Theses That Foreshadowed Influence

“Who here wrote a thesis?” Conan C. O'Brien ’85 asked the Class of 2000 during his Class Day address. “A lot of hard work, a lot of your blood went into that thesis,” he said. “And no one is ever going to care.”

“Who here wrote a thesis?” Conan C. O'Brien ’85 asked the Class of 2000 during his Class Day address. “A lot of hard work, a lot of your blood went into that thesis,” he said. “And no one is ever going to care.”

But every once in awhile, people in the real world do care. Take Mark J. Chiusano ’12, a former FM Chair. His thesis, “Marine Park: Stories,” consisted of short stories about the Brooklyn neighborhood  in which he grew up. In 2014, Penguin Books published Marine Park to critical acclaim. “[A] promising debut collection,” wrote Publishers Weekly. “Absolute genius,” wrote The Boston Herald.

Chiusano adds to a history of Harvard graduates whose theses influenced the outside world. In the spirit of thesis season, FM investigates some notable cases in that history.

Leonard Bernstein ’39 wrote a thesis titled "The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music." Bernstein wrote, "I wonder what critics in 1975 will have to say on a young American composer of 1938!" in pencil on the back of one of his thesis pages. Bernstein would have been pleased to know that many critics in 1975 considered him the preeminent American composer of the mid twentieth century for works like West Side Story. Bernstein published his thesis in Findings, a 1982 book containing essays and other writings.

In John F. Kennedy’s ’40 thesis, “Appeasement at Munich,” Kennedy wrote, “In this day when the decisions are those of whether it will be peace or war the fundamental instinct of man against war, exert a decisive influence on democracies’ representatives.” Kennedy’s work received magna cum laude honors, but comments from professors were critical. One professor wrote, “Fundamental premise never analyzed. Much too long, wordy, repetitious….Yet thesis shows real interest and reasonable amount of work….Many typographical errors.” Another professor called the thesis “badly written.” Nevertheless, Kennedy published his thesis under the title “Why England Slept” the same year he graduated. The book sold eighty thousand copies in the United States and England. Kennedy earned $40,000 in royalties. JFK’s connection to his father, Joseph P. Kennedy ’12, the United States Ambassador to Great Britain at the time, was a primary reason for the book’s success.

Even for those who do not publish, a thesis’ themes often resonate throughout the graduate’s career. Henry A. Kissinger’s ’50 thesis, “The Meaning of History: Reflections on Spengler, Toynbee and Kant,” spanned 388 pages. In response, the Government Department instituted a 120 page limit on senior theses. Kissinger’s attention to statesmanship and philosophy, not to mention his long windedness, continued throughout his career. Ben S. Bernanke ’75, Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 2006 to 2014, wrote an economics thesis titled “An Integrated Model for Energy Policy” in which he advocated the deregulation of the natural gas industry. “I would say that the government pretty much followed our recommendation,” said Dale W. Jorgenson, Bernanke’s thesis advisor and a current member of the economics faculty.

Sheryl K. Sandberg ’91, Facebook Chief Operating Officer, wrote a thesis that garnered top honors titled “How Economic Inequality Contributes to Spousal Abuse.” The thesis, which Lawrence H. Summers oversaw as thesis advisor, investigated marriage dynamics through the lens of behavioral economics. Sandberg’s 2013 book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, and her advocacy encouraging women to take leadership roles relate to her thesis’ theme of gender dynamics.

More recently, Anna K. Barnett-Hart’s ’09 thesis, “The Story of the CDO Market Meltdown: An Empirical Analysis,” exposed root causes of the 2008 financial crisis. The thesis inspired Michael Lewis to write The Big Short, a 2010 book. In the acknowledgments section, Lewis wrote, “[Barnett-Hart’s thesis] remains more interesting than any single piece of Wall Street research on the subject.”

The majority of theses do not receive this level of outside recognition. Yet, fortunately for seniors, Conan O’Brien suggests a use for their hard-earned products. “For three years after graduation I kept my thesis in the glove compartment of my car so I could show it to a policeman in case I was pulled over,” he said on Class Day. “License, registration, cultural exploration of the Man Child in the Sound and the Fury.” O’Brien, a former History and Literature concentrator, wrote a thesis titled “The ‘Old Child’ in Faulkner and O’Connor.” He is now a comedian.