Amartya Sen To Usher Out Class of 2000
Lauded laureate headlines historic commencement
Nobel laureate Amartya K. Sen, one of the world's foremost welfare economists, has been chosen to deliver Harvard's commencement address on June 8, the University will announce today.
Sen, who is Lamont University professor emeritus, is now Master of Trinity College in Britain. His work in developing nations on the impoverished won him the Nobel Prize for economics in 1998.
In an interview, Harvard President Neil L. Rudenstine said that Sen's pioneering work reflects the values the University wants to exhibit at its first commencement of the new millennium.
"I think what he brings will be a genuinely important and, in effect, original vision," he said. "[He's known for] creating a really powerful conception with a good deal of evidence about the ways in which economic development and important freedoms and rights are interdependent."
Sen, 66, has conducted research in a range of fields in economics and philosophy, including social choice theory, welfare economics, the theory of measurement, development economics and moral and political philosophy.
Sen's colleagues praised his choice as commencement speaker.
"Amartya Sen is well known to everyone in the field," said Jeffrey Williamson, chair of the economics department. "Even if you're living on the moon, you know who he is. With his amazing contributions and research, he's been a steady presence."
"He's won every conceivable honor except the one he will be receiving in June. Normally, there is some jealousy or Monday-morning quarterbacking about all these awards, but there is none for Amartya. It's just a warm, soft and fuzzy feeling," Williamson added.
Sen is widely recognized for his study of the 1974 Bangladesh floods.
At a time when other economists and social scientists blamed the environment for the resulting famine and devastation, Sen's view was more subtle.
He found that the floods themselves were not entirely to blame for the famine. Farmers whose fields were destroyed had no way to make ends meet, since their government did not find a way to employ them gainfully.
Sen continues to challenge the prevailing assumption that food shortages are the cause for famines. His research suggests that poverty and infrastructure problems are the real culprits.
He has also developed an index to measure poverty while taking into account the distribution of resources among poor people and the average wealth of those in poverty.
A native of India, Sen graduated from Presidency College in Calcutta and received his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from Trinity College.
Before coming to Harvard in 1987, Sen taught about political economy at Oxford for 10 years. He was Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics between 1971 and 1977.
Responding to concerns that many students will have already heard Sen speak--he spoke to undergraduates just last month and lectures regularly at the Business School--Rudenstine said, "The number of students who haven't heard him would be larger than those who had, not to mention the parents, not to mention the alumni. I think he'll be working hard to craft something [meaningful]."
Several students praised the choice of Sen, saying he would add diversity to the list of commencement week speakers.
"I think it's really great that such an important intellectual was chosen. It's a good balance for [Class Day speaker] Conan O' Brien," said Senior Class Marshal Gwen Y. Shen '00.
She added that the senior marshals "just spent all weekend choosing our Class Day speakers and we're very excited about our variety. With the addition of Dr. Sen as the commencement speaker, there is even greater diversity."
Class Marshal Robby S. Schwartz '00 said that the response from other members of the class had also been positive.
"Everybody I've mentioned it to has been upbeat and that's encouraging to me," Schwartz said.
Sameera Fazili '00, who is also a class marshal, said she thought Sen's address would be particularly timely.
"It's great that he deals with the topic of development, given the recent [World Trade Organization] protests and the calls for cancellation of third world debt," she said. "It's not often that we in the United States hear from prominent South Asian intellectuals."
Sen was selected by a large committee that draws up the list of honorary degree candidates and, from that list, chooses the commencement speaker.
Rudenstine said, "There was some effort to...try and reflect both the past and the future. Several of the honorary degree candidates were chosen with some sense of the different kinds of contributions of significance that were made in the last half of the century."
Recent commencement speakers include Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan; Mary Robinson, U.N High Commissioner for Human Rights and former President of Ireland; U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright; Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health; Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic, and Vice President Al Gore '69.