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Harvard’s 2015 Honorary-degree Recipients


Back row from left: Robert Axelrod, Wallace S. Broecker, Denis Mukwege, Patricia A. Graham, Linda B. Buck, Bryan Stevenson, and Peter Salovey. Front row from left: Alan Garber, Renée Fleming, President Drew Faust, Deval L. Patrick, and Svetlana L. Alpers

Back row from left: Robert Axelrod, Wallace S. Broecker, Denis Mukwege, Patricia A. Graham, Linda B. Buck, Bryan Stevenson, and Peter Salovey. Front row from left: Alan Garber, Renée Fleming, President Drew Faust, Deval L. Patrick, and Svetlana L. Alpers

Photograph by Harvard Magazine/JC

During the morning exercises of the 364th Commencement, on May 28, Harvard planned to confer honorary degrees on six men and four women. Among them are:

Not to overlook what has become the trademark of President Drew Faust’s Commencement rites—the honorand-as-entertainer, who livens up the sleepy graduates-to-be during the Tercentenary Theatre proceedings—a famous opera singer, with crossover popular appeal, is also scheduled for a degree. Will there be a performance—in the tradition of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (2009), tenor Plácido Domingo (2011), poet Seamus Heaney reading his famous Harvard villanelle (2012), hugger extraordinaire Oprah (2013), and soul singer Aretha Franklin (2014)? Tune in to hear.

The honorands are listed below in alphabetical order, not in the order of conferral of degrees, except for Deval L. Patrick, who by custom, as guest speaker at the Afternoon Exercises, will receive his degree last during the Morning Exercises. For detail on the conferrals, check back for coverage of the morning ceremonies later today.

Svetlana Alpers, art historian, Doctor of Arts. A professor of history of art emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, where she was on the faculty from 1962 to 1992, Svetlana Alpers returns to familiar ground. She was born in Cambridge to Wassily Leontief (the 1973 Nobel laureate in economic sciences for developing input-output analysis, and a member of Harvard’s faculty from 1932 to 1975) and writer Estelle Marks. Alpers graduated from Radcliffe in 1957, and earned her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1965. (Her adviser was Seymour Slive, who was honored last year, two weeks before his death.)

Her Berkeley biography describes Alpers as an authority in “Dutch Golden Age painting, although she has also written on Tiepolo, Rubens, Breugel, and Velázquez, among others.” She is the author of many books, including: Rembrandt's Enterprise: The Studio and the Market; Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence; The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century; The Vexations of Art: Velázquez and Others; and The Making of Rubens.

The Dictionary of Art Historians identifies Alpers as an exponent of the “new art history,” and cites her as co-founder of the journal Representations. But Stanford, where she delivered a Presidential Lecture in the Humanities and Arts, described her work as “not easily categorized under any of the common methodological rubrics” of the new art history, and noted her pride in “her independence from scholarly fashion.” Pulling back from the intradisciplinary battles, a Washington Post journalist wrote of her work, simply, “For Alpers, you don't look through a picture to find meaning lurking underneath. You take in what it looks like and try to see how that jibes with what's happening in the world around the artist.”

Robert Axelrod, political scientist, Doctor of Laws. Robert Axelrod’s professorial title at the University of Michigan (Walgreen professor for the study of human understanding) and dual appointments (in the department of political science and the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy) suggest the power and reach of his scholarly work. A MacArthur Fellow and 2014 National Medal of Science honorand, and past president of the American Political Science Association, Axelrod is best known for interdisciplinary work on the evolution of cooperation—research that draws on game theory, moral philosophy, and evolutionary biology. His homepage says that work has been cited more than 30,000 times. A consultant to the U.S. Secretary of Defense, the United Nations, and the World Bank, he has worked on subjects ranging from complexity theory to cyber security.

Wallace S. Broecker, geologist and oceanographer, Doctor of Science. What role do oceans play in shaping and changing the climate? How can radiocarbon and isotope dating help measure past climate changes? Is there a global “conveyor belt” that links circulation in the planet’s oceans? These have been the scholarly preoccupations of geochemist Wallace S. Broecker, Newberry professor of geology in the department of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University and a scientist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

A National Medal of Science honorand (1996), Broecker is known for the originality and sweep of his ideas, as described in a 1998 New York Times profile. Even then, he speculated about the efficacy of geoengineering to counter global warming. (See Harvard Magazine’s “Buffering the Sun” for a recent perspective on such work under way at the University.) He is now focusing on processes for sequestering carbon released during the combustion of fossil fuels.

Environmentalists cite a 1975 Broecker paper for coining the term “global warming.” His homepage provides free access to PDF versions of his books, including The Glacial World According to Wally and Fossil Fuel CO2 and the Angry Climate Beast.

Linda B. Buck, molecular biologist and neuroscientist, Doctor of Science. Co-winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine (with Richard Axel) for the discovery of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system, Linda B. Buck is a full member of the basic sciences division at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Seattle, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

Illustrating her foundational work in the mechanisms of odor perception, her laboratory home page amusingly diagrams, as if on a blackboard, the chemical formulas associated with various scents, from vanilla and jasmine to “fishy.” A member of the Harvard Medical School faculty (as assistant, associate, and full professor of neurobiology) from 1991 to 2002—fruitful years detailed in her Nobel biographical note—she then relocated to Seattle, her home town. Buck and her colleagues have also explored how the mammalian brain translates as many as 10,000 detected chemicals into distinct smells, and how pheromones elicit hormonal changes and instinctive behaviors.

Renée Fleming, opera soprano, Doctor of Music. The American soprano Renée Fleming is internationally acclaimed for her performances of Strauss, Mozart, Handel, and many other classical masters and forms—and for venturing deep into realms of popular music as well, with recordings extending from the songs of Laura Nyro to covers of Jefferson Airplane. A 2013 National Medal of Arts honorand (and winner in the same year of the Grammy Award for best classical vocal solo—one of her four Grammys), she broke additional ground by singing the national anthem at the 2014 Super Bowl. According to her website, she has also sung at the 2008 Beijing Olympics; at Buckingham Palace for the Diamond Jubilee Concert for HM Queen Elizabeth II; and at the U.S. Supreme Court, where Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, L’59, LL.D. ’11, and Antonin Scalia are known to be opera buffs. She has also performed for movie soundtracks, and has appeared on Sesame Street and A Prairie Home Companion. As President Faust noted at the honorands' dinner Wednesday night, Fleming has also taught two "Learning from Performers" classes on campus in recent years—and, as a parent of a member of the class of 2014 (Amelia Ross), has her own sources of information on contemporary Harvard.

Patricia A. Graham, historian of education, Doctor of Laws. Patricia Albjerg Graham, Warren professor of the history of American education emerita, in 1981 was appointed dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Graham thus became the first woman head of a Harvard school (she had been dean of the Radcliffe Institute in the mid 1970s). A leading historian of American education, Graham followed her HGSE deanship (1982-1991) with service as president of the Spencer Foundation until 2000, directing one of the most important sources of funding for educational research. Her books include Progressive Education: From Arcady to Academe and Schooling America: How the Public Schools Meet the Nation’s Changing Needs.

Graham brought her historical perspective to bear as a participant in “Strengthening the Schools,” a 1999 Harvard Magazine roundtable, observing that reformers’ frustrations with contemporary educational institutions’ performance needed to take into account the new roles schools were being asked to perform:

What is being asked today is the most radical request that has ever been made of American schools in our century: to bring all our children to a high level of academic skills. The schools’ business in the past was to bring some fraction of children to a high level of skills—but certainly not all. Schools were seen instead as developing the work habits of the male population who would take the unskilled jobs…and to prepare American children to be citizens of what was then a rather novel form of democratic government.

…[W]hat is it we think these schools are supposed to be doing? Are they simply supposed to be assuring academic skills? I would argue they need to do a much better job of that than they are now. But what about those other activities in which they have historically engaged: generating the habits of being able to work in a democratic society—call that citizenship or whatever you want. If we focus exclusively on schools’ academic mission, then we lose their other mission. We have some real losses for our society.

Denis Mukwege, physician, Doctor of Science. In The New York Times’ s report on the European Parliament’s conferral of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought on Dr. Denis Mukwege, he is described as “a Congolese gynecological surgeon who has treated thousands of women and risked his life in a campaign to end the use of mass rape as a weapon of war.” That complicated phrase packs together the horrors of gang rape, the depredations of war in Mukwege’s country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and his own role as founder and medical director of Panzi Hospital, known worldwide for specializing in treatment of women victimized by sexual violence and frequently suffering severe injuries from gang rape—work for which he has himself been subjected to at least one assassination attempt. According to the Times, Susannah Sirkin of Physicians for Human Rights called Dr. Mukwege “a fierce advocate for peace and equality for women in his country.” Given recent horrific reports of Boko Haram’s systematic kidnapping, rape, and strategic impregnation of women and girls in northeastern Nigeria, the struggle to spread Mukwege’s message throughout Africa, and elsewhere, remains urgently important.

Peter Salovey, university president, Doctor of Laws. Peter Salovey, Argyris professor of psychology at Yale University, is widely recognized as a leading scholar of emotional intelligence. He has applied that expertise administratively, as dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, dean of Yale College, provost, and since July 2013, twenty-third president of Yale. A bassist, he is also a founding member of the band The Professors of Bluegrass (on the homepage of whose website Salovey’s luxuriant, pre-presidential mustache is clearly displayed), but his honor in Cambridge today presumably principally continues the tradition among Harvard, Yale, and Princeton of conferring degrees on the other institutions’ leaders. His education in higher education began early, apparently: he was born in Cambridge, President Faust observed.

Bryan Stevenson, J.D.-M.P.A. ’85, public-interest lawyer and professor of law, Doctor of Laws. Bryan A. Stevenson founded and is executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal-reform group focused on issues such as the sentencing and imprisonment of children as adults; the death penalty; sentencing reform; and race, poverty, and criminal justice. A MacArthur Fellow, he is also professor of clinical law at New York University. This is Stevenson's second graduation-week trip to the state: he keynoted the College of the Holy Cross's commencement on May 22.

Stevenson has made a practice of representing capital defendants and death-row prisoners in the southern United States—the subject, in part, of his recent book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. In an interview about the book, he succinctly described the subject of his work this way:

I think the criminal justice system has done things to children, the disabled, innocent people and others that are cruel, abusive, unjust and irresponsible. These things were done in our names on behalf of ordinary citizens. When we condemn an innocent person to spend decades on death row or put a 14-year-old in an adult facility where he will be assaulted and tormented, we are all implicated. I make this point because I think too many people are indifferent to what happens in our jails and prisons. I also think that every human being falters sometime; no one is perfect. Our mistakes require the mercy and understanding of others, which we can't legitimately expect unless we offer the same to others.

Photograph by Jon Chase/HPAC Communications

Deval L. Patrick

The Honorable Deval L. Patrick, former governor of Massachusetts, Doctor of Laws. A native of Chicago and a graduate of Harvard College (1978) and Harvard Law School (1982), Deval L. Patrick worked for the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund; as a partner in a law firm; and as assistant attorney general of civil rights, under President Bill Clinton. He subsequently served as a corporate counsel for Texaco and Coca-Cola, before being elected governor of Massachusetts in 2006. He was re-elected to a second term in 2010, and concluded his service earlier this year. He is now organizing a social-investment fund for Bain Capital. The former governor is scheduled to be honored again tomorrow, at the University of Massachusetts Boston graduation exercises.

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