Harvard Confers Six Honorary Degrees

Nobel laureate Maria Ressa, conductor Gustavo Dudamel, President emeritus Larry Bacow among those recognized

8 people in academic robes sit for a photograph in front on Memorial Church

Back from, from left: Jennie Chin Hansen, Sylvester James Gates, Jr., Lawrence S. Bacow, Joy Harjo-Sapulpa, and Gustavo Adolfo Dudamel Ramirez. Front row, from left: John Manning , Alan Garber, and Maria Ressa.  | PHOTOGRAPH BY STEPHANIE MITCHELL/HPAC

During the 373rd Commencement this morning, Harvard will celebrate six distinguished leaders, conferring honorary degrees on three men and three women:

a courageous journalist who is a Nobel Peace Prize winner;

a U.S. poet laureate, and an acclaimed symphonic conductor;

a pioneering leader in geriatric and health care for elder Americans;

a leading theoretical physicist; and

in keeping with tradition, Harvard’s twenty-ninth president, now emeritus.

Today’s relatively compact cohort of honorands is listed alphabetically below, not necessarily in the order of conferral of degrees. (The guest speaker—this year journalist Maria Ressa—has traditionally been recognized as the final degree recipient.) For details on the conferrals, check back for coverage of the Commencement ceremonies later today at www.harvardmagazine.com.

Lawrence S. Bacow, M.P.P.-J.D. ’76, Ph.D. ’78, who became Harvard University’s president on July 1, 2018, and served through June 2023. Bacow, who will long be remembered for his early, decisive action to move from residential to remote education as the COVID-19 pandemic spread in March 2020, also made decisive contributions by advancing research in fields ranging from quantum computing and climate change to artificial intelligence, and supported discovery of Harvard’s legacy of slavery. His personally modest manner, combined with a theory of action in academic settings honed during his long service at MIT, prior presidency at Tufts, and Harvard Corporation membership, enabled Bacow to untangle the Gordian Knot of Allston, where construction on the commercial enterprise research campus and a new theater complex is now well underway, and to reframe the long-running argument over divesting any fossil-fuel assets held in the endowment as a larger project of achieving “net-zero” greenhouse gas emissions across the endowment as a whole.

A proponent of the educational and other benefits of diversity (he frequently tells audiences that talent is distributed equally, but opportunity is not), Bacow made executive appointments—from the University’s health services and the vice president of human resources to the campus police and the Memorial Church ministry—that literally changed the face of Harvard. An institutionalist, he effected important reforms, from separating Commencement and reunions—resulting in distinct ceremonies focused on the graduating class (like this morning’s exercise) and on alumni and reunions—to installing new rules for the election of petition candidates to the Board of Overseers.

Bacow—a veteran of dozens of graduations during his long academic life, from his MIT undergraduate degree to his Harvard advanced degrees, as faculty member and academic leader, and as parent—was determined to create in-person ceremonies for the classes of 2020 and 2021, whose celebrations were derailed by the pandemic. The 2022 Commencement, and the ensuing, emotional make-up ceremony that brought together the 2020 and 2021 graduates, were a personal highlight of his tenure as the University’s president. Less than two weeks later, he announced his plan to relinquish his service as “Larry 29,” concluding his presidency on June 30, 2023. Honoring that service at the 373rd Commencement thus seems especially fitting.

Gustavo Dudamel, music and artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, his home country. In February 2023, reporting the appointment of Dudamel music and artistic director of the New York Philharmonic effective in 2026, the New York Times called him “the charismatic conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, whose fiery baton and bouncy curls have made him one of classical music’s most recognizable figures” and described his planned relocation as “a major coup” for his new musical home. From his arrival in Los Angeles in 2009, the newspaper reported, “Dudamel has helped build a vast cultural empire and helped turn the orchestra into one of the most innovative and financially successful in the United States.”

A prodigy (in 2007, when Los Angeles announced the appointment, he was 26 years old and had made his professional conducting debut just three years earlier), Dudamel is the leading figure in a generation of younger conductors who are refreshing audiences for classical music, in part by embracing new works and emerging composers. He is widely acclaimed for building Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, which provides 1,500 youths with free instruments, music instruction, and academic support and leadership training. It is modeled in part on the Venezuelan El Sistema movement of musical training and social development created by 2013 honorand José Antonio Abreu; mentored by Abreu, Dudamel himself studied violin in the El Sistema program before pivoting to conducting at age 13. As befits a champion of young musicians, Dudamel was toasted at the dinner for the degree recipients Wednesday night with an arrangement of “Alma Llanera” (“Soul of the Plains”), a Venezuelan song that celebrates the llanero herder culture and is now considered an unofficial national anthem—performed in this case by a quartet of undergraduates, one of whom reportedly had to take a crash course in the use of gourd maracas.

Dudamel’s success in classical music has been extended by his popular-culture presence, from a 2016 Super Bowl halftime cameo to conducting movie soundtracks (including for the Stephen Spielberg, Ar.D.’16 version of West Side Story)—making him the rare person in his line of work to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Perhaps better than anything else, this excerpt from his official biography gives a sense of the maestro’s interests:

During the 2024 Hollywood Bowl season, Dudamel will lead the LA Phil in performances of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 with pianist Yunchan Lim, an evening of music from the Marvel cinematic universe, two performances with brother-sister pianists Sergio Tiempo and Karin Lechner in Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals and mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb singing scenes from Carmen, and a program with 18-time Latin GRAMMY® winner Natalia Lafourcade singing music from her critically acclaimed De Todas las Flores. Dudamel will also conduct Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, before closing the season with a star-studded evening of opera duets and arias, with soprano Diana Damrau and tenor Jonas Kaufmann.

 

Sylvester James Gates Jr. [Updated May 24, 10:40 A.M. at the request of Professor Gates, who wishes to be identified as]: Clark Leadership Chair in Science with a joint appointment in the department of physics and the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and Distinguished University Professor and a University System of Maryland Regents Professor. A dual B.Sc. graduate of MIT (in mathematics and physics, he also earned his Ph.D. there, in 1977, presenting the institute’s first doctoral thesis on supersymmetry. His research has since focused on supersymmetry, supergravity, and superstring theory. He held a fellowship in the Harvard Society of Fellows from 1977 to 1980.

Gates is a past president of the National Society of Black Physicists and an NSBP Fellow, as well as a Fellow of the American Physical Society (APS), the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Institute of Physics in the U.K. In 2021, he served as president of the APS. He is also an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. In 2013, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, becoming the first African American theoretical physicist so recognized in its 150-year history. President Obama conferred the National Medal of Science on Gates in 2013. His citation recognizes both Gates’s contributions to the mathematics of his field of physics and his “extraordinary efforts to engage the public on the beauty and wonder of fundamental physics.” In the accompanying narrative, he said, “Great science belongs to everybody.”

Alongside his hundreds of scholarly papers and presentations, Gates is co-author of Superspace or 1001 Lessons in Supersymmetry (1983) and Proving Einstein Right: The Daring Expeditions that Changed How We Look at the Universe (2019).

Jennie Chin Hansen, immediate past chief executive of the American Geriatrics Society, and past president of AARP—a position she held during the development of the Affordable Care Act. A pioneer in care for the elderly, Hansen spent nearly a quarter-century with On Lok, Inc., a nonprofit family of organizations providing comprehensive medical and community-based services to older adults in San Francisco. Its integrated, coordinated system became the prototype for the Program of All-Inclusive Care to the Elderly (PACE) within the Medicare and Medicaid programs, now in use across much of the United States.

A Fellow in the American Academy of Nursing, Hansen served a six-year term as a federal commissioner of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), and has been a member of the Veterans Health Administration Advisory Committee on Gerontology and Geriatrics.

Among other honors, Hansen has received the American Society on Aging’s (ASA) Hall of Fame award and an honorary doctorate from Boston College, her alma mater.

Joy Harjo, twenty-third Poet Laureate of the United States, 2019-2022. The author of 10 books of poetry (plus several plays, children’s books, and two volumes of memoir), Harjo, of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, won Yale’s 2023 Bollingen Prize for American Poetry. She is lead editor of When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry (2020), incorporating more than 160 poets, representing nearly 100 indigenous nations. When she is not writing, Harjo is also a performing musician who has produced seven albums: a saxophonist and vocalist, she played for many years with her band, Poetic Justice.

A graduate of the University of New Mexico, she earned her M.F.A. at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. According to her Poetry Foundation biography:

Harjo draws on First Nation storytelling and histories, as well as feminist and social justice poetic traditions, and frequently incorporates indigenous myths, symbols, and values into her writing. Her poetry inhabits landscapes—the Southwest, Southeast, but also Alaska and Hawaii—and centers around the need for remembrance and transcendence. She once commented, “I feel strongly that I have a responsibility to all the sources that I am: to all past and future ancestors, to my home country, to all places that I touch down on and that are myself, to all voices, all women, all of my tribe, all people, all earth, and beyond that to all beginnings and endings. In a strange kind of sense [writing] frees me to believe in myself, to be able to speak, to have voice, because I have to; it is my survival.” Her work is often autobiographical, informed by the natural world, and above all preoccupied with survival and the limitations of language.

Her 2012 memoir, Crazy Brave (her last name means “so brave you’re crazy”), won the American Book Award. A chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, she served as Board of Directors Chair of the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation.

In a Harvardian graduation side note, the recent New Yorker profile of U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, written by Casey Cep ’07, notes that Harjo was an important mentor to Haaland at the University of New Mexico; Haaland was Harvard Law School’s class day speaker yesterday.

 

Maria A. Ressa, co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 (with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov) for her brave, independent news coverage of her native Philippines.

The honorand was born in Manila in 1963 and moved to the United States with her family at age 9. After attending Princeton, she worked as a local correspondent for CNN beginning in 1995, covering the advent of terrorism in Southeast Asia. She cofounded the Rappler news site in 2012. In the Nobel Prize committee’s description:

As an investigative journalist, she has distinguished herself as a fearless defender of freedom of expression and has exposed the abuse of power, use of violence, and increasing authoritarianism of the regime of President Rodrigo Duterte. In particular…Ressa has focused critical attention on President Duterte’s controversial, murderous anti-drug campaign. She and Rappler have also documented how social media are being used to spread fake news, harass opponents, and manipulate public discourse.

In unveiling Ressa’s selection as Commencement guest speaker, Alan M. Garber, interim president, said:

Maria Ressa embodies Veritas. For nearly 40 years, she has dedicated herself to truth—its pursuit, its advocacy, and its defense—no matter the repercussions. Her unshakable commitment to free expression and her courageous fight against disinformation are an inspiration to all who value democracy. We look forward to welcoming her to campus and to acknowledging her outstanding contributions to society.

According to the University announcement, Ressa is an inaugural Carnegie Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Global Politics at Columbia University. In July, she will join Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs faculty as a professor of professional practice. She currently serves as vice-chair of the leadership panel of the Internet Governance Forum, appointed by the United Nations Secretary General in 2022.

At a time of rising political antagonism within the United States, increasing references to violence toward perceived political opponents, and disquiet about the effects of social media on discourse generally, Ressa’s selection seems especially pertinent.

Read a detailed account of her work and life here.

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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