Harvard Confers Seven Honorary Degrees
A Nobel-winning chemist, a documentary dramatist and a photojournalist, a preeminent news editor, and more
The coronavirus pandemic has understandably overturned many beloved Harvard traditions. The celebratory hoopla of Commencement and reunions was reduced to an online graduation ceremony in 2020. This year, with more time to prepare, the University has planned a more complete set of academic-year-end virtual events for 2021: the Baccalaureate, class days and the ROTC commissioning ceremonies, and a version of the Harvard Alumni Association’s annual meeting (on June 4), surrounded by reunions. More of the cherished events, to be sure, but still very much online.
And now the pandemic has forced another tradition, nearly sacrosanct, to yield, at least slightly. Harvard has always insisted that honorary-degree recipients be present on campus to receive their accolades (none were conferred last year). But given this second consecutive online ceremony, those recognitions and conferrals will proceed—remotely—too.
During the May 27 proceedings, “Honoring the Harvard Class of 2021” (as the graduation is being called, since the classes of 2020 and 2021 have been promised a future in-person Commencement), scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m., Harvard plans to confer honorary degrees on four women and three men. Ordinarily, the principal speaker of the day would receive an honorary degree as well, but this year’s guest, Ruth J. Simmons, Ph.D. ’73, LL.D. ’02—president emerita of Smith College and Brown University, now president of Prairie View A&M—already has one (“Opening minds, opening doors, opening eyes to new opportunities, she has spurred higher education higher with inspiring providence,” her citation read), to go with her earned Harvard doctorate.
The precedent-setting honorands of the Zoom/streaming era are:
• a scientist who shared the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry;
• an entrepreneurial leader in online education;
• a pioneering legal advocate for freedom and liberty in South Africa (her home country), and the United States;
• an internationally acclaimed documentary photographer, and an acclaimed contemporary actress;
• a sociologist who has probed emotions, work, family—and, of late, sociopolitical divides; and
• last year’s (online) guest speaker, the foremost news editor of his generation.
The honorands are listed below in alphabetical order (not necessarily in the order of conferral of degrees). For details on the conferrals, check back for coverage of the morning ceremonies later today. Updated May 27, 2:20 p.m.: The degrees were conferred in this order; a report on the conferral, with the honorands’ citations, is available here.
Frances H. Arnold is Linus Pauling professor of chemical engineering, bioengineering, and biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology, where she directs the Rosen Bioengineering Center. As her laboratory website describes her work, “We develop evolutionary protein design methods to elucidate principles of biological design and generate novel and useful enzymes and organisms”—research for which she shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2018. Her discoveries in the “directed evolution of enzymes” have yielded “more environmentally friendly manufacturing of chemical substances, such as pharmaceuticals, and the production of renewable fuels,” according to the Nobel write-up. Arnold is the first woman to have been elected to all three of the U.S. National Academies—of Engineering, Medicine, and Science—and she has received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, among other awards. Her adventuresome spirit showed up early. Recalling her family’s summers at Macatawa, on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, Arnold wrote that it “was paradise because we could run around freely, sometimes in packs, and sometimes alone. My mother nearly had a heart attack one day upon seeing my tricycle abandoned at the end of the dock. I was found underneath the dock, digging up crayfish. A couple of summers later, I had to be persuaded not to launch the raft I built to take me to Chicago, 90 miles across the lake.” Clearly, she has journeyed much farther than that: only the ninth woman to be hired on the Caltech faculty, she noted, she became the first female Nobel laureate there—and did so while surviving advanced breast cancer and the loss of a life partner. Doctor of Science.
Martin Baron, who retired as executive editor of The Washington Post in February, was the guest speaker at Harvard’s 2020 graduation exercises. Baron assumed his Post responsibilities in 2013, having previously served as editor of The Boston Globe (2001-2012), during which time the paper won the Pulitzer Prize for public service for its coverage of clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church. He previously held senior editing positions at The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Miami Herald (where he began his journalism career in 1976). Baron was born and raised in Tampa, and earned his B.A. and M.B.A. degrees at Lehigh University, where he edited the student newspaper. In his address last year—amid the intensifying coronavirus crisis, politicized denials of science, and attacks on journalism and journalists—he spoke bluntly about “the need for a commitment to facts and to truth.” Presciently outlining the stakes during the harsh politicking to come, he said, “Facts and truth are matters of life and death. Misinformation, disinformation, delusions and deceit can kill. Here is what can move us forward: Science and medicine. Study and knowledge. Expertise and reason. In other words, facts and truth,” safeguarded by free expression and an independent press. Doctor of Laws.
Arlie R. Hochschild, professor of sociology emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, has explored the connections between emotions and social life, in the context of work and family—ranging from immigrant care workers who must leave their children behind to earn a living in another country (Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, co-edited with Barbara Ehrenreich, 2002) to Americans who find themselves hard-pressed to balance employment and family (The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work, 1997) and conflicted by the demands of dual-worker households in which women still bear most domestic responsibilities (The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home, with Anne Machung, 1989). Turning to American politics, she did field research among Louisiana Tea Party supporters for her most recent book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016). Documenting an unseen class war that flamed up across the American civic landscape, it attributed the rise of resentments among people who felt they were fairly “waiting in line” to make progress to their perceptions that others were cutting in ahead of them via unfair advantages. Doctor of Laws.
Salman Khan, M.B.A. ’03, is founder of the nonprofit Khan Academy, a free, online, self-paced education platform, originally focused heavily on math and science, that evolved from his effort to tutor relatives using the internet, and subsequently, YouTube. During his 2014 Business School Class Day address, Khan recalled beginning his business education two weeks before the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center—an event that made him and his student peers aware that they were not competitors but “all just creatures in a world that we didn’t understand.” That uncertainty, he said, had broadened into a sense that, “For better or worse, centuries-old institutions and frameworks are being challenged, and this trend only seems to be accelerating.” His innovations in applying technology to distribute education widely online are a clear example of what that means—particularly after a year when the pandemic shuttered much in-person schooling worldwide, including at places like Harvard. According to a recent count, the academy’s videos had been accessed nearly 2 billion times. Doctor of Laws.
Margaret H. Marshall, Ed.M. ’69, Ed ’77, L ’78, a native of South Africa, served as an undergraduate as president of the National Union of South African Students, a leading anti-apartheid organization. (Given her involvement with her homeland’s protracted evolution toward freedom, Marshall played a major role in the University celebration of Nelson Mandela, when he visited Harvard in September 1998 to receive his honorary degree in a special ceremony.) In the United States, where she earned her master’s degree at Harvard and her law degree at Yale, she practiced law in Boston law firms; served as Harvard’s general counsel from 1992 to 1996; and was appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1996. In 1999, she became the first woman appointed Chief Justice, serving until her retirement in 2010. (At one point during her tenure, she served as president of the United States Conference of Chief Justices.) In 2003, she wrote the majority opinion in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, which held that Massachusetts could not deny same-sex couples the right to marry, and made the Commonwealth the first state to legalize gay marriage. Apart from her term as general counsel, Marshall had other leadership roles in higher education: she was a member of Yale’s Board of Trustees from 2004 to 2010, and was subsequently appointed to a second term in 2012, serving as senior trustee—the first woman to do so—until 2016; and she chaired the committee that reviewed and recommended changes in Overseers’ elections and the composition of the board, adopted in September 2020. (In the interests of full disclosure, Marshall is a past president of Harvard Magazine Inc., and is a member of the organization’s Board of Incorporators.) Doctor of Laws.
Sebastião Salgado has traveled the world as a photojournalist and documentary photographer, working from 1979 to 1994 with the Magnum Photos cooperative before forming his own agency. Trained as an economist in his native Brazil, he turned to photography in the early 1970s, and is especially well known for documenting the conditions under which workers in less developed nations toil, among them the miners at the hand-dug Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil; coffee workers; shipbreakers in Chittagong, Bangladesh; and the oil-well firefighters who extinguished the burning wells left behind by Iraqi troops after the invasion of Kuwait in 1991. Recent projects have included documenting the interaction of nature and humanity—an interest that coincides with Salgado’s efforts to preserve part of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest as a nature preserve. Doctor of Arts.
Anna Deavere Smith, RI ’92, a dramatist and actress, has enjoyed wide success in the theater and movies, and is popularly known for her roles on television in The West Wing, For the People, Nurse Jackie, and Blackish. Perhaps her most important work has been documenting ordinary American lives through original dramas. A 1996 MacArthur Fellow, she was recognized for creating “a new form of theater—a blend of theatrical art, social commentary, and intimate reverie” whose performance pieces “offer compelling views of urban, racial, and class conflict” in works such as her one-woman shows Fires in the Mirror (about the Crown Heights riot) and Twilight: Los Angeles (about the riots after the acquittal of police officers who beat Rodney King). She founded the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at Harvard’s American Repertory Theater in 1997 and subsequently relocated it to New York University’s Tisch School, where she is University Professor. A 2012 National Endowment for the Humanities Medalist, she was cited for “her portrayal of authentic American voices. Through profound performances and plays that blend theater and journalism, she has informed our understanding of social issues and conveyed a range of disparate characters.” She was the endowment’s Jefferson Lecturer in 2015. Her Pipeline Project, launched in 2012, aims to disrupt the “school to prison pipeline” for disadvantaged youth, probing race, inequality, and disciplinary processes through interviews and melding the findings into drama; the resulting Notes from the Field was produced as a play, an HBO film, and a book. Doctor of Arts.
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