St.

"Indiana University has a lengthy history of fostering scholarship of Liberia and providing opportunities to numerous Liberians who have studied here for decades," McRobbie said. "Many of IU's efforts have contributed to the establishment of a free democratic society there now envisioned by President Sirleaf, a strong leader with the highest ideals for human rights and justice. We welcome her and are proud to honor her for her life's service."

IU's ties to Liberia are extensive. The late IU scholar J. Gus Liebenow was a pioneer in his studies of Liberia and founded the university's African Studies Program in 1961. On his retirement in 1990, Liebenow received the first Lifetime Achievement Award of the Liberian Studies Association, a group of scholars from around the world.

Amos Sawyer, interim president of Liberia from 1990 to 1994 and now an IU faculty member, presented the Liebenow Memorial Lecture as part of the center's 40th anniversary.

Sawyer, who currently chairs the Governance Reform Commission in Liberia, said he is pleased that IU is recognizing Sirleaf.

"As Africa's first woman president, a lifetime champion of human rights and democratic governance, and an internationally celebrated development expert, President Sirleaf has been honored and continues to be honored by academic institutions and development-oriented organizations around the world. Indiana University is in good company in doing her this honor," Sawyer said.

Other IU faculty have followed in Liebenow's footsteps, including Claude Clegg, IU professor of history and author of the book, The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia (University of North Carolina Press, 2004). The university also is home to an extensive collection of Liberian materials, which houses papers from the Presidential and Liberian National archives and the personal papers of President William V. S. Tubman (1895-1971). IU has the largest such holdings outside of Liberia.

Through the work of its Center on Constitutional Democracy in Plural Societies and other activities, the IU School of Law--Bloomington has supported constitutional democracy in countries such as Liberia, and has provided aid to rebuild the country's legal education system and guidance for constitutional reform. IU's Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis also is assisting with Liberia's land reform and decentralization programs.

Frequently referred to as Africa's "Iron Lady" for her strong will and determination, Sirleaf rose from humble beginnings as the daughter of an indigenous civil servant to have a distinguished career spanning nearly four decades. She followed her father into public service -- he was the first indigenous Liberian to be elected to the national legislature -- and became Liberia's president in 2006. She also is the mother of four sons and grandmother to nine grandchildren.

For her efforts to bring justice to her people, she spent more than a year in jail during the rule of military dictator Gen. Samuel Doe and escaped assassination at the hands of former President Charles Taylor's forces.

After graduating from the College of West Africa in Monrovia, she went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts in accounting from Madison Business College in Madison, Wis., an economics diploma from the University of Colorado and a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University.

She returned to Liberia after completing her studies in 1972. Seven years later, she became the first woman to be minister of finance of Liberia. In 1982, after a military coup by Gen. Samuel Doe, she went into exile in Kenya, where she worked for Citibank as vice president of a regional office. She returned to run for the Senate in 1985, but when she spoke out against Doe's military regime, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Released after a short period, she moved to the United States.

In 1997, she returned to Liberia as an economist working for the World Bank and Citibank. She ran for president that year and came in second to Taylor in a field of 13 candidates. Taylor charged her with treason, and she again fled the country. With his departure, she returned to Liberia in 2005, took over leadership of the Unity Party, and played an active role in Liberia's transitional government as the country prepared for elections later that year.

From 1992 to 1997, she directed the Regional Bureau of Africa for the United Nations Development Program. She was the first woman to lead the U.N. Development Projects for Africa. In 2006, Forbes magazine named her 51st in its list of the 100 most powerful women in the world. President George W. Bush honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year and praised her during an official state visit to Liberia this March.

She has represented Liberia for several financial institutions, including the International Monetary Fund, the African Development Bank and the World Bank. She was a founding member of the International Institute for Women in Political Leadership and has written widely on financial issues, development and human rights. She is a founder of Kormah Development and Investment Corp., a financial management advisory consultancy firm, and Measuagon, a community development NGO in Liberia.

IU will award a total of three honorary degrees this spring during commencement ceremonies on various campuses. For information on the other two degree recipients and about the honorary degree in general, go to:

For complete information on all of IU's commencement ceremonies, visit