Campus & Community

Sen. Edward Kennedy to receive honorary degree at December convocation

4 min read

Sen. Edward Kennedy will receive an honorary degree from Harvard on Dec. 1 in a special convocation at Sanders Theatre.

The honor is in recognition of Kennedy’s lifelong commitment to public service and his tireless efforts as a champion for a range of social issues including health care, civil rights, labor, employment, the environment, and education.

Kennedy joins an elite group of individuals who have received their honorary degrees at special convocations. Past such honorees include Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and James Monroe.

Kennedy was initially scheduled to receive the degree at last year’s Harvard Commencement ceremonies, but he was unable to attend because of illness. The senator has been receiving treatment for a malignant brain tumor that was diagnosed in May.

“This kind of an event is rarely done,” said University Marshal Jackie O’Neill, whose office is organizing the celebration. “Senator Kennedy has contributed over the course of his almost half century of service in the U.S. Senate to virtually every major public policy debate, and his influence has transformed individual lives and institutions in the Commonwealth and around the globe. People have been very enthusiastic about the idea that Harvard is giving one of its graduates this kind of recognition.”

The afternoon convocation will feature a program of speakers and musical performances by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Harvard students. Speakers will include Harvard President Drew Faust and U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, who worked closely with the senator as chief counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary in the 1970s when Kennedy was its chairman.

Tickets to the convocation will be distributed through a lottery system that begins Thursday, Nov. 13, and will remain open until noon on Nov. 20. Those interested in gaining access to the convocation can visit to apply for the lottery. Winners will be notified the evening of the 20th. Tickets can be picked up the day of the event from noon until 3:45 p.m. at Sanders Theatre.

Kennedy has served in the U.S. Senate for more than four decades. He has been a tireless advocate of the poor, powerless, and disenfranchised. From the beginning of his tenure in the Senate, Kennedy has fought for the right of every American to affordable, quality health care. His efforts on behalf of working families led to the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1994. He has worked on a broad array of domestic initiatives, including assisting the disabled, securing civil rights, fighting for cleaner air and water, and securing the safety of U.S. soldiers in harm’s way. Major recent legislative initiatives he has co-sponsored or helped pass include the Minority Health and Health Disparities Research and Education Act (2000), the landmark No Child Left Behind Act (2001), the bipartisan Bioterrorism Preparedness Act (2002), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (adopted in 1975, amended in 2004), and, in 2006, the Family Opportunity Act, providing states the opportunity to expand Medicaid coverage to children with special needs and enabling low- and middle-income families with disabled children to purchase coverage under Medicaid.

A champion of education reform, Kennedy has been equally committed to both early education and higher learning. He has supported No Child Left Behind and led the fight to make a college education affordable and accessible, advocating for expanded student loans and grants programs to bring down the cost of tuition. Over the years, Kennedy has become known as much for his dedication to liberal ideals as his ability to work with members of the opposing party to successfully enact legislation. He helped create the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School and continues to be involved in the Institute’s oversight.

Kennedy was born on Feb. 22, 1932, in Boston, Mass., to a prominent political family. The youngest of nine children, he attended Milton Academy and studied government at Harvard, where he resided at Winthrop House. While in college he also distinguished himself on the football field as a member of the Harvard team.