Campus & Community

Ten honorary degrees awarded at Commencement

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Harvard University has conferred today (June 4) honorary degrees on 10 outstanding individuals: Energy Secretary Steven Chu, filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, author Joan Didion, religious historian Wendy Doniger, legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, immunologist Anthony S. Fauci, anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, engineer Robert Langer, musician Wynton Marsalis, and political scientist Sidney Verba.


Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate and strong advocate for alternative energy sources, was sworn in as the nation’s 12th energy secretary on Jan. 21.

Chu won the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics with William Phillips and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji for figuring out how to use laser beams and extreme cold to freeze single atoms in their tracks, allowing them to be studied in great detail.

Chu’s appointment was confirmed unanimously by the Senate. In announcing his appointment in December, President Barack Obama said, “The future of our economy and national security is inextricably linked to one challenge: energy. … Steven has blazed many new trails as a scientist, teacher, and administrator, and has recently led the Berkeley National Laboratory in pursuit of new alternative and renewable energies. He is uniquely suited to be our next secretary of energy as we make this pursuit a guiding purpose of the Department of Energy, as well as a national mission.”

In addition to receiving an honorary degree, Chu will be Harvard’s Commencement speaker during the Afternoon Exercises at Tercentenary Theatre. Chu has dedicated much of his recent career to developing new energy sources and stopping global climate change. He is charged with implementing Obama’s agenda to invest in alternative and renewable energy, end the U.S. addiction to foreign oil, address the global climate crisis, and create millions of new jobs.

Before his appointment, Chu was director of the Department of Energy’s Berkeley National Laboratory and professor of physics and molecular and cellular biology at the University of California.

Before his Berkeley post, Chu was a professor at Stanford University and, prior to that, a scientist at AT&T Bell Laboratories. His research into atomic physics, quantum electronics, and biophysics includes tests of fundamental theories in physics, the development of methods to laser cool and trap atoms, atom interferometry, and the manipulation and study of polymers and biological systems at the single-molecule level.

He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Academica Sinica, the Korean Academy of Sciences and Technology, and numerous other civic and professional organizations. He received a bachelor’s degree in math and physics from the University of Rochester and a doctorate in physics from the University of California, Berkeley. He has received honorary degrees from 10 universities.


Love, desire, sexuality, and gender have recurring starring roles in the films of the renowned Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, the creator of sometimes sensational, often controversial works involving complex narratives, such as “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” (1989) and “Talk to Her” (2001), winner of the 2002 Academy Award for best original screenplay.

Born in a small rural town in the province of Castille-La Mancha, Almodóvar moved with his family to the city of Cáceres in western Spain when he was a young boy. He left home at the age of 17 for Madrid, intent on learning how to make movies, but his education in film was hardly an academic one. In 1967, his keen interest in filmmaking coincided with Spanish fascist dictator Francisco Franco’s decision to close down the National School of Cinema. As a result, Almodóvar was largely self-taught.

To support himself, the future filmmaker worked for the phone company for more than a decade. The experience proved fruitful: By day he became familiar with the inner workings of the Spanish middle class, what would ultimately become the subject of many of his future films. By night, he was able to work on his craft.

In the 1970s, Almodóvar’s interest in experimental cinema and theater led to a collaboration with the theater group Los Goliardos, where he met actress Carmen Maura, who would eventually star in many of his film projects, including his first feature-length work, the low-budget “Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap” (1980). During that time, he also contributed to a number of underground magazines and was part of a punk rock band.

In 1986 he formed the production company El Deseo with his brother Augustín. Two years later, Almodóvar found international fame with his film “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”

For several years, Almodóvar has worked with his “muse,” Spanish film star Penelope Cruz. The pair has collaborated on a number of productions including the 2006 film “Volver,” which earned Cruz an Academy Award nomination for best actress. Many of Almodóvar’s films include strong, robust female characters, homage, the director has said, to the influential women in his own life.

In 2000, Almodóvar took home the Oscar for best foreign film for his production “All About My Mother.”


Author, playwright, essayist, and journalist Joan Didion was fascinated with words from an early age. As a child, books were a solace for this Army officer’s shy daughter who found it difficult to adjust to the constant moves required for her father’s job.

Didion graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in English in 1956. Her senior year she won an essay competition sponsored by Vogue and a job at the magazine’s Manhattan office. At the fashion publication for eight years, Didion worked her way up from research assistant to associate features editor.

Her literary career is marked in part by her unique journalistic style, a personalized approach, often labeled “New Journalism” and frequently associated with authors Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, among others. The technique, employed by Didion with great success in essays like her first collection “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” published in 1968 and chronicling the counterculture of the 1960s, often uses tools from literary fiction to craft engaging works of nonfiction. Her essay topics often include politics, the media, and pop culture.

Didion’s works of fiction include “Run River,” “A Book of Common Prayer,” and “The Last Thing He Wanted.” She has also written several works of nonfiction including “Miami” and “Where I Was From.” She is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker.

Most recently, Didion’s career has been linked to the sudden death of her husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne, who died of a heart attack in 2003. Didion, married to Dunne since 1964 and with whom she was a frequent collaborator, wrote a moving account of her struggle to cope with her grief after his death in her best-selling “A Year of Magical Thinking.” Tragically, less than two years later, in 2005, Didion lost her only child, her adopted daughter Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, to illness.

She is a member of the Academy of Arts & Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and The Berkeley Fellows. She has received the 2002 George Polk Book Award, the 2005 American Academy of Arts & Letters Gold Medal in Criticism & Belles Lettres, the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction, and the 2007 National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.


Wendy Doniger ’62, M.A. ’63, Ph.D. ’68 — a professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago — has been called “the greatest living mythologist.” She is a scholar of Hindu religious traditions as well as an editor, translator, novelist, and memoirist. Doniger — who receives her sixth honorary degree today (June 4) — holds a second doctorate, also in Sanskrit and Indian Studies, from the University of Oxford.

Her scholarship is highly visible because of her attention to the erotic in Indian religious and cultural traditions. The title of her Harvard doctoral dissertation was “Asceticism and Sexuality in the Mythology of Siva,” one of the first structuralist studies of early and medieval Hindu mythology and the subject of her first book.

Doniger has written nearly 300 academic papers and is the author of more than 30 books. Among them are “Tales of Sex and Violence” (1985), “Splitting the Difference” (1999), “The Bedtrick” (2000), and a new translation of the storied “Kamasutra” (2001). Published in March was “The Hindus: An Alternative History.” In press is “Hinduism,” for the Norton Anthology of World Religions (2011). In progress are two additional works: a novel, “Horses for Lovers, Dogs for Husbands”; and a memoir, “The Late Rita Doniger.”

Doniger has held academic appointments at Harvard College, Oxford University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Chicago, where she has taught since 1986. Her courses often address the cross-cultural durability of key themes in mythology, including death, dreams, evil, horses, sex, and women.

Doniger was born in New York City in 1940; studied dance under both Martha Graham and George Balanchine (at the School of American Ballet) while still in high school; and in 1962 graduated from Radcliffe summa cum laude. In 1986, Doniger was awarded the Radcliffe Medal for her “wit, charm, and insight” as a scholar.

Among her affiliations are the American Academy of Religion, the Association for Asian Studies, and the American Association for the Study of Religion. She is currently on the editorial boards for “Encyclopedia Britannica,” “Daedalus,” “History of Religions,” the “International Journal of Hindu Studies,” and the “Journal of the History of Sexuality.”


Legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin ’53, LL.B. ’57 — a native of Worcester, Mass., where he was born in 1931 — is a professor of jurisprudence at both University College London and the New York University School of Law. He previously taught jurisprudence at both Yale University (1962-69) and the University of Oxford (1969-98).

Dworkin is a former Rhodes Scholar. He studied at Magdalen College at Oxford, where he was a student of legal scholar Rupert Cross.

After law school at Harvard, Dworkin clerked on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for Judge Learned Hand, an 1893 Harvard College graduate appointed to the bench by Calvin Coolidge. Hand later called Dworkin the best law clerk he had ever employed. In turn, Dworkin regards Hand a deeply influential mentor.

Before moving on to Yale in 1962, Dworkin was associated with the prestigious international New York legal firm Sullivan & Cromwell. He is the author of eight books, starting with “Taking Rights Seriously” in 1977, and editor of three others.

In the realm of legal philosophy, Dworkin is known for his contributions to liberal theory. Most controversial is Dworkin’s “right answer thesis,” the notion that there is only one right answer in most legal cases.

“Taking Rights Seriously,” considered a landmark text in the philosophy of law, builds a case against legal positivism, the idea that there’s no inherent connection between law and morality. Dworkin argued the rights of the individual exist outside the law itself, and in fact come before the interests of the majority.

In “Sovereign Virtue” (2000), Dworkin proposed his “equality of resources” theory. It’s based on two ideas. For one, humans are responsible for the choices they make in life. And for another, intelligence and talent are “morally arbitrary” — and therefore should not affect how concern, respect, and resources are distributed within a society.

Dworkin is a longtime contributor to The New York Review of Books, where he has written a wide range of commentaries and reviews on legal, political, and cultural matters.


A pioneer in AIDS research, Anthony S. Fauci is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.

Diseases that affect the immune system are Fauci’s domain, including HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Long one of the top government officials tasked with addressing the public on potentially deadly diseases, he was often attacked in the 1980s and ’90s by those complaining the government should be doing more to bring an anti-HIV drug to the public sooner. But Fauci, known for his diplomacy and high principles, instead of challenging those who hurled insults, invited them to meet with him directly.

“What I learned from HIV/ AIDS was that from the beginning, you gotta level with people, you gotta tell them what you don’t know, and you’ve got to explain risks in a way that is realistic without making someone feel better than they should,” Fauci said in a 2002 interview with U.S. News & World Report.

As a young doctor in the early ’80s, Fauci began his career treating patients with a mysterious disease, one he recognized had disastrous implications. Almost immediately he began studying the disease at a NIH lab. Over the years his work has led to groundbreaking understandings of the ways in which the HIV virus destroys the human immune system and leads to AIDS. He has also been instrumental in petitioning Congress to gain additional funding to fight the disease.

Today, when not busy with his AIDS research, he also studies and researches potential bioterrorism weapons, deadly agents like the smallpox and anthrax bacterium, and the means of neutralizing them.

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Fauci received his medical degree from Cornell University Medical College in 1966. He performed his residency at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center.

He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and has received the National Medal of Science, the Mary Wood Lasker Award for Public Service, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has been awarded more than 30 honorary degrees.


Anthropologist Sarah Hrdy has enriched the world’s view of maternal behavior and female sexual behavior, exploring how promiscuity is an essential reproductive strategy among female monkeys in India early in her career and expanding on that topic in five books and more than 70 articles since.

Hrdy graduated from Radcliffe College in 1969 and received a doctorate in anthropology from Harvard in 1975. She has garnered numerous honors, including the Centennial Medal from Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 2007, the Radcliffe Graduate Society Medal in 1988, and the Panunzio Distinguished Emeriti Award from the University of California in 2002-03. She is a former Guggenheim Fellow and has been elected to the California Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Hrdy started her teaching career in 1973 as an instructor in anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. In 1975, she became a lecturer in biological anthropology at Harvard and then a postdoctoral fellow in biology at Harvard. In the early 1980s, she was a senior fellow at the American Institute of Indian Studies in New Delhi and a visiting associate professor at Rice University. In 1984, she became a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Davis, where she spent much of her career. She is currently a professor emeritus there.

Her 1981 book, “The Woman That Never Evolved,” was chosen by the New York Times Book Review as one of the notable books of the year in science and social science. Her 1984 book, edited with Glenn Hausfater, “Infanticide: Comparative and Evolutionary Perspectives” was selected as one of the 1984-85 Outstanding Academic Books by Choice, the Journal of the Association of College and Research Libraries. Her book “Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection” was selected by Publisher’s Weekly and the Library Journal as one of the best books of 1999. Her most recent book, “Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding,” was published in April.


Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and most-cited engineer in history Robert Langer has made biomedical discoveries and inventions that have revolutionized drug delivery, allowing more precise timing and control of drug release into the body.

His MIT lab is the largest biomedical engineering lab in the world, with more than 100 researchers. He has more than 600 patents issued or pending worldwide, and his discoveries have been licensed or sublicensed to more than 200 pharmaceutical, chemical, biotechnology, and medical device companies.

Langer has won more than 170 major awards, including the 2006 National Medal of Science for “revolutionary discoveries in the areas of polymeric controlled release systems and tissue engineering and synthesis of new materials that have led to new medical treatments that have profoundly affected the well being of mankind.”

He has also been awarded the Charles Stark Draper Prize, considered the Nobel Prize for engineers, and the 2008 Millennium Prize, the world’s largest technology prize.

Langer has repeatedly appeared on popular lists of influential people. Time magazine and CNN listed him among the 100 most important people in America in 2001, Forbes magazine in 2002 listed Langer among the 15 innovators who will reinvent our future, and Discover magazine named him one of the 20 most important people in biotechnology, also in 2002.

Langer has told interviewers that he became interested in science after receiving a chemistry set as a child. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Cornell University in 1970. He received a doctorate in chemical engineering from MIT in 1974. After graduating, he was a fellow in the Children’s Hospital lab of anti-angiogenesis pioneer Judah Folkman.

There, Langer worked to identify substances that would stop blood vessel growth in tumors. He also had to figure out how to deliver the substances to the tumor over a long period of time, settling on long molecules called polymers, which have featured prominently in his later work.

Langer has received numerous honorary degrees, including honorary doctorates from Yale University, Northwestern University, Pennsylvania State University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the University of Liverpool and the University of Nottingham in England. He is one of the few people elected to three national academies in the United States: the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine.


The road to a musical life was likely paved early on for great jazz trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, both by his father, a music teacher and jazz pianist, and his exposure to the musical culture of his native New Orleans.

Born in 1961, Marsalis was an early bloomer. The wunderkind received his first trumpet at the age of 6 and, not long after, was playing with a local church band and performing in public. By 14, he had been invited to perform with the New Orleans Philharmonic. In 1979 at the age of 17, he moved to New York City to attend Juilliard.

Inspired by the tutelage of drummer and bandleader Art Blakey, in whose band, the Art Messengers, he played trumpet, Marsalis eventually created his own jazz band. The band toured for 10 years. Marsalis says that his approach to jazz is inspired by a democratic ideal. “The jazz band works best,” he says, “when participation is shaped by intelligent communication.” Along with Blakey, Marsalis has performed with a host of jazz greats, including Sarah Vaughn, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sonny Rollins.

He is currently artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, a program he co-founded in 1987. He is the leader of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

Marsalis is also an accomplished classical trumpeter. He has performed with many leading orchestras throughout his career, including the Boston Pops, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the London Royal Philharmonic, and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and has produced 10 classical records. Lauded as an innovative composer, he has written works for the New York City Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Marsalis’ distinguished career has been recognized many times by the recording industry. He has won nine Grammy Awards, including a double win for best jazz and best classical records in 1983 and 1984. He is the only artist to ever receive both awards in the same year.

The musician’s dedication and drive extend to his humanitarian efforts. He supports countless nonprofit organizations, and, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, organized a concert that raised more than $3 million in aid for cultural and music groups affected by the disaster.

In 2001, Marsalis was appointed a United Nations Messenger of Peace. In 2005, he received the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists by the United States Government.


Political scientist and library innovator Sidney Verba ’53 retired from Harvard in June 2007, where he had been Carl A. Pforzheimer University Professor as well as director of the Harvard University Library.

While an undergraduate at Harvard, he was a history and literature concentrator — in an era when the faculty included, among other luminaries, e.e. cummings, Archibald MacLeish, and Samuel Eliot Morison.

After graduating, Verba earned master’s and doctoral degrees at Princeton University (in 1957 and 1959), then joined the political science faculty there (1960-64) — getting tenure before the age of 30. Enroute to his teaching career at Harvard in 1972, Verba made stops at Stanford University (1964-68) and the University of Chicago (1968-72).

At Harvard, he was associate dean for undergraduate studies from 1981 to 1984. Then came the surprise: Verba leapt from one career to two. He served as director of the Harvard University Library from 1984 to 2007.

Verba — a specialist in political participation — never left political science scholarship and teaching behind. He continued to rack up a list of books that runs to four pages, and to collect prizes for his work. But Verba also led the University’s library system through its most transformative decades.

He coordinated access to Harvard’s vast collections; established the Harvard Depository system; boosted preservation staff and facilities; and helped pioneer the Library Digital Initiative to create a Harvard infrastructure for collecting, archiving, and offering digital materials.

Verba also encouraged ways to share Harvard’s library resources more widely with scholars worldwide. One is a project with Google to digitize the public-domain books in Harvard collections. Another is Harvard’s Open Collections Program, designed to digitize and make available University resources on a given theme. (One example already available is “Women Working: 1800-1930,” an online digital archive of materials related to women’s participation in the U.S. economy.)

Verba is characteristically lighthearted and modest about his contributions as library director — professing that early on he was aware of the information revolution “only in the vaguest way.” But under his direction, the Harvard library system has become a digital model for the world.

Upon Verba’s retirement, Library of Congress associate librarian Deanna Marcum offered, “I don’t think the library world has ever had a better friend.”