Abreu, Menino, Pagels, and Oprah: The Honorands

Harvard confers honorary degrees on six men and three women.

Front row from left: José Antonio Abreu, Provost Alan Garber, President Drew Faust, Oprah Winfrey, and Thomas M. Menino. Back row from left: C. (Clemmie) Dixon Spangler Jr, Donald R. Hopkins, Lord Robert M. May, Sir Partha Dasgupta, JoAnne Stubbe, and Elaine Pagels.

During the Morning Exercises of the 362nd Commencement, on May 30, Harvard will confer honorary degrees on six men and three women, the University reports—among them a preeminent environmental economist, a public-health leader, a long-serving mayor, a Gnostic scholar, a loyal Harvard benefactor, and an international media celebrity. (The honorands are listed here in alphabetical order, not in the order of conferral of degrees.)


José Antonio Abreu, pianist and educator, Doctor of Music. A native of Valera, Venezuela, José Antonio Abreu studied economics and earned a doctorate in the field. He served as a deputy in the Chamber of Deputies in his country’s Congress, and later served as minister of culture. He also studied piano, and in 1975 founded El Sistema (the Foundation for the National Network of Youth and Children Orchestras of Venezuela), using music as the vehicle for children’s social and intellectual development.

In a 2012 account in The New York Times, “Venerated Priest and Humble Servant of Music Education,” Daniel J. Wakin ’83 reported:

As he slowly walked through the adoring and bubbling crowd of young people, the frail elderly man brushed a cheek, clasped an arm, bestowed a smile. He lingered affectionately with members of a choir composed of disabled youngsters.

For anyone who observed Pope John Paul II in action amid third-world crowds during the later years of his papacy, it was a familiar sight: the charisma, the smiles, the contrast of stooped holy man and spirited youngsters, the solicitousness for the weak.

But on this February day at the Teresa Carreño Theater here, the center of attention was not a pope. It was José Antonio Abreu, the founder and influential leader of a classical music education program called El Sistema. Mr. Abreu was showing off some of its orchestras to visiting Americans in an elaborately choreographed showcase.

“It is possible to extrapolate that a good part of El Sistema’s success,” Wakin wrote, “is due to…the single-minded focus on spreading the gospel of social action through music.” El Sistema, he reported, had absorbed “hundreds of thousands of young Venezuelans into orchestras and other ensembles, providing intensive musical training as an antidote to the ills of poverty, an enveloping reality in this country despite its oil wealth”—and now producing internationally recognized musical performers. “Mr. Abreu is referred to by his loyalists as a father, a saint, a visionary, a philosopher or, most often, simply as maestro.”

At the time of the article, El Sistema, funded by the government, operated 280 centers in Venezuela, in which 310,000 students were enrolled. Visit El Sistema USA’s website here.


Sir Partha Dasgupta, Ramsey professor emeritus of economics, University of Cambridge, Doctor of Laws. Born in Dhaka and educated in Varanasi, Delhi, and Cambridge, England, where he earned his Ph.D. in economics in 1968, Sir Partha Dasgupta helped to establish the journal Environment and Development Economics, focusing on the interface of poverty and environmental resources and aimed in part at helping scholars in developing countries have access to an international journal for their research. It is an apt illustration of his own focus on development economics and the economics of population, environmental resources, malnutrition, and social capital. Among his published works is The Control of Resources (Harvard University Press, 1982), and he has collaborated with, among others, Amartya Sen, Harvard’s Lamont University Professor and a Nobel laureate. He was named Knight Bachelor by Queen Elizabeth II in 2002, and was co-winner of the 2002 Volvo Environment Prize, as well as winner of the 2004 Boulding Memorial Award of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of the 2007 Galbraith Award of the American Agricultural Economics Association.

In a 2010 interview with Simon W. Bowmaker of New York University, Dasgupta said of his early work at the London School of Economics with Sen, and their diverging paths since:

Among my senior colleagues at the LSE, I saw much of Amartya Sen, from whom I learnt how one might interpret economic development.…In recent years our visions of what economics should be about have diverged somewhat.…As far as I can judge he feels development economics should get closer to moral philosophy…whereas I am convinced the subject’s greatest weakness lies in [the fact] that it’s not informed by the natural sciences, especially ecology. I don’t think the failure of official development economics to successfully address extreme poverty and demographic distress in the poorest countries has had anything to do with not knowing what poverty or justice mean, rather it seems to me the answer lies in the fact that professionals have neglected to uncover the pathways that determine the poverty‐population‐environment nexus.

Describing his own “applied theory” method of discovering problems to investigate and then conducting research, Dasgupta said of his sources of inspiration:

By observation, I guess. On one occasion in the early ’80s, when passing through Calcutta on my way to visit my parents in Santiniketan, I noticed that the baby of a mother beggar on the sidewalk was being molested by flies. I thought, “That’s odd. Why isn’t the baby swatting the flies?” Then it dawned on me that the baby was conserving energy. That eventually triggered my joint work with Debraj Ray on malnutrition and the capacity to work. Of course, he had been thinking along similar lines before we met at Stanford, which is how we came to collaborate, but it was a casual observation that led me to seek a theory that would cover what I had observed.…

If you travel by train in West Bengal, you will notice that every village has a pond, supplying water for drinking, washing, and cultivating root crops. On several such journeys I observed that villagers have built their homes very close to one another around their pond. Why? One answer is that you have more land for cultivation if you crowd the huts. It occurred to me that another possible answer was that closeness would enable people to observe each other’s behavior easily.…There are few private property rights to those commons, so presumably communities have had to devise norms of behavior. And norms of behavior involve sanctions for misbehavior. But how do you know somebody has misbehaved? You have to observe it. Those problems led me to the then nascent literature on social capital, and I tried to understand the concept in terms of modern resource allocation theory.

Of the challenges to contemporary economics, he said: 

Bringing Nature into economics will prove to be the biggest challenge, largely because whenever Nature is mentioned, the hard-boiled economist says “externalities” and suppresses a yawn. Economics has established bad cultural practices. The profession doesn’t reward someone who may be doing vital work estimating those yawn‐generating externalities in, say, a situation where forests in the uplands of a watershed are being cut down and damaging farmers downstream. The profession rewards empirical work in socially acceptable fields, such as education, health, labor, insurance, and various industries producing private goods. But when it comes to natural capital, they give it a thumbs‐down.…If there has been a recurrent theme in my own work, it’s been the attempt to introduce Nature (natural capital) into economics in a seamless way; in many ways to re‐construct economics. Sustainable development is a buzz world among intellectuals. But that doesn’t make it a bogus word. Until economists take Nature seriously, we will not know how current policy will affect future people. We have to understand humanity’s relationship with Nature at different levels of economic development. In order to do that, we need to make contact with neighboring disciplines. The profession isn’t prepared to do that as yet.

…It’s taken me years to appreciate how deeply interconnected our social systems are with the natural system, and how we have also isolated ourselves from Nature via the market. We need to be constantly aware of the unintended consequences of that isolation.

We’ve got to really engage with a whole group of different, but related disciplines. We’re not doing enough of that at the moment, and we don’t have the willingness; our entire training process and subsequent career go against it. I can’t help thinking that we economists are missing the most significant problems of our time, or for that matter of anybody’s time, by avoiding them.


Donald R. Hopkins, M.P.H. ’70, vice president, health programs, The Carter Center, Doctor of Science. Donald R. Hopkins, a graduate of Morehouse College, earned his medical degree from the University of Chicago and his master’s in public health from Harvard. During two decades at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he served as deputy director (1984-1987) and acting director (1985); he has been an assistant professor of tropical public health at the Harvard School of Public Health (which recognized him with its 2012 Alumni Award of Merit), and directed the program to eradicate smallpox and control measles in Sierra Leone from 1967 to 1969. He is the author of Princes and Peasants: Smallpox in History (reissued in 2002 as The Greatest Killer: Smallpox in History).

At the Carter Center, which he joined in 1987, he oversees international health and mental-health programs in Africa and Latin America.  Previously he directed its efforts to eradicate Guinea worm disease and river blindness—work for which he won a MacArthur Fellowship in 1995 (he now serves on that foundation’s board of directors).

In an account accompanying a PBS series, Hopkins said he would never forget his first sight of a Guinea worm: “It was as awful as I imagined it to be. And that was a gentle introduction. I can show you pictures of a worm emerging from the back of a child's head. Another Guinea worm once came out under a man's tongue. The swelling was so painful he couldn’t swallow, and he starved to death.” The disease is transmitted through drinking water infested with microscopic fleas that carry the worm larvae. Inside the body, the larvae can grow into worms three feet long; they emerge through the skin in painful blisters. Eradication depends on treating drinking water and educating people about the transmission of the disease. (In some interpretations, the rod of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing and medicine, is entwined with a Guinea worm—extracted from the body by winding around a stick.)

In an April New York Times profile of Hopkins, titled “Another Scourge in His Sights,” Donald G. McNeil Jr. wrote about seeing a bottled specimen of a Guinea worm in Hopkins’s home office—along with statues of the Hindu smallpox goddess and the Yoruba smallpox god, reminders of a disease he helped eliminate. The several hundred remaining cases of Guinea worm disease are found in ravaged countries: South Sudan (now at peace), northern Mali (riven by war this year), Ethiopia, and Chad. Of Hopkins, McNeil wrote, “Choosing a life’s work that requires visiting remote villages around the world seems counterintuitive for someone who, by his own admission, is terrified of snakes, rats, bats, airplanes, heights, and food poisoning.”

In “Disease Eradication,” a review article published this January in the New England Journal of Medicine, Hopkins wrote about the special challenges of eliminating any disease, including those—drawn from his own experience—far beyond the medical and scientific:

Political instability and insecurity, which are usually outside the realm of public health professionals and can be avoided in a program designed to control disease, are inescapable challenges in an eradication program. Smallpox eradication succeeded despite civil wars in Nigeria, Pakistan, and Sudan, and the programs to eradicate dracunculiasis and poliomyelitis face similar challenges.


Lord Robert M. May, professor, Oxford University, Doctor of Science. Robert M. May, Baron May of Oxford, has served as president of the Royal Society (2000-2005) and chief scientific advisor to the British government and head of the Office of Science and Technology (1995-2000). A researcher who has investigated the structure and dynamics of ecosystems,  as well as  how populations are structured and respond to change (especially with respect to infectious diseases and biodiversity), he has received the Royal Swedish Academy’s Crafoord Prize, the Japanese Blue Planet Prize, and the Royal Society’s oldest and most prestigious award, the Copley Medal. He was awarded a knighthood in 1996, and created a life peer in 2001.

Lord May’s research interests reflect both his original training in chemical engineering and theoretical physics at the University of Sydney, and his later investigations—as a lecturer in applied mathematics at Harvard (1959-1961) during his postdoctoral years, and as Class of 1877 professor of zoology at Princeton. He is recognized as a leading scholar in the application of mathematics to problems in ecology and biodiversity.

In a 2002 interview with Kathy A. Svitil of Discover Magazine, he discussed his views on the complexity of ecosystems and his work on modeling them mathematically:

There are people who say that reducing biological diversity will cause essential ecosystems to collapse. But we don't know that. It is entirely possible that we could be clever enough to live in a world that was greatly biologically impoverished in species and yet managed to deliver the natural services that we want. It would be the world of the cult movie Blade Runner. The question is, do you want to live in such a world? Personally, I think ethical and esthetic arguments are the strongest arguments we have for preserving biological diversity.

Addressing genetically modified foods and biodiversity, he said:

We need to think about the possible health effects, as we would with any other new food, but it doesn't unduly concern me. Some groups project alarmist scenarios about creating GM "super weeds" or invasive organisms. I do worry about invasive organisms. However, the problem isn't with GM crops or conventional crops but with inadequate control over what you can sell in garden centers. The plants already in garden centers have become real pests in Britain.

I am also worried about the devastating effects of agriculture on biological diversity. In Britain, most populations of farmland birds are in decline, the underlying insect populations are also undoubtedly in decline, and a quarter of our hedgerows were lost in the decade from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. GM crops could be used in a careful and thoughtful way to produce environmentally friendly crops, or they could simply ramp up the intensification of agriculture.

Of science and policymaking, May said:

We need to do a better job thinking about what choices to make. What doors to open, which doors not to. We need to get the scientific facts and the scientific uncertainties clear and then have a value-driven, belief-driven, feelings-driven debate, rather than just letting things happen.


Thomas M. Menino, mayor of Boston, Doctor of Laws. Thomas M. Menino, who was born in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood, is completing his twentieth year and fifth full, elected term as mayor of Boston. He was first elected in November 1993, having previously served as acting mayor, succeeding Ray Flynn, who became U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. He is the city’s longest-serving mayor, and has been a supporter of the University’s planned academic development on its landholdings in Allston, consistent with neighborhood wishes and needs.

In The New York Times report on his decision this past March not to run for another term, Katherine Q. Seelye, IOP ’03, and Jess Bidgood wrote, “His departure after a 20-year run gives the city a chance to celebrate him and his achievements and to reflect on its transformation from a gritty parochial town to the high-powered economic engine of a region that has bounced back from the 2008 recession ahead of much of the nation.” They noted that Menino remained immensely popular, with nearly three-quarters of the respondents to a recent Boston Globe poll saying that the city was heading in the right direction (in sharp contrast to surveys of public opinion about the state of the nation). In a warm tribute at the honorands' dinner in Annenberg Hall Wednesday evening, President Drew Faust hailed him as "the honorable, the admirable, Thomas Menino," and The Boston Globe celebrated the honor with a front-page leak in its Thursday morning edition.


Elaine Pagels, Ph.D. ’70, Paine Foundation professor of religion, Princeton University, Doctor of Laws. Elaine Pagels, author of the National Book Award- and National Book Critics Circle Award-winning The Gnostic Gospels, is a preeminent scholar of Gnosticism, early Christianity and its orthodoxies and heresies, and late antiquity. Her Harvard doctoral dissertation was entitled “The hermeneutical debate between Origen and Heracleon in Origen’s Commentary on the Gospel of John,” a suggestion of Pagels’s sustained scholarly interests and her close study of period texts.

Her recent works include Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas; Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, co-written with Karen King, Hollis professor of divinity at Harvard; and Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation.

In his review of the latter, Dwight Garner of The New York Times noted Pagels’s “calm, sane, supple voice,” one of the attributes that makes her “America’s finest close reader of the apocrypha.” The book “packs in dense layers of scholarship and meaning”:

The Book of Revelation, attributed by Ms. Pagels to John of Patmos, is the last book in the New Testament and the only one that’s apocalyptic rather than historical or morally prescriptive. It’s a sensorium of dreams and nightmares, of beasts and dragons. It contains prophecies of divine judgment upon the wicked and has terrified motel-room browsers of the Gideon Bible for decades.

Ms. Pagels places the book in the context of what she calls “wartime literature.” John had very likely witnessed the skirmishes in A.D. 66, when militant Jews, aflame with religious fervor, prepared to wage war against Rome for both its decadence and its occupation of Judea.

She deepens her assessment of the Book of Revelation by opening with a troubled personal note.

“I began this writing during a time of war,” she says, “when some who advocated war claimed to find its meaning in Revelation.”

“One of her great gifts,” much in evidence here, is “her ability to ask, and answer, the plainest questions about her material without speaking down to her audience.…She must be a fiendishly good lecturer.” Garner concludes:

John’s book has caused great mischief in the world, Ms. Pagels suggests, but it is a volume that can be clasped for many purposes. It has given comfort to the downtrodden, yesterday and today.

John, Ms. Pagels writes, “wants to speak to the urgent question that people have asked throughout human history, wherever they first imagined divine justice: How long will evil prevail, and when will justice be done?”


C. (Clemmie) Dixon Spangler Jr., M.B.A. ’56, entrepreneur and philanthropist, Doctor of Laws. C. Dixon Spangler Jr. has been involved in the banking, motel, and construction industries—he ran National Gypsum, the wallboard and building-supplies company—and also served as president of the University of North Carolina system from 1986 to 1997. (Following that educational service, Spangler wrote to his successors on the university’s governing board in 2010 to oppose a proposed increase in student fees at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to cover a deficit in the football program. In that letter, he observed that Article IX, Section 9, of the North Carolina constitution directed that the benefits of the university “shall be extended to the people of the State free of expense, as far as practical,” and that “There is no way our founding fathers could have written this thinking the Football Fees being proposed by the ‘Football Committee’ make good sense.” Although the football program was approved, Spangler’s official UNC portrait shows him with a laptop computer open to that constitutional reference.)

He was elected to Harvard’s Board of Overseers in 1998, and served as president during the 2003-2004 academic year. Harvard Business School’s Spangler Center, the student hub, bears his name, as does the Spangler Family professorship of business administration. He was awarded the Harvard Medal in May 2005. Spangler also chaired the Campaign for Harvard Business School during the middle of the last decade.


JoAnne Stubbe, Novartis professor of chemistry and professor of biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Doctor of Science. JoAnne Stubbe, a microbiologist and biochemist, has been widely recognized for work on the processes by which cells use free radicals, for advancing new cancer treatments, and for pioneering research on enzymes. She received the National Medal of Science in 2009, and the Welch Award—which honors basic chemical research and recognizes chemical research contributions for the benefit of mankind—in 2010. She describes general research interests extending from the structures of drugs bound to DNA to bioengineering techniques to create biodegradable polymers. The reactions she studies play a critical role in DNA replication and repair, among other important problems.

Alongside the technical references, her research group website features a drawing and a photograph of “Top Dog” Dr. McEnzyme Stubbe, who displays both a very pink tongue and well-groomed grayish-white fur and, apparently, has his own dedicated e-mail address: [email protected].


Oprah Winfrey, global media figure, Doctor of Laws. Oprah Winfrey, the famous talk-show host, now operates her own Oprah Winfrey Network. She is best known for her Oprah Winfrey Show, nationally syndicated from 1986 to 2011. Her background is described more fully in Harvard Magazine’s report on the announcement that she would be the Commencement speaker at the Afternoon Exercises in Tercentenary Theatre on May 30—the annual meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association. Faust noted on Wednesday evening that the honorand is "recognized by her first name, and indeed by her first letter," worldwide.

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