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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
Ernesto Zedillo, the Mexican president who paved the way for the country’s first democratic transfer of power in 71 years, will be the speaker of honor at Harvard’s commencement in May, the University announced yesterday.
“Ernesto Zedillo is a person of extraordinary leadership and intellect, both a statesman and a scholar,” University President Lawrence H. Summers said in a press release yesterday. “His embrace of democratic values and economic reforms had a profound effect on Mexico, and his thoughtful observations on globalization are timely and important.”
Zedillo currently teaches international economics and politics at Yale University, where he also serves as the director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. He was president of Mexico from 1994 until 2000, when his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) suffered the first electoral defeat in its history.
The president worked with Summers, then undersecretary of the Treasury, on the United States bailout of the Mexican government in 1995.
The two men have both advocated a more integrated global economy. Summers introduced Zedillo’s ARCO Forum speech on the subject last spring, and last night Summers delivered the second of three speeches he will give defending globalization.
John H. Coatsworth, Gutman Professor of Latin American Affairs, called the selection of Zedillo “appropriate.”
Coatsworth praised the former leader’s integrity and courage, his democratic reforms and containment of the economic crisis of the mid-1990s, and his efforts since the end of his tenure to convince developed countries to address poverty and other problems facing the third world.
Zedillo came to power one year after the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and oversaw much of the economic integration between the United States and Mexico. Coatsworth said Harvard’s selection of Zedillo is particularly significant now, as the two countries integrate even further and the world progresses towards a global economy.
“I think it’s important that a former Mexican president is a commencement speaker at Harvard,” Coatsworth said. “By the middle of the century one quarter of the population will be of Hispanic descent. By that time 40 percent of the school children in the U.S. will be Hispanic, and of those number 80 percent will be Mexican-Americans. I think this is an important recognition that Mexico and the U.S. have in some significant ways ceased to be separate countries.”
Summers is one of four individuals who sit on a small committee that selects the speaker for commencement day. Along with Summers, the president of the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA), the president of the Board of Overseers, and the chair of the Advisory Committee on Honorary Degrees select the speaker, according to John P. “Jack” Reardon, Jr. ’60, executive director of HAA.
“Faculty, overseers and corporation members make recommendations to the [governing boards],” Reardon said. “Then the speaker’s actually determined by that small committee. So it’s a slow process.”
Commencement plans are moving forward despite the absence of the administrator who usually orchestrates the events that cap Harvard’s school year. The position of University Marshal has been vacant since Richard M. Hunt stepped down last summer.
“We don’t have a Marshal at this point in time and we may or may not have one by commencement,” Reardon said.
Leaders of the Latino community on campus expressed excitement about the announcement. Leyla R. Bravo ’05, president of Fuerza Latina, said the group will likely welcome the prominent Latin American figure to campus.
“I’m sure we’ll do something, I’m not sure what yet,” Bravo said.
Zedillo attended public school and the School of Economics at the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico, before heading to Yale for his doctorate in economics. He then spent ten years in economic posts in the Mexican government, eventually serving as the Secretary of Economic Programming and the Budget from 1988 to 1992.
For a year he was secretary of education, during which time he pushed through reforms of Mexico’s basic education system.
In 1993 he left his post to lead the presidential campaign of PRI candidate Louis Donaldo Colosio and took over as candidate when Colosio was assassinated in March of 1994. Zedillo assumed the presidency in December of 1994 and ran what Professor Coatsworth called a “transparent government.”
Zedillo lost to current President Vincente Fox in the 2000 election. He worked with the United Nations before returning to Yale in 2001. He became director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization in September 2002.
Zedillo will be the first Latin American commencement day speaker since Oscar Arias, former president of Costa Rica, spoke in 1988.
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