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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Bill Gates Calls On Harvard To Serve

By Elias J. Groll and William N. White, Crimson Staff Writers

Microsoft founder Bill Gates called on the nation’s brightest young people to use their talents to engage with the world’s biggest problems in an address to a packed Sanders Theatre yesterday.

While he took care to not disparage those who enter high-paying careers directly after graduation, Gates said that the greatest impact will be made by those who devote their lives to fighting poverty, improving global health, and raising the standard of education.

“A lot of talent—a lot of the best minds—are going to sports or entertainment or investing or even to scientific innovation that is focused on the specific needs of the rich,” Gates said. “When you work on a baldness drug, it’s a little bit different than working on a malaria drug.”

Gates, a former Currier House resident and arguably Harvard’s most successful dropout, left the College in 1975 during his sophomore year. His return yesterday marked the first time Gates had visited the University since leaving his post at Microsoft in 2008 to become co-chair of his charitable outfit, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He was the keynote speaker at Commencement in 2007.

In yesterday’s address, Gates spotlighted two problems, health—in a global context—and education—in an American context—as the marquee issues that the upcoming generation should solve.

Gates said that both health and education can be improved by simple fixes with increased research, noting that while teacher quality has a significant role in improving student performance, it remains unclear what exactly constitutes an exemplary teacher.

After finishing his prepared remarks, Gates took about 25 minutes of audience questions, which covered topics from philanthropy to the role of the financial sector.

Benjamin M. Zagorsky ’12 asked Gates whether it was necessary to enter a public service career or if one could make a difference by earning money and then donating to charity.

“It helps to have people going into philanthropy jobs clearly, but I’m a student at Harvard, theoretically one of brighter minds in society. What should I be doing: putting my life to this service or amassing amounts of money to help people who are maybe better suited to that work?” he said after the event.

Zagorsky added that it was thrilling to speak with one of the world’s most influential individuals.

“I was just standing there talking to him. It felt like what it should feel like—he’s a human being and I’m glad he treated me like one,” he said.

Not all attendees’ questions were straightforward, however.

Claiming to be a Kennedy School applicant from Kazakhstan, one event goer asked Gates if he would pay his tuition to the school. Another attendee inquired about Gates’ “vacation” plans for the doomsday date in the Mayan calendar.

Yesterday’s address was part of Gates’ cross-country university tour, during which he planned to speak to students on five college campuses in California, Chicago, and Boston.

In an interview with The Crimson, Gates said the inspiration to speak at Harvard came from a desire to channel the passions of students towards worthy causes.

“Having awareness amongst these students about the challenges in education, the challenges in poor countries, I think that’s critical and it will help us make a lot of progress to have their open-minded, energetic thinking applied to these issues,” he said. “So I’m excited to hear what they’re thinking and what their questions are.”

—Staff writer Elias J. Groll can be reached at egroll@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer William N. White can be reached at wwhite@fas.harvard.edu.

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