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During the Morning Exercises of the 361st Commencement, on May 24, Harvard conferred honorary degrees on eight distinguished guests—among them two Nobel laureates, an American civil-rights pioneer, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. (The honorands are listed here in alphabetical order, not in the order of conferral of degrees.) 

Photograph by Stu Rosner

John Adams

John Adams ’69, A.M. ’72, Doctor of Music. An operatic and symphonic composer and conductor, John Adams is best known for expressive contemporary classical works such as Nixon in China (1987), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), and Doctor Atomic (2005)—the latter about J. Robert Oppenheimer ’25, S.D. ’47. He has frequently collaborated with poet/librettist Alice Goodman’80 and director Peter Sellars ’80; they discussed Nixon in China during a campus event last November. For an introduction to his work, from Harvard Magazine’s archives, read “The Birth of The Death of Klinghoffer,” on the composing of an opera, and “The Making of Nixon in China; a collection of his orchestral works is reviewed here.

Adams won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in music for On the Transmigration of Souls, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to commemorate the victims of 9/11. Other notable instrumental works include The Dharma at Big Sur (an electric-violin concerto inspired by Jack Kerouac) and Absolute Jest, commissioned to celebrate the centennial of the San Francisco Symphony. (Adams, a New England native, has lived in northern California since 1971.) Harvard has previously awarded him the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Centennial Medal (2004), and the Harvard Arts Medal (2007).

 A skillful writer, Adams published a memoir, Hallelujah Junction, in 2008 (read the Harvard Magazine review). He had this to say about the future of University in his contribution to the magazine’s Harvard 375th anniversary issue:

I have two images of what Harvard might be like in 2036, one utopian and the other dystopian. My dystopian anxiety is simply that Harvard, despite its best efforts, will be forced to mirror our current national slouching toward total plutocracy, toward a new Gilded Age of unimaginable disparities between a small privileged power elite and an unhappy majority…whose lives will grow increasingly colorless and drab, designed and dictated as they are by inviolable corporate interests.…

In my utopian version I see a university whose demographics reflect the rich variety of American society, one that would never make financial circumstances an issue in choosing its students….I also imagine a Harvard that treats the arts with the same sense of importance that it accords its schools of law, medicine, science, and business. 

For too long Harvard has viewed the arts as an ancillary activity, as extracurricular, something its students do on the side. It is a time-honored attitude and in part well founded: Harvard students, being exceptionally motivated and endlessly creative, are best left to initiate their own artistic endeavors. There is value to this philosophy, but its downside is that Harvard remains, artistically, a place that celebrates a kind of highbrow amateurism.…[H]aving a future Fortune 500 executive acting in an Adams House Oedipus or playing oboe in the Bach Society Orchestra is good for the future of charitable giving to the arts. No question about it.

But the arts at Harvard ought to be world-class, a place where great art is not merely studied and analyzed while students are left to their own devices when it comes to making it. So on my good days I imagine the Harvard of 2036 a beehive of creative activity, a place where painters and dancers and cellists and poets and filmmakers learn their craft from the great masters in their fields and where stimulation and invention (and, well, yes, odd behavior) are the norm. Is there any reason not to think Harvard capable of that?

Photograph by Stu Rosner

Anthony Appiah

K. Anthony Appiah, Doctor of Laws. Kwame Anthony Appiah is Rockefeller University Professor of philosophy at Princeton, where he is acting director of the University Center for Human Values, which explores ethical issues in public and private life. Appiah served on the Harvard faculty—ultimately as Carswell professor of Afro-American studies and of philosophy—from 1991 until his move to Princeton in 2002; he had previously taught at Duke, Cornell, and Yale. (Although Appiah’s departure from Harvard came during highly publicized tensions between then-president Lawrence H. Summers and Fletcher University Professor Cornel West, who decamped for Princeton, and other members of the Afro-American studies faculty, Appiah was careful to say that his decision was not motivated by those issues. He was then maintaining a home in New York with a long-time partner, and commuting regularly; read the Crimson’s account.)

A moral philosopher whose scholarship has extended into African and African-American literary and cultural studies (he was born in London, where his Ghanaian father was a law student, but moved to and grew up in Ghana), Appiah’s work is described this way in his Princeton biography:

 In 1992, Oxford University Press published In My Father’s House, which deals, in part, with the role of African and African American intellectuals in shaping contemporary African cultural life. His major current work has to do with the relationships between philosophical ethics and other disciplines. In 1996, he published Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race with Amy Gutmann; in 1997, the Dictionary of Global Culture, coedited with Henry Louis Gates Jr. Along with Gates, he has also edited the Encarta Africana CD-ROM encyclopedia, published by Microsoft, which developed into Oxford University Press’s five-volume Africana encyclopedia in book form. In 2003, he coauthored Bu Me Bé: Proverbs of the Akan (of which his mother is the major author), an annotated edition of 7,500 proverbs in Twi, the language of Asante. He is also the author of three novels, of which the first, Avenging Angel, was largely set at Clare College, Cambridge, where he received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. His recent books include Thinking It Through: An Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy (2004), The Ethics of Identity (2005), Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006), Experiments in Ethics (2008), and The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (2010).

Awarded the National Humanities Medal this past February, Appiah has chaired the American Philosophical Association’s executive board and the board of the American Council of Learned Societies, and served as president of the PEN American Center. He was recently named chair of the Board of Scholars for Facing History and Ourselves (succeeding Martha Minow, dean of Harvard Law School), a nonprofit organization that encourages scholarly examination of racism, prejudice, and anti-Semitism. On May 20, he delivered the commencement address at Occidental College’s 125th anniversary graduation ceremony.

Photograph by Stu Rosner

Gillian Beer

Gillian Beer, Doctor of Letters. Dame Gillian Beer was a fellow of Girton College, University of Cambridge, for three decades, and later King Edward VII professor of English literature and president of Clare Hall College at Cambridge. A renowned critic, she is particularly recognized for her works on the influence of science on literature (and vice versa), including Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1983) and Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter (1996). She has written extensively about both Eliot and Virginia Woolf. A Fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Literature, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1998, and has twice been a Booker Prize judge.

In a 2005 commentary on Beer’s work, Eve Patten, of Trinity College Dublin, wrote:

If, as C.P. Snow argued in 1959, literature and science have become two separate cultures, then it could be said that Gillian Beer’s primary achievement as an academic and writer has been to restore the links between them. Though she began her career as a theorist of the romance, a background which provided for insightful readings of Jane Austen and George Meredith, her driving interest has always been in the historical and cultural contexts of the English novel, and specifically, the relationship between literary narrative and modern scientific thought. In confronting the latter, she insists on an almost forensic attention to language. “We need to learn the terms of past preoccupations,” she argues, “to experience the pressure within words, now slack, of its anxieties and desires” (Arguing with the Past, 1989).

Beer’s commitment to pursuing the complex interface between scientific and imaginative worlds was the impetus for Darwin’s Plots (1983), her pioneering study of evolution as a theme of the nineteenth-century English novel. She launches this work with the suggestion that scientific theories themselves begin as forms of fiction; hypotheses which must then be absorbed not only by scientists but all the inhabitants of a culture. And in this process of absorption, the Victorian novel played a crucial role, filtering and redrafting the currency of Darwinian ideas for a general readership. Just as the author of The Origin of Species (1859) struggled to find language adequate to “a new story,” so did the key writers of the time—Charles Kingsley, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy—revise the terms, structures and devices of nineteenth-century realism in order to accommodate in their fiction the impact of Darwin’s revolutionary discoveries.

Photograph by Stu Rosner

Walter Kohn

Walter Kohn, Ph.D. ’48, Doctor of Science. Walter Kohn, professor of physics emeritus and research professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, shared the 1998 Nobel Prize in chemistry; he was recognized for developing “density-functional theory,” a fundamental discovery in understanding the electronic structure of atoms, molecules, and solids in physics and chemistry. His work has also had significant applications in the physics of semiconductors and superconductors. Kohn was founding director of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at UCSB. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and in 1988 was awarded the National Medal of Science.

In his Nobel autobiography, Kohn reflected both on the pleasures of his life in California and of the horrors of his childhood under Nazism:

…at age 75, I see my life which brought me to the present point: a long-retired professor of theoretical physics at the University of California, still loving and doing physics, including chemical physics, mostly together with young people less than half my age; moderately involved in the life of my community of Santa Barbara and in broader political and social issues; with unremarkable hobbies such as listening to classical music, reading (including French literature), walking with my wife Mara or alone, a little cooking (unjustifiably proud of my ratatouille); and a weekly half hour of relaxed roller blading along the shore, a throwback to the ice-skating of my Viennese childhood. My three daughters and three grandchildren all live in California and so we get to see each other reasonably often.…

My feelings towards Austria, my native land, are—and will remain—very painful. They are dominated by my vivid recollections of 1 1/2 years as a Jewish boy under the Austrian Nazi regime, and by the subsequent murder of my parents, Salomon and Gittel Kohn, of other relatives and several teachers, during the holocaust. At the same time I have in recent years been glad to work with Austrians, one or two generations younger than I: Physicists, some teachers at my former High School and young people (Gedenkdiener) who face the dark years of Austria’s past honestly and constructively.

He also reflected at length on the nourishing intellectual relationships he formed, during his doctoral studies at Harvard, with such giants in the field as J.H. Van Vleck, Julian Schwinger, Nicolaas Bloembergen, Thomas Kuhn, and others.

Photograph by Stu Rosner

Wendy Kopp

Wendy Kopp, Doctor of Laws. Wendy Kopp is founder and chief executive officer of Teach for America (TFA)—famously conceived as the subject of her senior thesis at Princeton in 1989. The organization, which recruits talented college graduates for two-year placements in schools in low-income communities, Peace Corps-style—as a hoped-for catalytic measure to enhance education, and to enlist future education leaders—has proven wildly popular: TFA is a leading destination of recent Harvard College graduates (nearly one-fifth of whom applied for placements in some recent years, the Crimson reports), and has attracted significant philanthropic, corporate, and government funding for its model of improving classrooms even where children come from very underprivileged backgrounds. More than 9,000 corps members are currently deployed. The organization is one of the destinations for practice placements for Harvard Graduate School of Education’s (HGSE) new doctor of education leadership (Ed.L.D.) candidates. Kopp talked about her organization and this new way of educating leaders when the Ed.L.D. program was launched in 2009:

“As we’ve engaged in this work over the past 20 years, we’ve seen that it is absolutely possible for kids in low-income communities to excel academically”—at the classroom level, school-wide, and even through entire school systems, demonstrating the “possibility of school-system-wide change.” At each of those levels, she said, “Ultimately, it turns out, it’s all about talent and leadership,” in classrooms, the principal’s office, and the superintendency. Throughout the education community, she continued, there is now widespread recognition of the “role of leadership in actually moving the needle against educational inequity.”

…“What’s the constraint to progress?” Kopp asked. “It’s all about a talent constraint,” as everyone working on educational improvement, from diverse perspectives, seeks “senior-level talent who have all the foundational skills.” The Ed.L.D. program, she said, “promises to provide one more stream of talent who do have deep grounding” not only in education but in “relationship-building skills” that have to be applied in the very complex setting of education reform.

Kopp is the author of two books: A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn’t in Providing an Excellent Education for All and One Day, All Children: The Unlikely Triumph of Teach for American and What I Learned Along the Way.

She recently spoke about Teach for America on campus (see the HGSE video recording) and addressed some criticisms of TFA’s model. Historian Diane Ravitch, among others, has argued that schools alone cannot overcome the effects of poverty; more broadly, some professional teachers and teachers’ organizations have objected that TFA corps members do not come properly prepared for their assignments, and that larger issues of resources and equity are obscured by the organization’s model—all issues involved in the larger, complex, and high-stakes effort to make American K-12 education work better for all. Whatever one’s perspective on those issues, Teach for America has become one of the leading players in focusing attention on education reform, and one of the largest sources of new personnel and resources engaging in the sector.

Photograph by Stu Rosner

John Lewis

John Lewis, Doctor of Laws. Congressman John Lewis, the son of sharecroppers, became active in the civil-rights movement as a student (he attended American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University), participating in sit-ins and the first Freedom Rides, and helped found and was subsequently elected leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1963. He helped plan and spoke during the March on Washington that year (where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech), declaring:

To those who have said, “Be patient and wait,” we must say that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually but we want to be free now.

We are tired. We are tired of being beat by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again, and then you holler, “Be patient.” How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now.

We do not want to go to jail, but we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace. I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until a revolution is complete. We must get in this revolution and complete the revolution. In the Delta of Mississippi, in Southwest Georgia, in the Black Belt of Alabama, in Harlem, in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and all over this nation the black masses are on a march for jobs and freedom.

They’re talking about slow down and stop. We will not stop.…But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today.

By the forces of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall send a desegregated South into a thousand pieces, put them together in the image of God and Democracy. We must say wake up America, wake up! For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.

On March 7, 1965, Lewis and Hosea Williams led marchers across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where they beaten by state troopers (Lewis’s skull was fractured)—an event that galvanized public opinion and passage of the Voting Rights Act. Lewis later helped enroll millions of minority voters. Under President Jimmy Carter, he directed the federal volunteer agency, ACTION. He was elected to the Atlanta City Council in 1981, and ran for Congress in 1986; he now represents Georgia’s fifth district, encompassing Atlanta and environs.

He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, and this spring will receive honorary degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, Brown, and the schools of law of the University of New Hampshire and the University of Connecticut, as well as Harvard.

In his new book, Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change (published May 15), Lewis wrote:

I understand the sense of helplessness and hopelessness that can surround a people who feel thwarted at every turn. I could not have been farther away from the halls of Congress or the chambers of the Supreme Court as a small boy in Alabama. Back then I could not choose my seat on a bus or sit down at a lunch counter to eat, and blacks certainty didn’t have the access to vote. No provision had been made for me and others like me to communicate the dictates of our conscience to the leadership of a nation. We had to build that road ourselves. We made a way out of no way to free ourselves from oppression and bring an American society one step closer to realizing its pledge: “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Photograph by Stu Rosner

Mario Molina

Mario Molina, Doctor of Science. Mario Molina, Distinguished Professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego, is an atmospheric scientist who shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry for fundamental work on the formation and decomposition of the ozone layer. Ozone plays a critical role in absorbing ultraviolet radiation, and therefore is fundamental to life on Earth. In 1974, Molina and co-laureate F. Sherwood Rowland published research in Nature demonstrating that manmade chlorofluorocarbon (CFCs) gases (used as aerosol propellants, as refrigerants, and as foaming agents in the making of plastics) could rise in the atmosphere and cause cataclysmic depletion of the ozone layer. Their work ultimately led to restrictions on CFC releases, and, after the 1985 discovery by other scientists of the drastic depletion of the polar ozone layer (the Antarctic “hole” in the ozone layer), an international ban on the use of CFCs and the introduction of substitutes. (Paul J. Crutzen was the third scientist honored with the Nobel in chemistry that year.)

At the time of the award, Molina was a faculty member at MIT. He relocated to UCSD, and the Center for Atmospheric Sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in 2004, joining one of his fellow Nobel laureates. He continues to investigate atmospheric chemical reactions and processes.

A native of Mexico City who has worked on air-pollution problems there and in other developing cities, Molina wrote in his Nobel autobiography:

I attended elementary school and high school in Mexico City. I was already fascinated by science before entering high school; I still remember my excitement when I first glanced at paramecia and amoebae through a rather primitive toy microscope. I then converted a bathroom, seldom used by the family, into a laboratory and spent hours playing with chemistry sets. With the help of an aunt, Esther Molina, who was a chemist, I continued with more challenging experiments along the lines of those carried out by freshman chemistry students in college. Keeping with our family tradition of sending their children abroad for a couple of years, and aware of my interest in chemistry, I was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland when I was 11 years old, on the assumption that German was an important language for a prospective chemist to learn. I remember I was thrilled to go to Europe, but then I was disappointed in that my European schoolmates had no more interest in science than my Mexican friends. I had already decided at that time to become a research chemist; earlier, I had seriously contemplated the possibility of pursuing a career in music—I used to play the violin in those days. In 1960, I enrolled in the chemical engineering program at UNAM [Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México], as this was then the closest way to become a physical chemist, taking math-oriented courses not available to chemistry majors.
After finishing my undergraduate studies in Mexico, I decided to obtain a Ph.D. degree in physical chemistry. This was not an easy task; although my training in chemical engineering was good, it was weak in mathematics, physics, as well as in various areas of basic physical chemistry—subjects such as quantum mechanics were totally alien to me in those days. At first I went to Germany and enrolled at the University of Freiburg. After spending nearly two years doing research in kinetics of polymerizations, I realized that I wanted to have time to study various basic subjects in order to broaden my background and to explore other research areas. Thus, I decided to seek admission to a graduate program in the United States. While pondering my future plans, I spent several months in Paris, where I was able to study mathematics on my own and I also had a wonderful time discussing all sorts of topics, ranging from politics, philosophy, to the arts, etc., with many good friends. Subsequently, I returned to Mexico as an Assistant Professor at the UNAM and I set up the first graduate program in chemical engineering. Finally, in 1968 I left for the University of California at Berkeley to pursue my graduate studies in physical chemistry.

Photograph by Stu Rosner

Fareed Zakaria

Fareed Zakaria, Ph.D. ’93, Doctor of Laws. Fareed Zakaria, whose doctoral dissertation (in government, under Samuel P. Huntington, Stanley Hoffmann, and Robert O. Keohane) was titled The Rise of a Great Power: National Strength, State Structure, and American Foreign Policy, 1865-1908, returns to Harvard as a writer, editor, and broadcast host immersed in contemporary foreign-policy issues and global affairs. He will be the principal speaker at the Afternoon Exercises, the annual meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association.

Zakaria is an editor-at-large of Time and a Washington Post columnist, following stints as editor of Newsweek International and managing editor of Foreign Affairs. He is author of The Post-American World (about the “rise of the rest,” including new powers such as China, India, and Brazil), The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, and From Wealth to Power: The Unusual Origins of America’s World Role. He hosts Fareed Zakaria GPS, a CNN international-affairs program. A native of India (to which Drew Faust made her first visit as Harvard president in January), Zakaria was an undergraduate at Yale (where he is now a fellow of its 19-member Corporation, the governing body) before pursuing graduate studies in government at Harvard. He was also the commencement speaker at Duke University earlier this month; there, he spoke optimistically about a world “at peace—profoundly at peace,” in which a “single global system” has been able to form for the first time, promoting prosperity on an unprecedented scale (the current recession in some regions notwithstanding).

Zakaria’s dissertation foreshadowed his interests since and, to a striking degree, anticipated the foremost change in global politics under way today, as China, India, and Brazil accumulate economic resources and political leverage. (For example, he cited, in 1993, China’s rising military prowess, very much in evidence today—though he also anticipated Japan’s projection of its economic strength, now much reversed.) Examining the question, “[U]nder what conditions do states expand their political interests abroad?” Zakaria began his introduction by asking:

What turns rich nations into “great powers”? What makes states that grow in power begin building large armies, acquiring global interests, and entangling themselves in world politics? What factors speed up or retard the translation of material resources into political influence? This study tries to answer such questions. While an exercise in international relations theory and history, however, it also has implications for current and future international politics. In the past, the most destabilizing regularity of international life has been the arrival of a new great power on the world scene. It was, in Thucydides’s famous phrase, “the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta,” that led to the Peloponnesian War over two thousand years ago. Since then almost every new addition to the ranks of the great power club has caused worldwide turbulence. E.H. Carr correctly identified this “problem of peaceful change” as the central dilemma of international relations.