Mark Zuckerberg to Speak at Harvard Commencement

The University announces Facebook’s CEO as its headliner for May 25.

Mark Zuckerberg: an honorary doctoral gown to go with that iconic gray T-shirtCourtesy of Facebook

The University announced today that Mark Zuckerberg ’06, co-founder and CEO of Facebook, will be the featured guest speaker at the afternoon exercises during Harvard’s 366th Commencement, Thursday, May 25, in Tercentenary Theatre, following President Drew Faust—and by custom, will receive an honorary degree at the Morning Exercises earlier that day. (The link is to his Facebook page, where he is identified as “zuck.”)

Zuckerberg’s wife, Priscilla Chan ’07, a pediatrician, has her own reasons to celebrate the occasion: she returns to familiar grounds (she was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, and attended local schools; and this is, of course, her tenth reunion year).

Dropouts Rock!

Zuckerberg will be among the youngest Harvard Commencement speakers. (In 2011, during his first official visit to campus after dropping out, he was greeted like a rock star.) In other respects, his appearance is analogous to the 2007 appearance of William H. Gates III ’77 (then on the verge of stepping out of corporate management to pursue his social mission): a world-famous Harvard College dropout who built a world-transforming software enterprise (Microsoft, in that case); accrued a staggering, multibillion-dollar personal fortune, and dedicated nearly all of it to philanthropic pursuits; and returned to the University to receive an honorary degree without the benefit of having completed the undergraduate one previously. Gates used the occasion to speak seriously about a wounded world, saying of his College experience, “I do have one big regret,” and continuing:

I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world—the appalling disparities of health, and wealth, and opportunity that condemn millions of people to lives of despair.

I learned a lot here at Harvard about new ideas in economics and politics. I got great exposure to the advances being made in the sciences.

But humanity's greatest advances are not in its discoveries—but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity. Whether through democracy, strong public education, quality health care, or broad economic opportunity—reducing inequity is the highest human achievement.

I left campus knowing little about the millions of young people cheated out of educational opportunities here in this country. And I knew nothing about the millions of people living in unspeakable poverty and disease in developing countries.

It took me decades to find out.

The Facebook Phenomenon

Zuckerberg and Chan are, in their own lives, attempting to accelerate their own turn toward addressing, and having an impact on, global challenges. Following various philanthropic commitments aimed at improving education in Newark, New Jersey, and in the San Francisco area (an interest of Chan’s since her undergraduate involvement with Phillips Brooks House Association), and gifts to a local hospital and community foundation, on December 1, 2015, upon the birth of their daughter, they announced the creation of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a limited liability company to be funded with 99 percent of their Facebook equity, then valued at $45 billion.

The initiative’s unusual structure affords it greater opportunities than a conventional foundation to make grants, invest, and engage in political advocacy. Its initial priorities are education and science. The science program, aimed at “Helping cure, prevent or manage all diseases in our children’s lifetime,” stirred interest locally by funding a “Biohub” to support research at Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of California, San Francisco.

(Harvard—with its Medical School, affiliated hospitals, and nearby institutions like MIT, the Broad Institute, a center for genomics, and others—surely hopes to secure similar research support from the initiative, particularly at a time of decreasing federal funding. Engineering and applied sciences—Zuckerberg’s principal Harvard field of study, in computer science—would no doubt also welcome support, given its $1-billion Allston facility plan and the gift made by Gates’s Microsoft partner, Steve Ballmer ’77,  in 2014 to expand the computer-science faculty.)

Facebook itself continues to be remarkably successful, with fourth-quarter and full-year 2016 revenues both increasing more than 50 percent (2016 advertising revenue, of $26.9 billion, roughly equals the total revenue—advertising plus circulation income—of the U.S. newspaper industry), and net income for the year nearly tripling, to $10.2 billion. Its recent market capitalization has been nearly $400 billion.

Nonetheless, like other U.S.-based Internet powerhouses, it faces challenges:

  • European skepticism about American online companies’ practices concerning the privacy of users’ personal information;
  • decisions about whether to bend to the content-censorship rules imposed by the People’s Republic of China to gain access to the world’s largest market (Zuckerberg is a frequent visitor, and has been learning Mandarin, impressing his audiences during some visits); and
  • in the polarized U.S. political atmosphere, controversies over the role of social media, like Facebook, in electoral politics and the promotion of “fake news.”

On the latter point, Zuckerberg was initially agnostic, describing Facebook largely as a neutral personal channel or utility for its users. But on February 16, perhaps in part in response to the fraught political environment, he published a long letter on “Building Global Community.” It addressed what he described as “the most important question of all: are we building the world we all want?” At a time of seemingly inward focus on the part of the new Donald Trump administration, he wrote:

Our greatest opportunities are now global—like spreading prosperity and freedom, promoting peace and understanding, lifting people out of poverty, and accelerating science. Our greatest challenges also need global responses—like ending terrorism, fighting climate change, and preventing pandemics. Progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.

This is especially important right now. Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community. When we began, this idea was not controversial. Every year, the world got more connected and this was seen as a positive trend. Yet now, across the world there are people left behind by globalization, and movements for withdrawing from global connection. There are questions about whether we can make a global community that works for everyone, and whether the path ahead is to connect more or reverse course.

There, he wrote about Facebook’s role in developing the “social infrastructure” to “build a global community that works for all of us”—and then laid out his view of the attributes of communities that are supportive, safe, informed, civically engaged, and inclusive.

Depending on what themes he chooses to address on May 25, this young Commencement speaker may have interesting things to say to the elders listening in Tercentenary Theatre—and presumably, through Facebook, to many other people logging on around much of the world.

Commencement Context

Recent Harvard Commencement speakers have included:

Other announced speakers on the graduation circuit this year include:

Read Harvard’s announcement here.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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