Campus & Community

Poetry, argument, ritual mark PBK ceremony

7 min read

Just after 10 Tuesday morning (June 5), crowds of Harvard seniors in black cap and gown gathered outside Harvard Hall. Family and gowned faculty mixed in, and cameras were soon clicking portraits against backdrops of tree and lawn and brick. The rain held off.

All were gathered for the march of a lifetime — the procession of Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa honorees.

“It’s exciting, and it’s a bit sad,” said Rowan W. Dorin ’07, an Adams House history concentrator, who was one of the two winners of this year’s Fay Prize. “I don’t want to leave this place yet.”

A whistle sounded, and Dorin — from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada — joined a long procession headed for Sanders Theatre, falling into place behind fife and drum players.

Dorin’s mother, Karen Lynch, strolled ahead of the music and the marchers to get a good seat for visiting family. “A lot of people helped him get here, from the day he was born,” she said of her son. Nearby was Fred Lynch, Dorin’s grandfather, “who sold gravel for 50 years, driving up and down highways” in western Canada, said Karen Lynch.

The elder Lynch, tall and quiet, and wearing a brown golf cap, called the ceremonies overwhelming. “It’s all kind of foreign to us,” he said.

The Phi Beta Kappa Literary Exercises have been a graduation tradition at Harvard since the 18th century — now held Tuesday during Commencement Week. (The Harvard Phi Beta Kappa chapter, Alpha Iota, dates to 1779, and is the nation’s longest continually running chapter of the honor society.)

Free and open to the public, the exercises traditionally feature an address by an orator and a reading by a poet.

Doing the poetic honors this year was C.D. (Carolyn D.) Wright, an Arkansas-born poet now teaching at Brown University. She won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2004, was inducted in 2005 into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and has written nearly a dozen books — along with two state literary maps, one of her native Arkansas, and one of Rhode Island.

Wright’s first compliments were to the parents and family gathered in Sanders. “The brain doesn’t fall far from the tree,” she said.

As tradition holds, Wright read a poem written just for the occasion. “Like Something Christenberry Pictured” was a poem of longing and looking back. “Ah, the flesh flashes and passes,” she read.

The orator was New Zealand-born Jeremy Waldron, who studied at Oxford, and is a professor of law and philosophy at New York University. He’s an opponent of legal arguments in favor of coercive interrogation, and a critic of the American practice of judicial review, which he believes runs counter to democratic principles.

“First,” he said at the podium, “I’ll take off this preposterous hat,” referring to the tri-cornered number he wore with his bright red academic robes.

In a long oration, “The Rule of Law and Foreign Law in Our Supreme Court,” Waldron cautioned Americans to ease gracefully into using foreign law and precedents in making judicial decisions. It’s a growing necessity, he said, for civilized nations to share norms related to civil rights.

“It’s not an argument in making foreign law binding on us,” said Waldron of employing legal precedents from outside the United States. It’s simply a sign, he said, that all nations “are stewards of a broader human rights regime.”

Both Wright and Waldron were among six recipients of honorary memberships in Phi Beta Kappa. The others were molecular biologist Jonathan Beckwith ’57, the American Cancer Society Research Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Harvard Medical School, whose 1969 breakthrough work helped unlock the human genome; U.S. Foreign Service veteran and author Judith M. Heimann ’57; sociologist Stanley Lieberson, now retired, who was the Abbott Lawrence Lowell Professor of Sociology at Harvard; and journalist Victor K. McElheny ’57, who capped his science writing career to become director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before retiring to write books.

Three Phi Beta Kappa teaching prizes are awarded every year to members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences nominated by undergraduate members of the Harvard chapter. This year’s winners are David A. Evans, a celebrated teacher of synthetic organic chemistry; history of psychiatry specialist Anne Harrington, College Professor and professor for the history of science; and literary scholar Helen Vendler, the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor.

Handing out the prizes, and making brief remarks, was Howard Georgi, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics, himself a 2002 teaching prize recipient. “To make a lasting impression on any of these students,” he said, “is itself a prize.”

Gorgeous musical interludes during the 90-minute ceremony were provided by the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, whose singers were arrayed on stage behind the speakers and honored guests (who included Harvard’s interim president, Derek Bok).

They performed two anthems, “Sanctus” and “Munus” (whose Latin sentiments included “A heart warmed by love always has what it loves”).

Both invocation and benediction were offered by Chaplain Preston Williams, who in the end called the ceremony “a feast of reason.”

In Harvard’s Class of 2007, there are 163 Phi Beta Kappa recipients — or about 10 percent of graduating seniors.

There are 270 Phi Beta Kappa chapters, and about a half a million living members. Among Harvard’s notable holders of the key are John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Learned Hand, Walter Lippmann, Daniel Boorstin, Henry Kissinger, John Updike, David Souter, Michael Crichton, Ellen Goodman, John Roberts, and Nicholas Kristof.

Officers of the Harvard College Phi Beta Kappa chapter are Judith E. Vichniac, director of the Radcliffe Institute Fellowship Program at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study (president) — who moderated the ceremonies; Howard Georgi, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics (vice president); Leslie Crane Slavin, an attorney with the firm Lourie and Cutler P.C. (treasurer); and James F. Coakley, senior lecturer on Near Eastern languages and civilizations and manuscript cataloger at Houghton Library (secretary).

Phi Beta Kappa elects 91 to chapter

Ninety-one seniors from the Class of 2007 were elected to the Harvard College chapter of Phi Beta Kappa (PBK) on May 10.

Adams House: Alexa Jackson Bush, Angela Marie Gordon, Kelly Whelan Heuer, Leticia Mercedes Landa, Francesca Marcella Mari, Abraham Mohammad Othman, Joshua Patashnik, Joshua Clay, Adam Ehrlich Sachs, Daniel Weihen Tsai, Richard Christopher Yetter, David Zhou

Cabot House: Daniel Anthony Gardiner, Kathy Kar-Yee Miu, Justin Scott Murray, Dmitri Serguei Pavlichin, Yekaterina Savchuk, Snezhana Blagoeva Zlatinova

Currier House: Glenda Melinda Aldana, Kafui Esi Gbewonyo, Jeremy Fine Hartman, Emily Waters Hogeland, Arielle Dena Kagan, Jonathan C. Liu, David Wells Staudt

Dudley House: Michael Hays Sanchez

Eliot House: Samia Siyar Farooqi, Stephen Michael Fee, Eric Studebaker Fish, Sarah Rachel Heilbronner, Lauren Elizabeth Tulp, Sihai Dave Zhao

Kirkland House: David Alan Garner, Kyungmin Lee, Vivek Ganapathy Ramaswamy, Igor Andreevich Rapinchuk, Siddhartha Sinha, Susan Elizabeth Skoda, Sonali Dalal Talsania, Yao Yu, YiDing Yu

Leverett House: Ross Michael Audet, Mary Kamal Farag, Brian Prescott Fiske, Tiffany Hung, Robert Samuel Rogers, Emily Turner Simon, Benjamin Tseng, Sarah Jordan Watson, Ruo Peng Zhu

Lowell House: Baillie Frances Aaron, Nicholas John Boylston, Paul Augustus Broyles, Aline Rhafaella Flodr, Taylor Hathaway-Zepeda, Donna Emily Ivry, Simon Nathan Nicholas, Elina Tetelbaum, Ryan Richard Thoreson, Alexander Greenberg Wolitzky

Mather House: Gregory Nathan Price, Michael Steven Rooney, Richard Barry Solash, Benjamin Falco Tarnoff, Yan Zhang

Pforzheimer House: Joshua Sean Bolian, Laurence Hiley Smith Coderre, Anthony Paul Domestico, Brad David Feldman, Andrew Douglas Sternlight, Lauren Michelle Wolchok

Quincy House: Vadim Albinsky, Benjamin James Conlee, Russell Lawrence Grane, Allison Castles Keavey, Mark Israel Lipson, Xin Wei Ngiam, Yung Hwei Adrian Ow, Pablo Bernard Sison Torre, Colin Stephen Twomey, Elana Sarah Tykocinski

Winthrop House: Edouard Scott Coakley, Leanne Cecelia Gaffney, Blake Masashi Kurisu, Kristin Tin-Wai Lee, Janine Hayley Mandel, Dobromir Asenov Rahnev, Ravi P. Ramchandani, Thorold Wieger Theunissen, Lindsay Kathleen Turner, Shi Ming Wong