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A physicist and a business leader received honorary degrees from UT on Thursday and Friday and spoke to some of the university’s newest graduates, challenging them to be innovators—in their careers and in their lives.

Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, received an honorary doctorate in science during the graduate hooding ceremony on Thursday, and Fred Smith, founder, chairman and CEO of FedEx Corporation, received an honorary doctorate in business at the Haslam College of Business commencement ceremony today.

The university will award its third honorary degree of this spring commencement season—and the thirteenth in its history—tonight at the College of Architecture and Design commencement ceremony. Robin Klehr Avia, regional managing principal and executive committee chair of the board of directors for Gensler, one of the world’s leading architecture and design firms, will receive an honorary doctorate in fine arts.

Introducing Mason, Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek described UT’s relationship with ORNL as its most strategic partnership, and one that greatly benefits UT students. The two organizations share joint institutes, faculty and research centers, including the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, which is “one of the fastest-growing graduate programs in the country, and brings some of the brightest minds here to study and pursue Ph.D.s in energy sciences and engineering.


“Faculty from our two institutions have collaborated on breakthroughs in supercomputing, understanding and combating climate change, and developing alternative fuels,” Cheek said. “Dr. Mason’s leadership has advanced the frontiers of science, and the laboratory’s work has ensured the nation’s economic well-being and security.”

Mason told graduates to “look for a challenging problem to solve. It’s very rewarding and is the best use of your education.”

Mason, an experimental condensed matter physicist, said his own challenging problem has been finding ways to meet the energy needs of people while mitigating the impact of the world’s energy choices.

“We need transformational science to remove the roadblocks to carbon-free energy,” he said. “As you take the next step in your career, I encourage you to consider ways to be part of this effort.”

Mason played a large role in leading the launch of the Spallation Neutron Source. As president and CEO of UT-Battelle LLC, which manages ORNL for the U.S. Department of Energy, he was instrumental in the discussions that led to the creation of the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation.

The importance of innovation in business was the theme of FedEx founder and CEO Fred Smith’s address to Haslam College of Business graduates during today’s ceremony at the arena.

“Innovation is the holy grail of successful business and is key to ensuring the prosperity of our society,” Smith said. “For FedEx, It’s been the key to keeping millions of customers satisfied.”


Smith was born in Mississippi and moved to Memphis as a boy. While completing a degree in economics at Yale University, Smith outlined a business model for an overnight delivery service designed to accommodate time-sensitive shipments for a college term paper. He received only an average grade.

After graduation, Smith served in the U.S. Marine Corps for three years before returning to Memphis to focus on his term paper idea. In 1971, he founded Federal Express.

Now the top global courier delivery services company in the world, FexEx is a $45-billion-a-year enterprise.

“Fred Smith’s success is a great lesson to our graduates—stay true to yourself and believe in your ideas,” said Cheek.

FedEx employs 350,000 people and is the largest publicly traded company with headquarters in Tennessee.

In his recommendation of Smith as an honorary degree recipient, Steve Mangum, dean of the Haslam College of Business, wrote, “It is difficult to underestimate the importance of FedEx to the viability of the Memphis community and the Tennessee economy.”

Smith’s leadership brought many firsts to the industry—advancements that made faster package sorting and tracking possible and made shipping much more convenient for customers. He pushed for changes to archaic shipping regulations meant for railroads to allow the company to grow its air cargo service to serve 220 countries and territories.

“It sounds mundane today, but a lot of what we created were first-of-their-kind technologies,” he said.

He told graduates that continuous improvement, creating a positive corporate culture, and workforce training are essential for fostering innovation in the organizations they join.

“A culture of innovation makes the United States more competitive, gets new ideas to the international marketplace quicker and creates a better society for us all,” he said.


Karen Dunlap (865-974-8674,