University of Southern California

2014 Honorary Degree Recipients

Marc Benioff

Marc Benioff is the visionary founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of, which has become the leader in enterprise cloud computing.  A 30-year veteran of the software industry, he stands among the pioneers of cloud computing, and has received widespread recognition for his tremendous success as an innovator and industry leader.  In 2000, he launched the Foundation, which established the “1-1-1 model” of integrated corporate philanthropy.  Mr. Benioff received his bachelor’s degree from USC and serves on the university’s Board of Trustees.

B. Wayne Hughes

B. Wayne Hughes is a venerable business leader and esteemed USC alumnus and trustee.  Demonstrating a keenly entrepreneurial vision, he founded the largest self-storage company in the world, Public Storage, which he grew from one site in Southern California to more than 2,200 facilities in 38 states and seven western European nations.  Mr. Hughes also launched American Homes 4 Rent, enabling families throughout the country to find high-quality homes.

Shonda L. Rhimes

Shonda L. Rhimes has distinguished herself as one of the most celebrated and imaginative forces in television.  She is the creator and executive producer of several acclaimed ABC series, including Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and Scandal, and has earned widespread recognition for her commitment to featuring empowered characters who reflect the diversity of our society.  She continues to develop new series through her production company Shondaland.  Ms. Rhimes holds an MFA from USC.

Phillip A. Sharp

Phillip A. Sharp has led stellar advances in molecular biology and biochemistry, earning the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.  Along with Dr. Richard J. Roberts, Dr. Sharp discovered “split genes,” revealing that a given gene could be present in DNA as separated segments—a landmark achievement that has advanced our understanding of the genetic causes of cancer and other diseases.  Dr. Sharp is Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

James H. Simons

James H. Simons has made extraordinarily broad contributions as a mathematician and philanthropist.  His scientific work in geometry and topology led to the establishment of Chern-Simons invariants, a theory that has profoundly influenced theoretical physics.  He founded Renaissance Technologies, one of the most successful hedge funds in the world, and the Simons Foundation, which advances research in mathematics and the basic sciences.  Dr. Simons also remains deeply committed to supporting autism research.

Twyla Tharp

Twyla Tharp is one of America’s preeminent dancers and choreographers.  Over the past half century, her name has become synonymous with her art, as she has choreographed more than 160 works that include dances, television specials, Hollywood films, full-length ballets, Broadway shows, and figure skating programs.  Through her inspired choreography, she has created a dynamic fusion of ballet and modern dance, and earned our nation’s highest honors, including the 2004 National Medal of Arts.

You can view a list of previous recipients here.

Honorary Degrees at USC

Since Commencement 1912, the University of Southern California has awarded honorary degrees, presently the highest award the university confers. Honorary degrees are given:

  • To honor individuals who have distinguished themselves through extraordinary achievements in scholarship, the professions or other creative activities, whether or not they are widely known by the general public;
  • To honor alumni and other individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the welfare and development of USC or the communities of which they are a part;
  • To recognize exceptional acts of philanthropy to the university and/or on the nation or world scene; and
  • To elevate the university in the eyes of the world by honoring individuals who are widely known and highly regarded for achievements in their respective fields of endeavor.For more information about the nomination and selection process, please click here.

The History of Honorary Degrees

Honorary degrees began in the Middle Ages as a way for the ruling class to highlight individuals it felt warranted recognition. In the Elizabethan Era, honorary degrees were commonplace. The practice in America dates back to end of the 17th Century when Increase Mather received a Doctor of Sacred Theology degree from Harvard in 1692. Revolutionary War heroes were also chosen by Ivy League institutions for academic accolades; General George Washington was given a Doctor of Laws degree, also from Harvard.

By the mid-20th Century, universities began to work closely with faculty and trustees to devise an evaluation system, one that would ensure only the highest standards of excellence would be considered during the selection process. Individual universities still follow their own guidelines, but all remain aware of the sanctity of the honor. Generally, the honorary degree is a doctorate; masters’ degrees are rare, and Ph.D.s are unofficially prohibited.