For nearly half a century, Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56 has served valiantly as a U.S. Senator and a leading voice of the Democratic Party. The unexpected news of his cancer diagnosis last week stunned not only those closest to him, but also constituents and colleagues across the country. The reaction has been particularly pointed here at Harvard. As one of the University’s most distinguished sons and actively engaged alumni, Senator Kennedy has touched the lives of numerous undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and staff. His lifetime political achievements merit one of Harvard’s highest honors—a doctorate honoris causa awarded at commencement. We urge the University to award Senator Kennedy that honor this year before his condition deteriorates.
Senator Kennedy is a legend in Massachusetts. The brother of President John F. Kennedy ’40 and former Attorney General and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy ’48, Senator Kennedy comes from a storied pedigree that would dwarf the accomplishments of most individuals. Yet he has more than lived up to his family’s high expectations.
Arguably more than any other American legislator of the late twentieth century, Senator Kennedy has made a profound impact on our society. He stood on the front lines of the legislative struggle for the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. He was an architect of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which opened the nation’s doors to millions from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. First introduced by Senator Kennedy, the Americans with Disabilities Act has broadly protected the nation’s disabled population from discrimination. He has also been the Senate’s preeminent champion of early childhood education under Head Start, of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and of the living wage.
He remains one of the Senate’s leading members, having served for longer than all but two other individuals in that body’s history. The current chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, a former majority whip, and a former presidential candidate, he is widely respected on Capitol Hill. Known for his outspokenness in the Senate, he has earned a moniker as the chamber’s “liberal lion.” But he has also shown an assured pragmatism and a willingness to reach across the aisle—including on a sweeping immigration reform proposal last year, co-sponsored with the Republican John McCain.
Beyond his contributions to our national policy, Senator Kennedy has also maintained a high profile on Harvard’s campus, largely through his stewardship of the Institute of Politics (IOP). Serving on the IOP’s Senior Advisory Committee, Senator Kennedy has helped guide the institute’s development since its inception in 1966. The IOP, founded as a memorial to John F. Kennedy, draws hundreds of undergraduates every year with a forum that attracts world leaders, a nationally renowned fellows program, and other political and community service activities. Countless undergraduate students have found inspiration meeting in person with the senator during his frequent visits to the Institute.
Despite his storied résumé and his indelible impact on Harvard, it is possible that Senator Kennedy may never receive an honorary degree. Harvard tradition, amongst other things, requires that honorands attend commencement in person and that degrees not be awarded posthumously. These rules prevented the late philosopher Richard M. Rorty from receiving an honorary degree at last year’s commencement, the day before he passed away. While we certainly hope that Senator Kennedy will continue to serve in the Senate for many years to come, his cancer prognosis is grim: although the seriousness of his malignant brain tumor remains unclear, the survival time typically ranges from one to five years. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Senator Kennedy’s deteriorating physical condition may make this Harvard’s last opportunity to award him an honorary degree.
In the past, the University has shied away from giving honorary doctorates to individuals currently holding a political office, although there have been notable exceptions, including Vice President Albert Gore ’69 in 1994 and then-Senator John F. Kennedy in 1956. This tradition seems wise, as it keeps the University out of politics and reaffirms that honorary degrees cannot be exchanged for political favors. Such concerns may be particularly applicable in Senator Kennedy’s case, as University President Drew G. Faust testified before his committee in March to argue for increased funding for the National Institutes of Health.
We realize that awarding Senator Kennedy an honorary degree this year would not only involve making an exception to that tradition, but would also require circumventing the lengthy process of vetting and determining honorands and making last-minute arrangements in the next week. These obstacles aside, if the Corporation and Board of Overseers, who retain the power to award honorary degrees, truly want to honor Senator Kennedy in this way, they may still do so.
Harvard should not risk losing the opportunity to award Senator Ted Kennedy an honorary degree. His contributions to Harvard, Massachusetts, and the United States are simply too great to go unrecognized. In light of his recent diagnosis, we hope that President Faust and her fellow members of the governing boards will call his name at Tercentenary Theater this year.
Adam M. Guren ’08, a former Crimson editorial chair, is an economics concentrator in Eliot House. Ari S. Ruben ’08, a former Vice President of the Student Advisory Committee of the Institute of Politics, is a history concentrator in Leverett House. Daniel J. T. Schuker ’08, a former Crimson news executive editor, is a social studies concentrator in Quincy House.