Michelle Howard, the first woman to become a four-star admiral in the U.S. Navy, will deliver the keynote address for the Class of 2021. Her remarks will be presented during the videocast of Fordham’s 176th Annual Commencement on Saturday, May 22. Howard will also receive an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University.
“I am delighted that Admiral Howard will be addressing Fordham’s Class of 2021, their families, and the University community,” said Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham. “An exceptional leader, thinker, and public servant, Admiral Howard was originally scheduled to address the Class of 2020 before the pandemic shut down Fordham and universities across the country. I know you all join me in welcoming her—virtually—to our 176th Commencement.”
Highly decorated for her service, heroism, and leadership, Howard achieved many firsts in the course of her 35-year military career. In 1999, she became the first African American woman to command a Navy ship. On July 1, 2014, when she received her fourth star, she was also appointed as vice chief of naval operations, making her the first woman and the first African American to hold the second-highest position in the U.S. Navy. In 2016, a year before her retirement, she became commander of naval forces in Europe and Africa.
Howard graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1982, having enrolled just two years after it opened to women. In 1998, she earned a master’s degree at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. She served in operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom; the peacekeeping effort in the former Republic of Yugoslavia; and tsunami relief efforts in Indonesia. In 2009, she commanded a Navy task force that orchestrated the rescue of an American ship captain held hostage by Somali pirates, a situation dramatized in the movie Captain Phillips. She later noted that the varied backgrounds of those that advised her helped make the tense rescue operation a success. Without that diversity, she said in a 2015 address, “I don’t know what kind of ideas we would have come up with. We came up with very good ones that actually worked. That’s the power of a diverse team.”
In a 2014 NPR interview, Howard talked about the importance of learning from others who have faced similar challenges. “It’s the transference of wisdom,” she said. “You can either figure it out on your own and stumble … or you can talk to someone who has the same shared experiences. As you expand that group and bring them together and have a multitude of perspectives, you’ll find some commonality.”
Howard’s leadership and talents have been recognized beyond the military. In 2013, she received the Chairman’s Award at the 44th NAACP Image Awards. After retiring from the Navy in 2017, she served as the J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Professor of International Affairs at George Washington University, where she taught in the areas of cybersecurity and international policy. She has been a member of the IBM Board of Directors since 2019. In February 2021, she was named to a congressionally mandated commission on renaming military installations whose names commemorate the Confederacy.