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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Fareed Zakaria Named 2012 Commencement Speaker

By Rebecca D. Robbins, Crimson Staff Writer

Updated at 3:00a.m. on 10/17/11

Journalist and author Fareed Zakaria did not wake up on time to hear the Class Day speech when he graduated from Yale College in 1986.

“I had celebrated quite a bit the night before,” he admitted in an interview with The Crimson on Friday.

Eight years later, after completing his Ph.D. in government at Harvard in 1993, Zakaria was once again unable to attend his Commencement ceremony—this time, because he had already started a job working in foreign affairs.

That summer, Zakaria received his Harvard diploma in the mail.

But on May 24, 2012, Zakaria—who is now editor-at-large of Time magazine—will be the principal speaker at Harvard’s 361st Commencement, the University announced Friday.

“There’s a Groucho Marx moment in that I don’t know that I would want to attend a Commencement speech given by myself,” he joked. “But I am enormously flattered and honored.”

After receiving a call from University President Drew G. Faust a few weeks ago inviting him to give the Commencement address, Zakaria said he “thought about it for about a nanosecond” before saying yes.

In his speech, Zakaria said he plans to “sketch the new world that we’re moving into” for Harvard graduates.

Zakaria explained that he intends to discuss what he calls the “rise of the rest”—the economic dynamism and political advancement of countries in Asia and Latin America during the 21st century.

The announcement of this year’s Commencement speaker—which traditionally comes at least several months later in the academic year—coincided with Harvard’s 375th anniversary celebrations.

“Harvard is an institution with a global reach, and the men and women who graduate next May will be going out into an increasingly interconnected world,” Faust said in a statement. “Fareed Zakaria is an unusually creative and incisive thinker in the realm of international affairs, and it will be a particular privilege to hear from him as Harvard looks toward the future from the vantage point of its 375th anniversary.”

Zakaria, who was born in India, also hosts Fareed Zakaria GPS, CNN’s flagship international relations television program, and was formerly a Newsweek columnist and editor of Newsweek International.

In 1999, Esquire Magazine described Zakaria as “the most influential foreign policy adviser of his generation.”

Zakaria described his seven years at Harvard as “the most intellectual experience of my life.”

For part of this time, Zakaria served as a nonresident tutor in Adams House.

Former dean of the Kennedy School of Government Joseph S. Nye called Zakaria “a terrific choice” for Commencement speaker.

Zakaria “has a deep love for America, but also the critical detachment from someone who has seen it from a distance as well as up close,” he said.

Nye, who was a professor of international affairs during Zakaria’s time as a graduate student at Harvard, recalls conversing with Zakaria about his thesis, remembering him as “a very serious scholar” who was “very interested in theory” and was among the “brightest of his cohorts.”

Although Nye said he expected Zakaria to touch on the problems facing the United States as it enters a phase of decline, he said he would not be surprised if Zakaria spoke about something entirely different.

“He’s a very original mind,” Nye said. “You never know what he’s going to say.”

Zakaria—who has also given graduation speeches at Brown University, Johns Hopkins University, and Yale University, among other institutions—said his role as a Commencement speaker reminds him of his age.

“I’ve always thought of myself as vaguely postgraduate. You no longer think of yourself as a bright young thing when you’re giving speeches to bright young things,” Zakaria said.

Zakaria—who is a member of the Yale Corporation—said he will be rooting for Yale at this year’s Harvard-Yale football game so as not to violate his fiduciary duties.

But if Harvard wins, he said, “I’ll be at the 50 yard line cheering them on.”

—Staff writer Rebecca D. Robbins can be reached at rrobbins@college.harvard.edu.

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