UW Alumna Linda Thomas-Greenfield confirmed as Ambassador to the United Nations

Linda Thomas-Greenfield
Linda Thomas-Greenfield

On February 23, the U.S. Senate voted to confirm Linda Thomas-Greenfield as the 31st U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Thomas-Greenfield, who received a master’s from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, as well as an honorary doctorate, brings more than 30 years of experience to the post.

As leader of the U.S. delegation to the global organization, Thomas-Greenfield will shoulder substantial responsibilities. In remarks to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Jan. 27, 2021, Thomas-Greenfield acknowledged some of the major issues faced by the world.

“From climate change to COVID-19, nonproliferation to mass migration, technological disruptions to human rights violations, today’s problems are urgent, they are complex, and they are global,” said Thomas-Greenfield. “Meeting these challenges means meeting with our fellow nations, especially in the world’s most important diplomatic forum.”

She also emphasized the importance of a strong U.S. presence at the U.N.

“I never expected I would have the chance to step into the shoes of so many luminaries,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “Like my mentors, role models, and predecessors, I strongly believe diplomacy is an irreplaceable tool in the work of advancing America’s interests and building a better world. Throughout my career from Jamaica to Nigeria, Pakistan to Switzerland and as Ambassador to Liberia, I’ve learned that effective diplomacy means more than shaking hands and staging photo ops. It means developing real, robust relationships. It means finding common ground and managing points of differentiation. It means doing genuine, old fashion, people-to-people diplomacy.”

“The UW–Madison community celebrates this appointment by one of our best alums to one of the top diplomatic jobs in the country.  This appointment reflects Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s lifetime of public service working to promote global cooperation,” said Chancellor Rebecca Blank. “Her career and her leadership continues to inspire our students.”

A continuing connection with UW–Madison

Thomas-Greenfield arrived in Madison to pursue political science graduate study in 1974, following completion of her B.A. at Louisiana State University. In recalling her arrival at UW–Madison, she found Wisconsin to be a cultural shock, as it was her first significant departure from the deep South and the close African-American community near Baton Rouge. Thomas-Greenfield adapted well, forging close ties with fellow students and faculty such as her advisor Professor M. Crawford Young, who died in January 2020.

Upon completing her M.A. in 1975, Thomas-Greenfield continued her scholarly work toward her PhD. She passed her preliminary examinations and was awarded a fellowship to conduct dissertation field research in Liberia. Her work in Liberia would be a formative experience to her future role as ambassador. Upon returning from Liberia, she accepted a faculty position at Bucknell University. She subsequently took and passed the Foreign Service entry examination, ultimately pursuing a career in international diplomacy.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield in academic regalia at podium
Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks to the crowd after receiving an honorary degree during UW-Madison’s spring commencement ceremony at the Kohl Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on May 11, 2018. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

Throughout her career in the Foreign Service, Thomas-Greenfield has continued her relationship with UW–Madison. For four years, the university has hosted the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders—the signature program of the national Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), which was launched by Thomas-Greenfield. She has met with fellows at UW–Madison, sharing her experiences and expertise as a career diplomat.

She has also accepted numerous invitations to address UW–Madison, students, faculty, and staff. Thomas-Greenfield spoke at the African Studies Program’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2012, sharing her analysis and reflections on crises in Africa in 2014. Championing future generations of leaders, she has met with King-Morgridge Scholars and PEOPLE Program participants. Notably in 2018, Thomas-Greenfield addressed the university community during spring commencement when accepting an honorary Doctor of Law degree.

“The two words that come to my mind when I remember meeting Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, are ‘humble’ and ‘inspiring,’” said Cheryl Mulor, a King-Morgridge Scholar and civil and environmental engineering major who met with Thomas-Greenfield in spring 2019. “It was inspiring to see a woman of color in such a position of power. And yet with all that she has done and accomplished throughout her career, she presented herself to us with such humility. I was honestly in awe to just be in her presence and hear her story.”

Linda Thomas-Greenfield and King-Morgridge Scholars
Linda Thomas-Greenfield met with King-Morgridge Scholars in spring 2019 during a visit to the Albright Stonebridge Group in Washington, D.C.

Miranda Tichareva a senior majoring in community and non-profit leadership and psychology, also met with Thomas-Greenfield alongside Mulor. Her impression of the career diplomat was that her will to better the world and extensive experience make her a natural fit for the Ambassador to the U.N. post.

“I cannot think of someone more deserving of this nomination,” said Tichareva. “Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield has compassion for people of all walks of life. She is a critical thinker, and she strategizes her every move. She is an agent of positive change with utmost compassion for humanity, and she will serve in this role with excellence.”

A legacy of global service

Thomas-Greenfield has extensive experience navigating issues on the world stage. Some of the highlights of her decorated career include serving as ambassador to Liberia from 2008–2012, and postings in Switzerland, Pakistan, Kenya, The Gambia, Nigeria, and Jamaica.

From 2013–2017, she served as assistant secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs, leading the Department of State’s development and management of U.S. policy toward sub-Saharan Africa. As assistant secretary, Thomas-Greenfield was responsible for 45 embassies and five consulates in 49 countries across the continent.

“Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield has shown herself to be adept at understanding and developing relationships that help in navigating complex global issues,” said Guido Podestá, vice provost and dean of the International Division. “While often lauded for her work in Africa, her expertise is in understanding our interconnected world. We are all proud of what she has accomplished and are confident that she will accomplish great things as the Ambassador to the U.N.”

Thomas-Greenfield has also held positions as director general of the Foreign Service and director of human resources. In the latter role, she led a team of 400 who administer personnel functions for the State Department’s staff of 70,000. Her resume includes other postings in Washington, D.C., such as the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

“Thomas-Greenfield is widely regarded in the Foreign Service and in the State Department and is considered one of the most dynamic and affective diplomats of her time,” said Political Science and Gender & Women’s Studies Professor Aili Tripp, who nominated Thomas-Greenfield for the honorary degree at UW–Madison alongside Crawford Young. “She has been a real inspiration as a role model and a mentor to a younger generation of diplomats. She is somebody who has enormous integrity and is deeply devoted to the ideals and interests of the U.S.”