Speakers

This winter’s ceremony will feature a keynote address from Michael Finley, remarks from Chancellor Jennifer L. Mnookin, and a slate of other inspiring speakers. Check out the speaker bios below.

Michael Finley, Keynote Speaker

Michael Finley

This year’s winter commencement speaker is a Badger legend — just look to the rafters of the Kohl Center for proof.

Last year, the university retired Michael Finley’s No. 24 jersey, only the third basketball jersey in school history to be hung aloft at the Kohl Center. Finley, a two-time NBA All-Star, left the UW as the all-time leading scorer in Wisconsin men’s basketball history. He’s also a high-ranking sports executive, a Hollywood film producer, and the founder of a nonprofit organization that helps children and families reach their full potential.

Born and raised in Maywood, Illinois, Finley played for the Badgers from 1991 to 1995. He helped lead the Badgers to the 1994 NCAA tournament — the school’s first appearance in the “Big Dance” since 1947. At the time, he set UW–Madison’s all-time leading scoring record with 2,147 points and left the UW as the 12th leading scorer in Big Ten history. (He is now second on UW–Madison’s list of all-time highest scorers, after Alando Tucker.)

Finley was selected in the first round of the 1995 NBA draft by the Phoenix Suns and was named to the All-Rookie First Team. The following year, he was traded to the Dallas Mavericks, where he played from 1996 to 2005 and was a two-time All-Star (2000, 2001). Finley later played for the San Antonio Spurs — winning an NBA championship in 2007 — and the Boston Celtics. He played a total of 15 seasons in the NBA, retiring in 2010.

Due to the NBA draft, Finley left the university before finishing his program of study. In 2014, he completed his bachelor’s degree from the UW in agricultural and applied economics.

This fall, Finley began his 10th season in the Mavericks’ front office and his third as assistant general manager and vice president of basketball operations. In 2003, Finley created the Texas-based Michael Finley Foundation, which works to inspire, develop, and enhance the skills of young people and their families. In 2009, Finley founded the film production company Follow Through Productions LLC. He is a financier and executive producer of several films, including The Butler, starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, and American Made, starring Tom Cruise.

Finley resides in Plano, Texas, with his wife and three children.

Jennifer L. Mnookin, Chancellor

Chancellor Jennifer L. MnookinJennifer L. Mnookin has served as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Madison since August 2022.

She is the 30th leader in the university’s 175-year history.

Chancellor Mnookin is dedicated to pushing boundaries to bring the university to new levels of excellence in research and education. She also is deeply committed to energizing and expanding the Wisconsin Idea, UW–Madison’s mission of innovation for the public good. The Wisconsin Idea recognizes our commitment to strengthen communities and improve people’s lives throughout the state, the nation, and the world. Today’s graduates have been educated in this proud tradition.

Chancellor Mnookin has spent her academic career at top public research universities. Prior to coming to Wisconsin, she served as dean of the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, where she spent 17 years on the faculty. Before that, she was a professor of law at the University of Virginia School of Law and a visiting professor of law at Harvard Law School. She is also a nationally recognized expert on issues relating to law and science, and one of the nation’s most-cited legal scholars in the field of evidence law. She served for six years on the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Science, Technology, and Law, and co-chaired a group of senior advisors for a President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology report. In 2020 she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Chancellor Mnookin received her AB from Harvard University, her JD from Yale Law School, and a PhD in history and social study of science and technology from MIT.

She and her husband, political scientist Joshua Foa Dienstag, have two adult children.

Charles Lee Isbell Jr., Provost

Isbell Charles, Jr.

Dr. Charles Isbell became UW–Madison’s provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs in August 2023. He previously served as the dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech. Dr. Isbell earned his bachelor’s degree in Information and Computer Science from Georgia Tech, and his MS and PhD at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab. His research interests are varied but the unifying theme of his work has been using machine learning to build autonomous agents who engage directly with humans. In addition to leading the academic mission at UW–Madison, he is highly regarded as an expert in artificial intelligence and educational reform on a national scale.

Kyle M. Weatherly, Board of Regents

Kyle M. Weatherly Kyle Weatherly was the founding CEO of Frontdesk, a short-term housing provider started in 2017. Today, Frontdesk operates in 35 cities with greater than $40 million in revenue and more than 300 employees.

Prior to Frontdesk, Weatherly was the president and co-owner of Solaris, a medical device company, which sold to Lohmann & Rascher in 2014. During his nine-year tenure, Solaris grew revenue and headcount by 30x and expanded distribution from one country to more than 50.

Weatherly holds an MPA in Public Management and BA in Political Science and History from UW–Madison. Between degrees, he worked for Habitat for Humanity, first in Long Beach/Compton, California as an AmeriCorp volunteer and later in Madison as a staff member.

Weatherly and his wife, Ruthie, live in Milwaukee’s Lower East Side.

Jnae A. Thompson, Student Speaker

Jnae Thompson

Jnae Thompson believes everyone has a story. She often thinks of that while walking on campus.

“You pass by so many people, and you have no idea what they’re going through,” says Thompson, of Racine, Wisconsin. “You can assume that some of them are going through difficult times, and you want to say something comforting to them.”

That impulse spurred Thompson to apply to be this year’s student speaker for winter commencement. “I want to uplift the people around me,” she says.

Thompson believes her own story might help others. She entered UW–Madison as a biochemistry major, determined to become an orthopedic surgeon. “I had my entire four-year plan all worked out,” she says.

But after two years, the passion had ebbed for her career choice, and she was struggling to remain engaged in her coursework. She felt called to a different future, one as a community organizer. Her participation in the George Floyd-related protests of 2020 and her work as an organizer for the Madison-based social justice organization Freedom, Inc. contributed to this awakening. She switched her major to African American studies, with a certificate in gender and women’s studies. It was not an easy transition — she had to reimagine her future and herself. But she looks back with no regrets.

“I went through some failures and missteps, but I learned that I am not just my mistakes,” she says. “I’m so much happier now. As difficult as it was, I genuinely would not have changed anything.”

The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Thompson graduated from The Prairie School, an independent college preparatory school near Racine. She was a three-sport athlete (track, volleyball, and basketball) and played violin in school and community orchestras.

She credits her parents with giving her a strong sense of self-worth and the courage to find herself. On campus, she found comfort and close friends at the Black Cultural Center, where she studied almost daily.

Last summer, she interned with Madison365, a local nonprofit news organization where she is now a freelance writer. She also is a data organizer for Freedom Inc. and will begin a full-time job with the organization after graduation.