Harvard’s 2017 Honorary-Degree Recipients, from A to Z

From Dr. Hawa Abdi and James Earl Jones to Mark Zuckerberg

Clockwise from top left: Mark Zuckerberg, James Earl Jones, John Williams, Dame Judi Dench, Hawa Abdi Diblawe, Walter E. Massey, Michael O. Rabin, Norman R. Augustine, Sandra M. Gilbert, and Huda Yahya ZoghbiPhotographs by Jim Harrison

DURING THE MORNING EXERCISES of the 366th Commencement, on May 25, Harvard planned to confer honorary degrees on six men and four women. Among them are:

  • a physician and human-rights activist who has sheltered tens of thousands of refugees in war-torn Somalia, and a physicist who has led both a prominent historically black American college and a distinguished school for the arts;
  • an Academy Award-winning actress who is closely related to a newly named Harvard dean, and a two-time Tony Award-winning actor (who has also won an honorary Oscar) who recently appeared in an American Repertory Theater production at Harvard;
  • a distinguished neurogeneticist, and a National Medal of Arts-winning composer known especially for his film scores—for which he has won five Academy Awards; and
  • a Turing Award-winning theoretical computer scientist from Harvard’s engineering and applied sciences faculty, and a Harvard computer-sciences dropout who has nearly two billion online “friends.”

Two of the American honorands rose to greatness from humble, adverse circumstances in Mississippi. Two have won the National Medal of Arts. One was born in the now war-torn Mogadishu, and another—an esteemed neurogeneticist—fled war-torn Beirut. A leader in the aerospace industry, and in government and nonprofit service, and a physicist-turned-educator who was director of the National Science Foundation, have both been strong advocates for public funding for scientific research.

The role of honorand-performer, a recurring Commencement motif during President Drew Faust’s administration—soprano Renée Fleming in 2015soul singer Aretha Franklin (2014), hugger extraordinaire Oprah (2013), poet Seamus Heaney reading his famous Harvard villanelle (2012)tenor Plácido Domingo (2011), and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (2009)—might be reprised this year, with composer John Williams in the queue for a degree. Or at the least, Harvard Band members may be expected to riff on his famous movie scores—as they did last year, when Steven Spielberg (with whom Williams has partnered so many times, on Jaws, E.T., and Schindler’s List, among others) was on the stage. (Might Harvard Commencement planners have hoped to have Spielberg, Ar.D. ’16, and Williams together in the same year?)

The honorands are listed below in alphabetical order, not in the order of conferral of degrees, except for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Not only does he by custom, as guest speaker at the Afternoon Exercises, receive his degree last during the Morning Exercises, he also (but just barely) appears last in alphabetical order, too. For details on the conferrals, check back for coverage of the morning ceremonies later today.

Dr. Hawa Abdi Diblawe, Doctor of Laws. Physician Hawa Abdi Diblawe, born in 1947 in Mogadishu, studied medicine in Kiev on a Soviet scholarship and became Somalia’s first female gynecologist. She subsequently earned a law degree at Somali National University and became an assistant professor of medicine there. A clinic she opened on her family’s ancestral land in the Afgooye Corridor became something much bigger when Somalia’s civil war began in 1991: she began housing her employees. By 2012, her land had become the shelter for more than 90,000 refugees (about 1 percent of the country’s population)—most of them women and children. This information, from the website of her Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation, barely begins to describe a country that has been devastated by ceaseless conflict, brutal warlordism, a fierce Islamist insurgency, poverty, famine, and drought—a place described in a dispatch by The New Yorker’s John Lee Anderson as “the most failed state.” Hawa Abdi Village today includes a 400-bed hospital with associated medical care (provided free to resident refugees), a primary school, a source of fresh drinking water, and a source of support for agriculture. The foundation’s slogan, “Keeping Hope Alive,” is also the title of Dr. Abdi’s memoir. She has been widely honored as a human-rights activist.

Her faculty escort will be Jennifer Leaning, Francois-Xavier Bagnoud professor of the practice of health and human rights and director of the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights. Read about her work here and here.

(It is notable that Dr. Abdi comes from Somalia, a country subject to President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel from six predominantly Muslim nations, which remains in litigation. Harvard officials apparently had to go to considerable lengths, in cooperation with colleagues from New Haven—where Dr. Abdi was at Yale as a Chubb Fellow in April and early May, before visiting Cambridge for Commencement—and through U.S. diplomatic representatives in Djibouti [through which the United States communicates with Somalia] to secure visas for this honored guest and the family members who accompany her because she is wheelchair-bound. One of those family members recently suffered a broken ankle, compounding the logistical difficulties.)

Norman R. Augustine, Doctor of Laws. A Princeton-educated engineer, Norman R. Augustine has been a leader at the pinnacle of business, government, and the nonprofit sector. During his long career in the aerospace industry, he was president, chief operating officer, chief executive officer, and chairman of Martin Marietta Corporation; he subsequently served as president and then CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation. He served as assistant director of defense research and engineering in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and later assistant secretary, under secretary, and acting secretary of the U.S. Army. Augustine has chaired the American Red Cross, was a member of the board of trustees of Colonial Williamsburg, and has held several corporate directorships. He is a member of the board of regents of the University System of Maryland, and has been a trustee of Johns Hopkins, MIT, and Princeton. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he has been awarded the National Medal of Technology, and is a multi-time recipient of the Distinguished Service Medal, the Department of Defense’s highest civilian decoration.

His faculty escort will be Jan Rivkin, Rauner professor of business administration, co-leader of the Business School’s U.S. Competitiveness Project, covered in depth here.

Dame Judi Dench, Doctor of Arts. Judi Dench’s acclaimed acting career, on stage and in films and television series, has spanned nearly six decades—in recognition of which she was appointed an officer (1970), and subsequently a Dame Commander (1988), of the Order of the British Empire, and was named a Companion of Honour in 2005. She is known for portraying royalty (Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love—for which she won an Academy Award—and Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown and the forthcoming Victoria & Abdul); for her role as M (in multiple James Bond movies); and, recently, in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel. She is the winner of eight Olivier Awards and 10 British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards.

She has a special relationship to this Cambridge: her niece is Emma Dench (profiled here), McLean professor of ancient and modern history and of the classics, who has just been named interim dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences for the 2017-2018 academic year. The family’s theatrical roots are deep: Emma Dench’s late father, Jeffrey (Judi’s older brother), was long a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and she grew up near Stratford-on-Avon. Fittingly, Emma Dench will be her aunt’s faculty escort. 

Sandra M. Gilbert, Doctor of Laws. Sandra M. Gilbert, Distinguished Professor of English emerita at the University of California, Davis, is the author of eight collections of poetry, including Kissing the Bread: New and Selected Poems 1969-1999, winner of the American Book Award. An important feminist scholar, she has played a leading role in focusing attention on literature and women, coauthoring with Susan Gubar, a professor of English at Indiana University, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the 19th-Century Literary Imagination (a classic work on Jane Austen, the Brontës, Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, and Mary Shelley) and No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the 20th Century, among other works. They also coedited The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English. In 2012, Gilbert and Gubar won the National Book Critics Circle Lifetime Achievement Award.

At the dinner for honorands Wednesday night in Annenberg Hall, President Drew Faust noted that Gilbert had recalled having only a single woman teacher in college, and another in graduate school, and reading only a single woman author as a student: Jane Austen. Gilbert, she said, had changed the terrain.

A former president of the Modern Language Association, Gilbert has been awarded Guggenheim, Rockefeller, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Soros Foundation fellowships. Her Poetry Foundation biography notes, “Though widely acclaimed as a leading feminist literary critic, Sandra M. Gilbert is also a renowned poet” with a “deft gift for phrasing and interest in the metaphysical.”

He faculty escort is Cabot professor of aesthetics and the general theory of value Elaine Scarry, whose work spans aesthetics, pain, nuclear weaponry, and Shakespeare.

James Earl Jones, Doctor of Arts. A son of Mississippi, James Earl Jones has, if anything, been acting even longer than Dame Judi Dench—and with equal distinction. He won Tony and Golden Globe awards for The Great White Hope (and was nominated for an Academy Award for the film version); generations of moviegoers know his voce as Darth Vader (Star Wars and sequels) and Mufasa (The Lion King)—a remarkable accomplishment for someone who had to overcome a debilitating boyhood stutter. A National Medal of Arts winner, a Kennedy Center honorand (2002) and honorary Academy Award winner (2011), he was in Cambridge during the current American Repertory Theater (ART) season, acting the role of the aged Nonno in the revival of Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana. Jones previously received the Harvard Foundation’s Humanitarian Award. The ART’s artistic director, Diane Paulus, will escort Jones.

Walter E. Massey, Doctor of Laws. Physicist Walter E. Massey, also from Mississippi, was president of Morehouse College, his alma mater, from 1995 to 2007. In earlier roles, he was director of the National Science Foundation; vice president for research and professor of physics at the University of Chicago and director of the Argonne National Laboratory; dean of the college and professor of physics at Brown University; and—immediately before his appointment at Morehouse, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of California, responsible for academic and research planning and policy, budgeting, and oversight of the three national laboratories the university manages for the Department of Energy: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. A champion of the arts, he became president of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2010, and then made the transition to the chancellorship in 2016. He is also chair of the board of directors of the organization building the Giant Magellan Telescope (described in depth in this Harvard Magazine feature).

Conant University Professor Danielle Allen, profiled here, will escort Massey; she is also co-chair of the University’s current Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging.

Michael O. Rabin, Doctor of Science. Michael O. Rabin is, fittingly, Thomas J. Watson Sr. Research Professor of computer science—a chair named for the CEO who made International Business Machines a world force at the outset of the computing era. Rabin, fresh off a Ph.D. at Princeton on computation and algebraic problems, joined IBM’s nascent research division in 1957—at the birth of modern computer science; he worked numerous summers there and was a visiting scientist at IBM Research for two full years. After service as a professor at Hebrew University (his undergraduate alma mater)—head of the mathematics department at 31, promotion to full professor at 32, and election as academic head of the institution at 41—he became a professor of computer science at Harvard in 1982, under an arrangement that had him alternating semesters here and at Hebrew University. A leader in theoretical computer science, Rabin won the Turing Award, the highest honor of the Association for Computing Machinery, in 1976.

His honorary degree comes at a time of further expansion in computer science at Harvard, and when the University also honors one of its highest-profile computer-science students, Mark Zuckerberg (see below). Rabin’s faculty escort, Joseph professor of computer science and applied mathematics Salil P. Vadhan, is a member of the new generation of leading theorists in the field; read about his research here.

John Williams, Doctor of Music. However many plays, movies, and television series Dench and Jones have appeared in, combined, John Williams may have composed even more scores. A former music director of the Boston Pops (1980-1993), he composed the music and served as music director for more than 100 movies, forming a particularly productive partnership with Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Amistad, Jurassic Park, the Indiana Jones films, and many more). He has scored all the Star Wars movies, the initial Harry Potter productions, and dozens more, for which he has won five Academy Awards—among 50 Oscar nominations—to go with seven BAFTAs and 20 Grammy Awards (and 64 nominations), plus assorted Golden Globes, Emmys, and gold and platinum records. Williams is a National Medal of Arts honorand (2009). His “Air and Simple Gifts” was composed for the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009.

His faculty escort, Carol Oja, Mason professor of music, wrote for the magazine about Leonard Bernstein ’39, D. Mus. ’67, a subject of her research.

Dr. Huda Yahya Zoghbi, Doctor of Science. “My laboratory uses genetic, behavioral and cell biological approaches to explore the pathogenesis of polyglutamine neurodegenerative diseases and Rett syndrome, and to study normal neurodevelopment,” is how physician-scientist Huda Zoghbi describes her work. A graduate of the American University Beirut and Meharry Medical College, Zoghbi is Feigin professor of pediatrics, neuroscience, and molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. Her research on the genetics of neurodevelopment and neurodegeneration has led both to basic discoveries and to explanations of rare neurodegenerative and neurodevelopmental diseases, including spinocerebellar ataxia type 1 (SCA1) and Rett syndrome, a crippling, delayed-onset autism spectrum disorder. Zoghbi, a member of the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, was awarded a 2017 Breakthrough Prize in life sciencesone of the initiatives supported by Mark Zuckerberg.

Her faculty escort, Paola Arlotta, is professor of stem cell and regenerative biology, whose work on neurons is described here and here.

Mark Zuckerberg, Doctor of Laws. Like that other famous College dropout, Bill Gates ’77, LL.D. ’07—a pioneering software developer whose Microsoft products became a global standard, generating unfathomable wealth, then leading to a new form of philanthropy on a global scale—Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Facebook, a member of the College class of 2006, returns to Tercentenary Theatre to get his Harvard degree, of the honorary variety. His wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan ’07, who grew up in nearby Braintree, has another reason for attending the festival rites: her tenth reunion. (The couple are reported to have visited campus in a low-key way two years ago, for the graduation of Priscilla’s younger sister, Michelle ’15.)

Zuckerberg, who was born May 14, 1984, just turned 33. He is reportedly the youngest honorand in Harvard history, and certainly the youngest Commencement speaker in memory. He appears to be pumped about the occasion: he posted (on Facebook, of course) this home video with the note, “My dad took this video when I got accepted to Harvard. Next week I’m going back for commencement to get my degree.” (For those who could not await his remarks on Thursday, Zuckerberg and Chan shared the public aspects of their lives through a series of Facebook posts on their vacation in Maine, meeting with Mainers whose local paper mill closed, and visits to Chan’s former high school in Quincy, a Square pizza joint, and his Kirkland House room.) Now his parents can take another video for the family archives—while a goodly number of their son’s nearly two billion Facebook users worldwide look in on his remarks Thursday afternoon.

At the honorands’ dinner, President Faust said that the invention that began in a suite in Kirkland House, now Facebook, “has changed how the world works.” It was a delight to welcome Zuckerberg to the lectern, she said, “on this final night before he can at last change his Facebook status to reflect a Harvard degree.”

Zuckerberg—in a tuxedo, not a T-shirt—thanked Faust, saluted the class of 2017 honorands, and said it was “pretty humbling” to be honored beside “some of my childhood heroes.” He continued: “The theme of my bar mitzvah was Star Wars,” making the presence among the honorands of the voice of Darth Vader and the composer of the theme music especially special.

His faculty escort is Bemis professor of law and professor of computer science Jonathan L. Zittrain, director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society—the locus of University research on privacy, Internet accuracy and authenticity, and other issues engaged with the online world and social media, many of which naturally center around Facebook and related platforms and services.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg
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