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  • Max Stearns

The Missed Symbolism of Mark Zuckerberg’s Honorary Harvard Degree

This past May, Mark Zuckerberg gave the commencement address at Harvard University and was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws. See here. This was simultaneously a beautiful, if rainy, celebration, and a missed opportunity. The more appropriate, and actually greater, honor would have been to confer an honorary Bachelor’s Degree.

Mark Zuckerberg’s story is well known. It has been the subject of major exposes, close journalistic analysis, lawsuits, and even a full length motion picture, The Social Network. Not all of the portrayals have painted Zuckerberg in a favorable light. There has has been litigation, unkind personal allegations, and fairly large settlements. Through it all, at least publicly, Zuckerberg has exhibited remarkably good grace and humor, even appearing on SNL with his movie doppelganger, Jesse Eisenberg, see here. Zuckerberg even took the Facebook team to see the less-than-altogether-flattering movie. Of course, it is no doubt easier to be graceful from a position of power, and there is no doubt that Zuckerberg has emerged at the very top not only of his game, but pretty much anybody’s game. He became the ultimate tech phenom, and Harvard understandably wants to bask in his glory despite Zuckerberg’s having departed at the end of his sophomore year.

Zuckerberg’s speech revealed him to have become a very wise young man (at 56, I can call him that). He spoke with humor and insight, discussing his notoriety as a Harvard undergraduate, the remarkable opportunities that he managed to find, and more so, the wonderful opportunities that he has had the incredible good fortune to help create for others. Without mentioning his name, Zuckerberg's speech drew a stunning contrast with Donald Trump, who has repeatedly claimed that he built an empire on his own, other than that pesky, and small, one-million-dollar loan. Zuckerberg told a particularly charming story about his wife, Priscilla, who successfully pled for Mark to tutor a group of inner city youth at a Boys and Girls Club. Zuckerberg explained, not unreasonably, that he was, well, kind of busy. She persisted, he obliged, and it changed him. These young men and women are all now going to college. One suspects that Zuckerberg might have had something to do with the financing, but he was too decent and honorable to mention it.

Some of the speech read a bit like a listing of popular progressive sentiments on a variety of issues, lacking much by way of subtlety or nuance: cure all diseases, focus on prevention over cure to save costs, modernize democracy to allow electronic voting, personalize education, provide universal basic income, engage in crime reform, and ensure more opportunities for life's choices and meaning. Zuckerberg extolled the virtues of holding oneself out as a citizen of the world. Some of these ideas are purely aspirational, and others are of the sort I might see in a paper topic proposal in my public choice or law and economics seminar, inspiring thoughts in need of careful research and development, perhaps more well-intentioned than well-informed. Some readers might scoff. I don’t teach at Harvard. Heck, I wasn't admitted to Harvard, either as an undergraduate or for law school. Indeed, that's largely my point. My own students are very smart whether or not they attended elite undergraduate institutions. But more importantly, there’s a difference between being smart and being deeply knowledgeable. The former is a precondition, not a substitute for, the latter.

Formal education serves two primary functions: first, it teaches, both by conveying substantive knowledge and, more importantly, by imbuing a deep understanding of how to acquire and integrate relevant knowledge on one’s own; and second, it sorts people, benefiting employers, graduate programs, and, to a large extent, the students themselves. It is so easy to get things backwards, and to imagine that education is principally about prestige and sorting, but it shouldn't be, at least not entirely. Education should, first and foremost, be about learning how to learn. However smart one happens to be, knowledge is acquired over a long and intense period of study, the sort that allows the conferral of a graduate or other professional degrees, and perhaps even an eventual Ph.D. And yes, the sequencing matters. Harvard could have used this moment to embrace, and to convey, that very import message to its own students and to the world.

Elite universities customarily confer honorary doctorates upon their most distinguished alumni or others whom they seek to honor. Harvard has done this in the past with Bill Gates, see here, another remarkably accomplished Harvard drop out. Zuckerberg was addressing the University commencement, an event at which undergraduates and their families are the principle audience. To his credit, Zuckerberg opened by acknowledging that these students had accomplished something that he did not, completing their degrees. And the degree that the vast majority of students earned that day is the first one: a bachelor’s. Indeed most students hired by such prestigious tech companies as Facebook, Twitter, Google, Intel, etc., have BAs, BSs, BEs, or an equivalent. Some have master’s degrees. A few, perhaps, have Ph.D.s. I would venture to guess that we can count on one hand for all these companies combined those who hold honorary doctorates.

Zuckerberg left Harvard after his sophomore year. To say that he has done an enormous amount since then would be an understatement. He has already accomplished far more than any of us could ever imagine. He has built a company that has quite literally changed the way the world communicates, acquires information, and learns. As Zuckerberg put it, it has changed how the world connects, and it continues to do so each day. And Zuckerberg has personally done more. He and his wife have committed to contributing 99% of his Facebook shares for charitable purposes. This is truly worthy of great honor, but with honor comes symbolism. And with respect, Harvard got the symbolism wrong.

Graduating an elite four-year college is a big deal. These prestigious degrees give entree to great careers and to further educational advancement. For that matter, graduating any four-year college is a big deal. Zuckerberg dedicated much of his speech applauding the high school seniors that he has mentored so that they can attend college, and he is rightly proud of having done so. Mark Zuckerberg accomplished more than any of us can hope to imagine, but there is something that he had yet accomplished as he ascended the podium. He had yet to earn a bachelor’s degree. Rather than confer an honorary doctorate, a degree that, truly, only academics ever need, Harvard should have recognized the enormity of completing its own demanding four-year undergraduate program by awarding to Mark Zuckerberg that wonderful degree, based on his combined coursework and his life work. In his opening remarks, Mark Zuckerberg recognized what a great achievement that was, and he was absolutely right to do so.

Although some truly extraordinary people, Zuckerberg and Gates among them, become enormously successful entrepreneurs without a BA, this is more rare than being hit by a bolt of lightning. For most people, success requires keeping one's nose to the proverbial grindstone. This includes hard work and academic commitment, the sort that gets one through a four-year undergraduate program. The rarity of an honorary BA, far less common than an honorary doctorate, would have emphasized just how important—and what a great achievement—earning that degree is. And it would have allowed Mark Zuckerberg, along with his parents and Priscilla, who were in the audience, to join the rightly proud parents of Harvard’s impressive graduating class.

There would have been one other benefit to awarding Zuckerberg an honorary bachelor's. He has accomplished so much already, but he’s still a young man. He’ll do more, and Harvard isn’t going anywhere. With a BA in hand, there would be plenty of time to some day award him an honorary doctorate.

As always, your comments are most welcome.

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