Distinguished alumni to salute 2020 graduates

From left are commencement speakers Jose R. Mas, Jackie Nespral, Hilarie Bass, and Jaret L. Davis.
By Maya Bell

From left are commencement speakers Jose R. Mas, Jackie Nespral, Hilarie Bass, and Jaret L. Davis.

Distinguished alumni to salute 2020 graduates

By Maya Bell
Four extraordinary alumni will share their advice with 5,000 graduates who will have the opportunity to celebrate their hard-earned degrees this week.

Four extraordinary University of Miami alumni, who have left enduring marks on their hometown, their profession, and their community, will share their advice this week with more than 5,000 students who can celebrate the degrees they earned in these most challenging times during four virtual commencement ceremonies.

Though the Dec. 10 and 11 ceremonies, which moved to the virtual sphere amid the spike in COVID-19 cases, will lack some of the pomp of the University’s traditional ceremonies, there will be no shortage of inspiring words from the four accomplished Miamians who will speak during the events.

Here’s a look at the speakers for each ceremony, to be held at the same time and day as originally scheduled and available for real-time viewing via the University’s Livestream account. Programs for each ceremony are also available online.

Spring/Summer 2020 Graduate Degree Ceremony on Thursday, Dec. 10 at 10 a.m.

Jose R. Mas, the CEO of MasTec Inc., one of the nation’s largest and most diversified infrastructure service providers, will address about 1,700 doctoral and master’s degree graduates whose original May ceremony was postponed when the University, like most of the world, shut down as the coronavirus pandemic marched across the globe.

The youngest son of the revered Cuban American exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa, Mas earned his Bachelor of Business Administration and Master of Business Administration from the University in the early 1990s but honed his business acumen in high school. That’s when he began working for Church & Tower, the failing electrical construction firm his late father, founder of the politically powerful Cuban American National Foundation, bought and grew into the multinational telecommunication corporation that became MasTec. 

Over the next 20 years, Mas progressed from fieldwork to the executive suite and, in 2007, at age 36, took the helm of the company. At the time, the business climate for MasTec was bleak, but Mas, who was elected to the University’s Board of Trustees in June of this year, was undaunted. While expanding its traditional communication business, he restructured and diversified the company into oil-and-gas pipeline construction, electrical transmission line construction, renewable energy, and wireless infrastructure construction.

Since then, MasTec’s revenues have increased from $900 million to $7 billion and earnings have grown more than tenfold—an accomplishment that earned Mas the title of Ernst & Young National Entrepreneur of the Year, and a starring role in an episode of the CBS reality series “Undercover Boss.”  

Fall 2020 Commencement Ceremony on Thursday, Dec. 10 at 3 p.m.

Jackie Nespral, one of the most popular, trusted, and enduring broadcast journalists in her hometown’s history, will address about 1,100 fall graduate and undergraduate students from all schools and colleges, except the School of Law.

The first Hispanic to anchor a network news program, Nespral has co-anchored NBC 6’s 5 p.m., 6 p.m., and 11 p.m. newscasts for a remarkable 25 years—raising four children and earning six Emmy Awards and a Silver Circle Award for her contributions to the television news industry along the way. 

Yet the daughter of Cuban immigrants, who was raised in Little Havana not far from the Orange Bowl, fell into her legendary career almost by accident. A diehard Hurricanes fan, she enrolled at the University of Miami and majored in psychology, thinking she’d become a marriage counselor. But during her sophomore year, her mother entered her in the competition for the 1986 Orange Bowl queen without her knowledge. When the charismatic Nespral took the crown and appeared on “The Late Show with David Letterman” and a Bob Hope Special, the Spanish-language Univision network took notice, and hired her.

She was only 26 when, in 1992, NBC recruited her to New York to anchor Weekend Today. For two years, she commuted from Miami, where her physician husband, fellow UM alumnus Armando Hassun Jr., had returned for his anesthesiology residency. When an anchor spot opened up at NBC’s local Miami station, Nespral elected to remain full time with her growing family and joined NBC Miami’s evening broadcast. She has sat in the anchor seat ever since, forging a reputation for compassionate, balanced, and tough reporting, and guiding South Florida through celebrations and crises, from NBA and World Series championships to civil unrest and devastating hurricanes.

Fall 2020 School of Law Ceremony on Friday, Dec. 11 at 10 a.m. 

Hilarie Bass, the founder and president of the Bass Institute for Diversity and Inclusion and the chair of the University’s Board of Trustees, will address more than 400 graduates from the School of Law, where she graduated at the top of her class nearly four decades ago.

One of the nation’s most recognized attorneys, she broke through numerous gender barriers to serve as co-president of Miami’s global Greenberg Traurig law firm, and president of the 400,000-member American Bar Association. Determined to help other women achieve similar success, Bass stepped away from her legal career in 2018 to launch the Bass Institute for Diversity and Inclusion and to help top executives and law firm leaders retain women and elevate them to senior management roles. 

The move was the consummate second act for the former actress whose legal education and experience made her the ultimate problem solver. As American Bar Association president, Bass focused on the high rates of anxiety and depression among lawyers, and on eliminating fees and fines assessed against those in the criminal justice system who could not pay them. At Greenberg Traurig, she won hundreds of millions of dollars during numerous trials but is proudest of the pro bono case she pursued that eventually ended Florida’s decades-old prohibition against gay people adopting children. 

The first in her family to earn a college degree, Bass might never have made it to law school but for the vagaries of show business. A talented actress, she headed to New York City after earning her undergraduate degree from George Washington University. But after the soap opera where she had a recurring role was cancelled, she returned to Miami, enrolled in law school, and long before she graduated, Greenburg Traurig offered her a job, which she left at the top of her profession 37 years later.

Spring/Summer 2020 Undergraduate Degree Ceremony on Friday, Dec. 11 at 3 p.m.

Jaret L. Davis, another powerhouse in the legal profession, will address nearly 2,200 undergraduates whose original ceremony also was postponed this past May.

At 6 feet 8 inches tall, it’s easy to see why strangers ask the double University of Miami alumnus whether he played for the NBA or NFL. But he was never a professional athlete. Instead, the co-managing shareholder of Greenberg Traurig’s Miami office is a mega-dealmaker who has merged his love of technology and the law to elevate Miami as a tech capital.

A co-founder of Miami’s global eMerge Americas conference, the former chair of the Miami-Dade Beacon Council, and the Daily Business Review’s 2018 Attorney of the Year, Davis planned a career in investment banking when he majored in economics and minored in computer science and finance as an undergraduate. But he pivoted to law for its “optimal blend of analytical work and interacting with people.” 

Since graduating from the School of Law in 1999, he has made good use of his prodigious analytical and people skills, overseeing one of the largest law offices in Florida, while focusing his corporate and securities practice on domestic and cross-border mergers and acquisitions, capital markets transactions, and large financings.

The chair of Nicklaus Children’s Hospital board of directors, he is the recipient of numerous civic awards and his name appears on many lists recognizing the industry’s top lawyers—Super Lawyers and the National Law Journal’s among others. The first African American to serve as president of the University’s Iron Arrow Honor Society, he is easy to spot during homecoming and other campus festivities, when his brightly colored Iron Arrow jacket marks him as one of the University’s finest.