Harvard’s Honorary-Degree Recipients 2018

Four artists, an ocean biologist, a democratizing statesman, and a public-health leader (and favorite son)

Front row from left: Provost Alan Garber, President Drew Faust, and John R. Lewis. Back row from left: George E. Lewis, Twyla Tharp, Harvey V. Fineberg, Rita Dove, President Ricardo Lagos, Sallie W. Chisholm, and Wong Kar Wai
Photograph by Harvard Magazine/JC

During the Morning Exercises of the 367th Commencement, on May 24, Harvard planned to confer honorary degrees on a relatively small cohort, comprising three women and four men. They include four distinguished leaders in the arts, an area of particular emphasis during the presidency of Drew Gilpin Faust, who retires on June 30; among them are:

Their fellow honorands include a biological oceanographer, a public-health leader (and likely sentimental favorite as a past Harvard dean and provost), and a former head of state who helped restore democracy to his country.

Ordinarily, the speaker for the afternoon exercises is also among the honorands. But this year’s speaker, U.S. Representative John R. Lewis, LL.D. ’12, a pioneering civil-rights leader, already holds an honorary degree from the University, and returned to campus in April 2016 to join Faust in a ceremony acknowledging Harvard’s past involvement with slavery. (At the celebratory dinner for honorands Wednesday evening, Faust emotionally welcomed him as “an American hero, my hero.”)

Nor is it clear whether there is a designated role for a honorand-performer this year, a recurring motif of Faust-era Commencement galas. Past performers have included soprano Renée Fleming in 2015soul singer Aretha Franklin (2014)tenor Plácido Domingo (2011), and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (2009).

The honorands are listed below in alphabetical order, not in the order of conferral of degrees. For details on the conferrals, check back for coverage of the morning ceremonies later today.

Sallie “Penny” W. Chisholm, Doctor of Science. Sallie W. Chisholm, a biological oceanographer, is Institute Professor at MIT. She joined the faculty there in 1976, two years after earning her Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Albany. By studying the cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus, the smallest and most abundant microbe in ocean ecosystems (and the most abundant photosynthetic cell on Earth)—an organism discovered by Chisholm and her team in 1988—her laboratory probes ocean life at scales from the genome to the shaping of the entire ecosystem. She is a National Medal of Science honorand, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences, and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. The announcement of her National Medal of Science, in 2011, made note of the significance of her foundational discovery, observing of Prochlorococcus, “If you’ve taken a deep breath of fresh air today, you can thank Sallie “Penny” Chisholm.” With illustrator Molly Bang, Chisholm has also created the Sunlight Series of scientific books about the living planet for children. Earlier in her MIT career, she was Lee and Geraldine Martin professor of environmental studies—the chair once held by Lawrence S. Bacow, now Harvard’s president-elect.

Rita Dove, Doctor of Letters. Rita Dove, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Thomas and Beulah (1986), was appointed United States Poet Laureate in 1993—then the youngest person (40 years old) and the first African American to be so honored. The Phi Beta Kappa poet at Harvard in 1993, she has been awarded both the National Humanities Medal (1996) and the National Medal of Arts (2011). In conferring the latter, President Barack Obama remarked, “Through works that blend beauty, lyricism, critique, and politics, Ms. Dove has illuminated American poetry and literature, and cultivated popular interest in the arts.” Her Poetry Foundation biography notes that Dove, whose work is “known for its lyricism and beauty,” also “treats historical events with a personal touch, addressing her grandparents’ life and marriage in early 20th-century Ohio, the battles and triumphs of the Civil Rights era, and the forgotten career of black violinist and friend to Beethoven, George Polgreen Bridgetower.” In addition to her volumes of poetry, Dove has written about music and dance, is the author of short stories, a novel, and a play, and has written lyrics for composers including John Williams, D.Mus. ’18. A graduate of Miami University and the Iowa Writers Workshop, she is Commonwealth Professor in the department of English at the University of Virginia.

Harvey V. Fineberg, Doctor of Laws. With his honorary degree, Harvey V. Fineberg, who served as dean of the Harvard School of Public Health from 1984 to 1997 and then as University provost until June 2001, adds to an impressively long list of Harvard credentials including A.B. ’67, M.D. ’71, M.P.P. ’72, and Ph.D. ’80. A Harvard Medal recipient, Fineberg led the public-health school during a period of enormous growth during the AIDS crisis; as provost, he played a central role in promoting interfaculty initiatives and in deploying emerging information technologies across the University. Following his Harvard service, he served two six-year terms as president of the Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine), and then held the presidential visiting chair at the University of California, San Francisco. He has been chair of the board of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and in 2015 became president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which provides substantial philanthropic support for scientific discovery, environmental conservation, and improvements in patient care. Drew Faust has hailed him as “Harvard’s man for all seasons” and noted that because he was instrumental in establishing the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, whose dean she became, he was in a way responsible for bringing her to Massachusetts Hall as the University’s twenty-eighth president.

President Ricardo Lagos, Doctor of Laws. Ricardo Lagos Escobar, a lawyer and economist, was president of the Republic of Chile from 2000 to 2006. He earned his law degree from the University of Chile and a doctorate in economics from Duke. During the 1980s, as founder and first president of the Party for Democracy, he led the Democratic Alliance in opposition to the military dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet (Lagos lived in exile in Argentina and the United States from 1973 to 1978), and played a lead role in organizing the “no” vote in a 1988 plebiscite on Pinochet’s continuation as president. Lagos was minister of education and minister of public works in governments that preceded his own election as president. Following his presidency, he served as president of the Club of Madrid, an organization of former presidents who promote democracy worldwide, and then as a United Nations special envoy on climate change.

George E. Lewis, Doctor of Music. Trombone player, composer, installation artist, electronic performer, and scholar, George E. Lewis, widely recognized for his jazz and computer music documented in more than 150 recordings, is Case professor of American music at Columbia. The creator of the Voyager system for interactive computer music, he is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has been a MacArthur Fellow and a Guggenheim Fellow. A 1974 graduate of Yale (in philosophy), Lewis studied composition with Muhal Richard Abrams at the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) School of Music, and trombone with Dean Hey. A member of the AACM since 1971, he is the author of A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. His work has been performed worldwide, and he has received commissions from American Composers Orchestra, International Contemporary Ensemble, Harvestworks, Ensemble Either/Or, Orkestra Futura, Turning Point Ensemble, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, 2010 Vancouver Cultural Olympiad, IRCAM, Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, and others. Lewis served as Fromm visiting professor of music at Harvard in 2017.

Twyla Tharp, Doctor of Arts. Twyla Tharp, a 1963 graduate of Barnard, has choreographed more than 160 works, and is known especially for creating nearly 130 dances. The winner of a Tony Award and two Emmys, she is a 2004 National Medal of the Arts honorand, a Kennedy Center honorand, a former MacArthur Fellow, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her company, Twyla Tharp Dance, founded in 1965, was acclaimed for creativity and technical precision, drawing upon such diverse sources as jazz, pop, boxing, and ballet; it played a leading role in defining modern dance and ballet. She has also created dances for the Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Theater, New York City Ballet, Martha Graham Dance Company, and the Royal Ballet, and has choreographed and created shows for the musical theater, movies, and television. Some of her diverse sources of inspiration may derive from a childhood spent in part on her Quaker grandparents’ farm in Indiana, and thereafter at her parent’s drive-in movie theater in California. Tharp is the author of Push Comes to Shove, an autobiography, and The Creative Habit and The Collaborative Habit.

Wong Kar Wai, Doctor of Arts. Writer and director Wong Kar Wai is an internationally celebrated filmmaker, rarely seen without his trademark sunglasses. Born in Shanghai, he emigrated with his parents to Hong Kong, where his father managed a nightclub. Reportedly, he did not speak the local language, Cantonese, until he was 13. He did immerse himself in pop music and city nightlife; both have left deep grooves on his work. Wong is best known for his loose trilogy of melancholy romances set in Hong Kong: Days of Being WildIn the Mood for Love, and 2046. Time and missed moments are a central theme; his narratives tend to be fragmented and nonlinear, perhaps reflecting his famously haphazard work process, which prizes fresh reactions over order, discovery over deliberation. Since the breakout success of Chungking Express in 1994, Wong has been known, on the day of a shoot, to distribute scripts that seem to have been scribbled longhand; he has often summoned actors back on a whim. The director has also leant his lush, moody style to martial-arts epics like Ashes of Time and The Grandmaster—and also to his sole English-language work to date, an American road movie, My Blueberry Nights (in which he cast Natalie Portman ’03 as a professional, if unskilled, poker player).


Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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