Sen Sets Sights On World Poverty

This afternoon, new graduates of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government will be sent into their public-service careers with guidance from one of academia’s leading global thinkers.

Lamont University Professor Amartya K. Sen, who won the Nobel Prize in 1998 for contributions to welfare economics, will deliver the Class Day address at the Kennedy School today. He rejoined the Harvard economics department in January after spending nearly six years as master of Trinity College, Cambridge—a post he garnered after recommendation by the British prime minister.

According to Kennedy School Senior Associate Dean Joseph McCarthy, Sen’s selection as this year’s speaker reflects the Kennedy School’s increasing emphasis on Harvard’s role as an international educator.

“The Kennedy School is the most international school at Harvard,” McCarthy says. “We estimate that between a third and 40 percent of our current students are following a path that will lead them toward of international development.”

Both international enrollment and enrollment in internationally oriented degree programs have increased in recent years, he says, largely as a result of a heavy emphasis on the program from outgoing Dean of the Kennedy School Joseph S. Nye.

Sen’s academic career, which has centered on economic and moral dilemmas resulting from underdevelopment in the international context, made him an ideal speaker to usher out the Kennedy school graduates as they embark on internationally oriented careers.

Last year, Massachusetts Governor W. Mitt Romney delivered the Kennedy School’s address.

Sen is no stranger to the Commencement stage. He delivered Harvard’s main Commencement address—the most prestigious speech in the ceremony—in 2000. Even while teaching at Trinity College, he frequently made visits to speak at Harvard.

Sen’s address this afternoon, geared toward the Kennedy School’s emphasis on international development, will be titled “A Democratic World.”

Sen first rose to prominence in the 1960s and, in the years since, has led a new wave of economic theory based on concern for the human implications of financial pressures on disadvantaged populations.

Finding a common thread in the economist’s work, though, is difficult. Pursuing a variety of projects over the course of his career, Sen has veered increasingly from his own field and into others. His intellectual hallmark, colleagues say, has become the intense interdisciplinary quality of his work—a trajectory that has drawn him outside the traditional boundaries of his field and into politics and philosophy.

“Amartya Sen is a hero to those of us who would recall economics to its roots in moral and political philosophy,” Bass Professor of Government Michael Sandel writes in an e-mail. “He reminds us that economics can be a humane science, concerned not only with utility but also with human development, democracy and freedom.”

Sen’s recent activities on campus—even during the five years when he was master of Trinity College—reflect his broad and socially oriented interests.

In addition to speaking at the University’s 2000 Commencement, he also lectured at the Inaugural Lecture Series at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study in 2001. In a 2002 Institute of Politics Forum, he debated University President Lawrence H. Summers on the implications of globalization after Sept. 11—although the two economists differed little in their basic opinions on the topic.

In addition to his ample academic duties, Sen has also been the honorary president for OXFAM, a global organization that works to overcome poverty. He now serves as OXFAM’s honorary adviser. For both his academic work and his humanistic concerns, he has accumulated a long list of honors.

Sen has written that he has always found it difficult to avoid touching on several different fields in his research.

“I feel somewhat apologetic that my interests are so diverse,” Sen told The Crimson in 2000. “I’m so peripatetic, after a year or two I tend to move to something else.”

But most colleagues contend that it’s precisely this uninhibited approach to scholarship that has made Sen one of the most important thinkers of his time.

WELFARE AND BEYOND

Sen was born in the university town of Dhaka, India to an academic family: His father was a chemistry professor and his grandfather had taught Sanskrit. Sen has written that he knew early in his life that he, too, would become an academic. The only open question was what he would teach.

He received a relatively unorthodox education early in his life, when his parents sent him to a progressive elementary school in Dhaka.

“Any kind of interest in examination performance and grades was severely discouraged,” he wrote in an autobiographical statement upon receiving the Nobel Prize. The teachers instead emphasized the importance of genuine curiosity as the impetus behind education and, ultimately, creative thought. Under this eccentric tutelage, Sen considered careers in physics, mathematics and Sanskrit before deciding to pursue economics.

Sen’s early education was also rather unusual for the time in its embrace of a globalizing world, drawing curricular material from the thought and culture of several non-western nations.

This global awareness has since become the heart of his research. As an undergraduate at Presidency College in Calcutta, India, Sen found himself in a vibrant and highly politicized intellectual environment that, he has suggested, informed his later research interests.

At Presidency College Sen first became interested in welfare economics and democratic social choice. He continued to pursue these interests when, after receiving his degree in economics and mathematics while still in his late teens, he enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge, to take another bachelor’s degree—and eventually a doctorate—in economics alone.

But when his dissertation snagged a no-strings-attached fellowship, Sen gained a few years of open-ended study at Cambridge. He turned to philosophy, focusing in particular on epistemology and moral and ethical topics. At Harvard, he has taught extensively in both the economics and philosophy departments.

Sen taught at the Delhi School of Economics from 1963 through 1971, when he undertook several important projects in social choice theory—a branch of economics that addressed group decision-making by voters with different personal priorities.

In the early 1970s Sen returned to England, teaching first at the London School of Economics and then at Oxford, where he tackled broad problems pertaining to poverty and economic inequity, focusing in particular on the causes of famine.

Throughout his career, Sen has gained special attention for his broadly based and unconventional interpretations of various economic phenomena. His unconventional interpretation of the 1974 floods in Bangladesh, for instance, garnered him particular acclaim.

Sen ran against conventional economic wisdom to suggest that the floods were not the sole cause of famines that ensued. Rather, he suggested, longstanding socioeconomic weakness among local farmers, due to insufficient support from the government, was also to blame.

When Sen’s second wife died of cancer in 1985, he left England for the United States and, after making a tour of several universities, decided to take a teaching post at Harvard.

HOME TO HARVARD

The University offered a rich intellectual milieu that sustained Sen’s growing interests.

“I could learn also from academics in many other fields as well, not least at the Society of Fellows where I served as a Senior Fellow for nearly a decade,” Sen has written in his Nobel autobiography.

But Sen has never restricted his attention to his fellow scholars. Former students, graduate and undergraduate alike, described him as a devoted teacher as well.

Although Sen has not yet taught in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences since returning this past semester, he boasts a strong—and generous—track record at the head of the classroom.

During his previous 11 years at the University he taught frequently and, by all accounts, enthusiastically in the Core.

Students describe Sen as a warm and caring professor.

Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law at the University of Chicago who has collaborated frequently with Sen in the past, has said that Sen enjoyed teaching a full load of courses at Harvard, even though his University professorship enabled him to pursue research without teaching at all.

He had “always been there to support students’ initiatives that broaden our intellectual experience,” she said.

Still, in spite of his lifelong academic career, Sen has remained strongly interested in the world outside the university gates. He travels frequently and says he cannot remember spending more than six months away from India since his student days.

According to McCarthy, it is this global sensibility that makes him a universally appealing candidate speaker for the Kennedy school.

“Everyone here seems quite pleased that he will be here addressing the government class,” he says.

—Staff writer Nathan J. Heller can be reached at heller@fas.harvard.edu.