I had hoped a print version of this exchange might appear, but apparently that is not in the cards. Be that as it may, Hartnett's blog post also omitted some things I had hoped would get onto the record, so I am reproducing our entire exchange (modulo a little copy editing) immediately below.
Hi Kevin. Nice to meet you. I am glad to follow up, because I am afraid the way I was quoted makes it sound like I am against wealthy celebrities. I am not; my sometime student Bill Gates was a wealthy celebrity too when he came, and he certainly deserved the honor!
And by the way, I assert in my blog post that Winfrey will be receiving an honorary degree, but that is actually not stated in Harvard's story about her. I suspect that this is just because the formality of voting the degree has to be done by the President and Fellows and that has not happened yet. It would be unprecedented, as far as I know, for the commencement address (actually the HAA annual meeting address, of course) to be given by someone who had not received an honorary degree (and somehow I doubt Winfrey would allow herself to be the first!). But we don't really know that (unless the Globe has been able to figure it out?).
I write for the Boston Globe's Ideas section…. I've read the two blog posts you've written on the topic and I have some follow-up questions I'd like to ask:
1. Could you elaborate on why you don't think Oprah is an appropriate choice?
I wouldn't disagree with any of the reasons cited in explaining the selection. My main concern is that she is a leading popularizer of pseudo-science and medical quackery. She is a brilliantly skilled entertainer; people love her and respect her opinion. But that is what makes her so dangerous when her guests, with her enthusiastic support, warn parents off childhood immunizations and otherwise encourage practices that are bad for human health. The notion that there is a parallel universe denied by science where wonderful things happen is fundamentally at odds with the university's commitment to the rule of evidence and reason as opposed to superstition and ignorance. More than that, the advice promoted on her show was often bad for people; Winfrey's success is based in part on the fact that there are certain kinds of falsehoods that people want to believe. The honor being given her legitimates the nonsense on which she has so successfully built her career and made her fortune.
Ultimately it's the dissonant message about the values of the university that is so troubling. There has been a lot of talk about academic integrity at Harvard this year, and a lot of students were given a year off to think about academic values and what it means to pursue and report the truth in an honest way. Marc Hauser was forced to give up his professorship over scientific fraud that was a lot less egregious than the things that have made Winfrey famous. Students witnessing all this can only think that the university itself thinks that the worldly standards Winfrey has promoted are a legitimate alternative to the rules of what must be an academic game, when we should be teaching them that the pursuit of the truth inside academia is continuous with what we hope they will promote in the rest of their lives.
2. Why do you think she was selected?I am sure the philanthropy and inspirational background were important considerations, but it is hard not to suspect that her celebrity and broad appeal were not also significant factors. People love her, and I imagine it was hoped she would excite no protests. Perhaps the committee overvalues inoffensiveness.
3. Imagining one way in which people might disagree with you, I want to ask, is it at least a little snobby to say that arguably America's most successful woman isn't suited to giving a commencement address at the university?
Not snobbish at all. In fact, I personally don't like giving honorary degrees to academics. We get enough prizes from each other already. I wish this were the day when Harvard looked outward, and recognized the contributions of those living outside academia to the values for which the university stands. Some successful businesspeople, even if any one of us might disagree with their opinions about this or that, generally stand for the pursuit of the truth through informed debate, for the use of scientific methods in separating fact from fiction, and so on, in addition to generosity of spirit, kindness, humility, fairness, human equality, and other such important values. But they don't all do so. Same for politicians -- I wouldn't say that being the world's most successful politician automatically means that you merit an honorary degree from Harvard. Interesting, in this regard, to contrast Harvard-Winfrey with Stanford-Bloomberg, where the university has chosen to honor a wealthy businessman AND politician with whom it has publicly crossed swords. That seems to me just right -- I am sure he will have something to say that will excite rational discourse, even if many in the audience disagree with him and want to argue with him.
I wish we would recognize the contributions of the most humble members of society to the values universities hold dear -- Oseola McCarty, for example. They are a reminder to our graduates and to the rest of us about how we should be leading our lives, things that transcend our material success.
4. Do you see Oprah as symptomatic of bigger troubling trends about America?There is nothing new here. Sinclair Lewis talked about the same sort of American hucksterism and fraud in Arrowsmith almost 90 years ago. But I can't think of a time when Harvard was involved in validating it.
5. Lastly, you mention the Shah of Iran and J.K. Rowling on your blog. Are there any other commencement speaker selections you think were incongruent with Harvard's values?To be clear, I thought Rowling turned out a much better choice than I had expected. I started off annoyed because she had adopted a radically protectionist posture about copyright. But her speech actually validated the incredible learning that had been the foundation for her books, as well as the simple lesson of determination and commitment in the face of extreme poverty. And I am sure there were good reasons for choosing the Shah. I was actually not a big fan of the Zakaria choice; it really isn't clear to me just what contribution he has made that earned him the degree, so part of my worry about Winfrey is the direction of the vector pointing through these two TV celebrities. Humility (cf. David Souter) seems not to be "in" these days!
One more thing. Looking at this video that a colleague passed on to me, I can't help thinking how much better served the audience would have been last year to have heard from John Lewis than from Fareed Zakaria. Yes, most Commencement speeches are soon forgotten, but it is hard to forget the presence of greatness, even if you don't remember anything else and even if you find the great figure not to your taste ideologically. I wonder what truly great figures will share the stage with Winfrey this year? I doubt anyone who was there will forget being in the presence of Nelson Mandela or Alexandr Solzhenisyn, whatever they said. I really do wonder whether we are now tipping for younger, hipper speakers, and the days of learning from the venerables are over at Harvard. [NB. Mandela spoke when he received his honorary degree, but that was not at Commencement.]