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HARVARD likes its Commencement to be a good show, and for a good show, you need big-name stars. Hence honorary degrees.
There can be no doubt that the foremost purpose of the honorary degree is theatrical. The University goes to elaborate lengths to keep secret the names of the winners. William Pinkerton, head of the News Office, releases the names of the recipients to the president and photographic chairman of the Crimson at 5 p.m. the day before Commencement, telling them to prepare the Crimson extra without telling anyone else who won. If the secret ever gets out, Pinkerton always says, he will stop informing the Crimson in advance.
In addition to the element of surprise, there is the excitement of an in-the-flesh appearance. Harvard will not confer the degree on anyone who does not show up in person to receive it. If a flat tire on the highway prevents a recipient from appearing at the morning check-in, he does not get his degree. (He would probably be invited back the following year, however.) In 1901, President McKinley was voted a degree, but didn't show up. He didn't get it.
On a few occasions, a person who was voted a degree but died before it was conferred was indirectly honored at Commencement when the President of the University announced that he would have gotten a degree had he been alive to accept it.
The sifting of candidates for the honorary degrees is in the hands of a two-man subcommittee of the Harvard Corporation. The subcommittee examines several hundred names a year, including many which have been shelved from past year.
AFTER THE subcommittee makes its recommendations, the whole Corporation must approve the choices (generally a unanimous vote is required), and then the Overseers must concur.
Every year, a few persons voted honorary degrees choose not to take them, for health or other reasons. Harvard officials, of course, refuse to say how many.
For their choices, the Fellows almost seem to run their fingers through the pages of Who's Who. The degree-winners are a famous lot, famous in establishment circles.
R. Keith Kane '22, a member of the Corporation's subcommittee on honorary degrees, said in an interview last spring that the Corporation grants the honorary degrees "with the idea in mind of bringing honor to Harvard. Thus we do not choose people who are controversial."
During the first six years of this decade, for example, the Corporation voted degrees to the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, the head of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the head of the Federal Reserve System, the head of the Agency for International Development, the secretary-general of NATO, and three presidents of Latin American nations. During the same period, no degrees were granted to Negroes. (In 1967, Harvard did grant a degree to the Negro President of Morehouse College and in 1968 honored Whitney Young.)
OF COURSE, a man with a title can be controversial, and even Harvard's ultra-safe policy can backfire. Back in 1833, for example, the Harvard Corporation felt compelled to grant a degree to President Andrew Jackson when Jackson made a trip to Boston. The members of the Corporation disagreed with Jackson's politics, but felt it had to honor him as it had honored Monroe when he visited Boston. John Quincy Adams, a Harvard Overseer, did not take part in the confirmation vote, and he later wrote in his diary that it was a disgrace to confer the University's "highest literary honors upon a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and could hardly spell his own name."
More recently, the honorary L.L.D. conferred on Henry Wallace brought a host of denunciatory letters from alumni.
Two years ago, the Corporation did it again, getting for its Commencement speaker (always one of the honorary degree winner) His Imperial Majesty, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, the Shahanshah of Iran. President Pusey cited the Shah as "A twentieth century ruler who has found in power a constructive instrument to advance social and economic revolution in an ancient land."
Iranian students in the United states, however, see the Shah in a different light. Like many of the Latin American rulers Harvard has so honored, the Shah is considerably less popular with his own people than with American observers. The Iranian Students Association in the United States announced that it rejected the Shah's regime as oppressive and militarily imposed, and the students picketed outside. Harvard Yard during the Shah's address.
Sargent Kennedy, secretary to the Corporation, said the Fellows were not upset by this demonstration. "Any distinguished man," Kennedy said, "is bound to have some opposition."
There may be a great deal of latent opposition to Harvard's establishmentarian, title-laden choices for honorary degrees. But it's unlikely that the opposition will be voiced, because the degrees just aren't important enough to object to. If the Fellows want to beef up their Commencement party, why spoil their fun?
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