Six men and three women received honorary degrees at this morning’s 356th Commencement Exercises. Biographical sketches of the honorands appear below.
Doctor of Letters
Harvard established its doctoral program in the history of American civilization in 1937. In 1943, Daniel Aaron became the first student in that program to earn a degree.
During the 70 years he has spent in academia, Aaron has made his mark as a pioneering scholar of American literature, history, and culture and as the author of such indispensable texts as “Men of Good Hope: A Story of American Progressives,” “The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War,” and “Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism.” This year, he published “The Americanist,” a memoir of his life as a teacher and scholar, and his experiences in both public and private life.
One of Aaron’s most ambitious projects was the editing of the 155-volume, 10 million-word diary of Arthur Crew Inman (1895-1963), a wealthy, eccentric Bostonian who sought immortality by maintaining an intimate, full-disclosure record of his life and times. Reducing Inman’s diary to manageable size took Aaron seven years.
Hired for the job by Inman’s estate, Aaron was at first repelled by the diarist’s racism, bigotry, extreme right-wing politics, and obsessive self-absorption, but he kept on, convinced of the historical significance of the document and impressed by Inman’s powers of observation. The work was finally published in two volumes: “The Inman Diary: A Public and Private Confession” and “From a Darkened Room: The Inman Diary.”
In 1978, Aaron helped found The Library of America, a project modeled on the Pléiade series of France, devoted to preserving America’s cultural heritage by publishing its best and most significant writing in durable and authoritative editions. He served as the president of the organization from 1978 to 1985.
Born in Chicago in 1912, Aaron earned an A.B. degree from the University of Michigan before coming to Harvard to study with such renowned scholars as Howard Mumford Jones and Arthur Schlesinger Sr. He taught at Smith College from 1939 to 1971, then became professor of English at Harvard until his retirement in 1983. He is now the Victor S. Thomas Professor of English and American Literature Emeritus.
He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Science, the American Council of Learned Societies, the editorial board of the Journal of American Studies, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is also a fellow of the Society of American Historians.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Doctor of Science
Astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell has looked at the far reaches of space with telescopes sent aloft on balloons, launched on rockets, and carried on high by satellites. She also built a radio telescope on the ground in Cambridgeshire, U.K., and walked 14,000 feet uphill to use infrared and millimeter wavelength telescopes in Hawaii. The results involved her in the discovery of pulsars, regular pulses of radio energy at first thought to be messages from extraterrestrials. They turned out to be the rapidly spinning remains of supernovae explosions.
A peripatetic career took her to the University of Southampton, where she looked at the heavens in the “light” of gamma rays, University College London, where she viewed them through the windows of X-rays, and the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she saw what the skies are like when seen in the infrared frequencies. Later, Burnell managed the Royal Observatory’s Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii, a facility for astronomers in British, Canadian, and Dutch universities.
“I have chaired, served on, or serviced more Research Council boards, committees, and panels than I wish to remember,” she says, “and I also chaired a European Community Committee.” In addition, Burnell has served as president of the Royal Astronomical Society.
After three years as dean of science at the University of Bath, Burnell “retired” in 2004. She is now a visiting professor at the University of Oxford and a professional fellow at Mansfield College, Oxford.
The United Kingdom and the United States have awarded her the Oppenheimer prize, the Michelson medal, the Magellanic Premium, and the Herschel medal. Universities in both nations conferred honorary doctorates on her. She was elected a Foreign Associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2005.
Public appreciation and understanding of science have always been important to Burnell, and she is much in demand as a speaker. In 1999, she toured Australia where she gave a lecture on women in physics. “My appointment to the Open University, where I was a professor of physics for 10 years, doubled the number of [female] physics professors in the U.K.,” Burnell said. “Now, I hope that my presence as a senior woman in science will encourage more women to consider a career in science.”
William H. Gates III
Doctor of Laws
William (Bill) Gates is the chairman of Microsoft, the world’s largest maker of computer software. In 2000 he and his wife Melinda French Gates created the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, devoted to enhancing education and fighting hunger, poverty, and disease.
Born in Seattle in 1955, Gates showed an early interest in math and science, and as a student at Lakeside School he taught himself computer programming. By the time he arrived at Harvard as a freshman in 1973, he and his fellow computer devotees at Lakeside had already founded several for-profit companies and sold their programming services to a number of clients.
While at Harvard College, Gates pursued his passion for computer programming and came to know his classmate and future business partner Steven Ballmer. As an undergraduate, he teamed with his childhood friend Paul Allen to develop a version of the programming language BASIC for the first microcomputer, the MITS Altair. Gates left Harvard during his junior year to devote himself to building Microsoft, the company he and Allen founded in 1975.
Gates served as the company’s chief executive officer until 2000 and is currently its chairman and chief software architect. As of July 2008, Gates intends to relinquish his day-to-day role at Microsoft to spend more time at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He will remain as Microsoft’s chairman.
With an endowment of more than $30 billion, the Gates Foundation is the world’s largest philanthropic foundation. The foundation currently makes grants totaling more than $1.5 billion a year. In recent years, the Gates Foundation has devoted a growing share of its grants to promoting global health, with particular emphasis on combating malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS in the developing world. It also supports major initiatives to alleviate global poverty and hunger. In addition, the foundation works in partnership with organizations across the United States to enhance both the quality of high school education and the availability of learning opportunities for preschool children.
Gates is the author of two best-selling books, “The Road Ahead” (1995) and “Business @ the Speed of Thought” (1999). He has donated the proceeds of both books to nonprofit organizations that support the use of technology in education and skills development.
Conrad K. Harper
Doctor of Laws
Conrad K. Harper, a 1965 graduate of Harvard Law School and former legal adviser for the U.S. State Department, served as a member of the Harvard Corporation from 2000 to 2005.
On Harvard’s highest governing board, Harper was a member and chair of the University’s Advisory Committee on Honorary Degrees and a member of both the Corporation Committee on shareholder responsibility and the governing boards’ Joint Committee on Appointments.
Harper received his undergraduate degree from Howard University in 1962 before going to Harvard Law School. He worked at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York from 1965 to 1970. From 1971 to 1993 he served as an associate and then a partner at the New York law firm of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP.
From 1993 to 1996, he served as a legal adviser for the U.S. Department of State and, from 1993 to 1996 and from 1998 to 2004, as a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. He returned to Simpson Thacher & Bartlett in 1996 and became of counsel in 2003.
He has served as an officer or on the board of numerous professional and nonprofit organizations, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation, the American Philosophical Society, the Greenwall Foundation, the New York Public Library, the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Episcopal Diocese of New York, and the Academy of Political Science. He is a fellow or a member of the American College of Trial Lawyers, the Council of the American Law Institute, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
William Felton ‘Bill’ Russell
Doctor of Laws
One way to define “winning” is to look at basketball legend Bill Russell.
He was with the Boston Celtics for 11 championships in 13 seasons — eight of them in a row, the longest winning streak in U.S. professional sports history. Add in high school and collegiate play, and Russell was part of championship teams in 18 of 21 years on the court.
In one 13-month period, he became the only athlete ever to win back-to-back college championships (USF, 1955 and 1956), an Olympic Gold Medal (the Melbourne games, 1956), and a National Basketball Association championship (1956-57, his first season with the Celtics).
In 13 years of professional play, Russell was a five-time NBA Most Valuable Player (a record only matched by Michael Jordan) and a 12-time NBA All Star. His famous on-court rivalry with Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain provided the game’s longest-running drama. By the end, Russell was credited with revolutionizing basketball by elevating defensive play in a game dominated until then by offensive playmakers and shooting stars.
Russell’s playing days ended almost four decades ago, but he has stayed in the winning column as an author (three bestsellers) and as an advocate for civil rights, equality, and diversity. He works on the motivational speechmaking circuit, and is a member of the board of directors for the National Mentoring Partnership.
The 6-foot-9-inch Louisiana native was the first black superstar of basketball, and later the first black man to be a head coach in the NBA. During the 1960s, he was the first professional athlete to march with Martin Luther King Jr.
Russell’s family moved to Oakland, Calif., when he was 9 to escape the racism of the Deep South. But racial taunts marred both his collegiate and professional careers, setting the stage for his lifelong commitment to tolerance and equal rights.
Joan Wallach Scott
Doctor of Laws
Labor historian and feminist Joan W. Scott is credited with challenging the way history is written and researched. Her 1986 article in the American Historical Review, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” is still cited as the inspiration for including gender history as a field.
Scott said in a recent interview that, as both a feminist and a historian, “my interest is in the operations of power — how it is constructed, what its effects are, how it changes.”
Scott’s early forays into writing history looked at 19th century French craftsmen and their role in political action. Her latest book, out this year, is “The Politics of the Veil: Banning Islamic Headscarves in French Public Schools” (Princeton University Press).
Scott’s books are widely reprinted and have been translated into many languages. She has also edited nine books and written numerous articles. Recurring themes include feminist theory, intellectual history, the history of women, and gender and politics.
Scott earned a B.A. from Brandeis University in 1962, and went on to do both an M.S. and a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin. Since 1985, she has taught at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., where today she is Harold F. Linder Professor of Social Science.
Scott is a longtime member of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). As chair of AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (1999 to 2005), she was embroiled in debates over political correctness, rising numbers of adjunct faculty, and — following the Sept. 11 attacks — what Scott said were growing anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiments in university settings.
She holds honorary degrees from the State University of New York, Stony Brook; Brown University; the University of Bergen in Norway; and John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Doctor of Letters
Robert Silvers is editor of The New York Review of Books, which he helped found in 1963 during the historic New York newspaper strike. The magazine grew from a conviction shared by Silvers and a small group of friends that a need existed for a publication that would review books with passion and intellectual rigor. The magazine flourished, due in part to the extraordinary writers whom Silvers and his co-editor Barbara Epstein (who died in July 2006) recruited as contributors — a group that included Robert Lowell, William Styron, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Elizabeth Hardwick, Dwight Macdonald, V.S. Naipal, and Mary McCarthy, to name only a few. Unashamedly liberal in its outlook, committed to in-depth reportage and analysis of current issues and events, the magazine continues to be an indispensable forum for literary, cultural, and political debate.
Born in Mineola, N.Y., in 1929, Silvers graduated from the University of Chicago in 1947. In 1950, he became press secretary to Chester Bowles, then governor of Connecticut. After Bowles left office, Silvers was drafted into the United States Army and served at NATO headquarters in Paris. While there he met George Plimpton, one of the founders of The Paris Review, who hired Silvers as the literary journal’s managing editor. Returning to New York in 1958, Silvers became an editor at Harpers magazine.
Silvers is a trustee of the New York Public Library and a member of the board of the American Academy in Rome. He is a Chevalier of the French Légion d’honneur, a member of the French Ordre National du Mérite, and was, in 2006, given the National Book Award for outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.
Silvers has edited several essay collections, including “Writing in America,” “Hidden Histories of Science,” “The First Anthology: Thirty Years of the New York Review,” “India: A Mosaic,” “Striking Terror: America’s New War,” and “The Company They Kept: Writers on Unforgettable Friendships.”
Lawrence H. Summers
Doctor of Laws
Lawrence H. Summers is president emeritus of Harvard University and Charles W. Eliot University Professor.
Summers, who served as Harvard’s president from 2001 until 2006, was U.S. Treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton from 1999 to 2000.
He received a bachelor’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1975 and first came to Harvard as a doctoral student in economics. He received his doctorate in 1982 and returned to Harvard in 1983 as a professor of economics, one of the youngest people in recent history to be named a tenured professor at the University.
In 1987, Summers was named Nathaniel Ropes Professor of Political Economy. That same year, Summers became the first social scientist to receive the National Science Foundation’s Alan T. Waterman Award, which honors an exceptional young U.S. scientist or engineer whose work demonstrates originality, innovation, and a significant impact on one’s field. In 1993, Summers was awarded the John Bates Clark Medal, given every two years to an outstanding American economist under age 40.
In 1991, Summers took a leave from Harvard to become vice president of development economics and chief economist at the World Bank. He played a key role in designing strategies to help developing countries. His research featured an influential report demonstrating the high return on investing in girls’ education in developing countries.
Summers was named undersecretary of the Treasury for international affairs in 1993 under Secretary Lloyd Bentsen. Summers was named deputy secretary of the Treasury by Secretary Robert Rubin in 1995. While deputy secretary, Summers worked with Rubin and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan to craft policy responses to major financial crises in developing countries.
He was confirmed as Treasury secretary on July 2, 1999, and served as principal economic adviser to President Bill Clinton and chief financial officer of the U.S. government. He helped engineer the pay-down of the U.S. debt, worked to extend the life of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, and led the effort to enact sweeping financial deregulation. At the end of his term, Summers was awarded the department’s highest honor, the Alexander Hamilton Medal.
As Harvard’s president, Summers worked to lay a foundation for the future, overseeing groundwork for the development in Allston, emphasizing the importance of international experience as part of a Harvard education, and working to improve access to Harvard for qualified students regardless of their means.
Karen K. Uhlenbeck
Doctor of Science
Karen K. Uhlenbeck is professor and Sid W. Richardson Foundation Regents Chair in Mathematics at the University of Texas, Austin. Since receiving her Ph.D. from Brandeis University in 1968, she has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Illinois; and the University of Chicago. She has held visiting appointments at Harvard University; IHES in France; the University of California, San Diego; the Max Planck Institute; the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute; Northwestern University; and the Institute of Advanced Studies (Princeton).
Uhlenbeck has been a Sloan Foundation Fellow (1974-76) and a MacArthur Prize Fellow (1983-88). Her memberships include the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1985) and the National Academy of Sciences (1986). She won the National Medal of Science in 2000 and received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2001.
Uhlenbeck has written extensively in the areas of gauge field theory and geometric calculus of variations. Her current research interests are in integrable systems and geometric evolution equations.
She is interested in recruiting more women into mathematics. This has involved her with the Institute of Advanced Studies/Park City Mathematics Institute and the Institute of Advanced Studies Mentoring Program for Women in Mathematics. Among other programs, Uhlenbeck served as distinguished visiting scholar, Women in Science Project, Indiana University. She has given invited lectures in Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, England, France, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, and Sweden.