Gates to Harvard grads: Pay it forward

World's richest Harvard alum tells grads to take on issue of human inequity and not be deterred by complexity.Photos: Gates goes back to school
Written by Candace Lombardi, Contributor
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--The richest man in the world can now also claim a degree from the college he dropped out of three decades ago.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates delivered the commencement address at Harvard University here Thursday, and was awarded the L.L.D. honorary doctorate bestowed upon Harvard's commencement speakers.

"Our speaker is known as the most influential entrepreneur of the personal computer revolution. He was named as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2004, 2005, 2006 and again in 2007," said Harvard's interim president, Derek Bok, who presided over the ceremony. Bok then spoke more directly to Gates: "Just think what you could have achieved if you had stayed another two years."

Even though the school has said that it considers him to be a member of the Harvard College Class of 1977, Gates dropped out of Harvard as a junior in 1975 to run Microsoft full time and never got his bachelor's degree.

Gates told the students, many of whom will soon be launching into full-time careers, that work isn't the only thing of significance.

Gates at Harvard

"Judge yourself not on the professional accomplishments but on how well you have addressed the world's inequities, how you have treated people who have nothing to do with you other than a shared humanity," he said.

In recent months, Gates has been giving a larger portion of his time and energy to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses on issues including global health and education. In 2008, he plans to make the foundation his chief responsibility.

"I'll be changing my job next year, and it will be nice to finally have a college degree on my resume," he joked.

But for the most part, the Microsoft co-founder stuck to the serious message about trying to make the world a better place. He urged the graduates not to get discouraged about seemingly intractable challenges of poverty and poor health.

"It's difficult to look at suffering when the solution to the problem is so complex, so we look away," he said. "I love getting people excited about software, but why can't we get people excited about saving lives?"

Inequity has been around forever, Gates said, "but the new tools we have to cut through the complexity have not been with us forever. The personal computer and the Internet give us the chance to end extreme poverty."

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who is a degreed Harvard '77 alumnus and who lived in the same dorm with Gates their freshman year, was also in attendance on the stage, as was Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and New York Times op-ed columnist Nick Kristof, '82, who was celebrating his 25th reunion.

In 1996, Gates and Ballmer together donated $25 million to Harvard for Maxwell Dworkin, a computer science building bearing their mothers' maiden names.

"I also want to be recognized as the one who got Steve Ballmer to drop out of business school," Gates joshed.

As many as 30,000 people were expected to attend the outdoor commencement ceremony.

Gates wasn't the only high-profile speaker on the Cambridge campus this week. On Wednesday, former President Bill Clinton delivered Harvard's Class Day speech. Gates and Clinton have collaborated on philanthropic efforts to fight the AIDS epidemic in developing countries.

Recent past Harvard commencement speakers have included journalist Jim Lehrer in 2006, actor and writer John Lithgow in 2005 and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2004.

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