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Remarks in honor of Dudley Herschbach

Cambridge, Massachusetts

It is great to be here and be part of this celebration. You are all gathered here to celebrate Dudley Herschbach. I suspect everyone in this room has known Dudley longer and better than I have. I’ll say a few words about him in just a moment. But you know celebrations like this are important in two respects. We celebrate remarkable individuals and their families and their careers, but through our celebration of them we also celebrate the importance of the enterprise in which we are engaged: Scientific progress, the passing of knowledge on to the next generation, the fostering of human communities based on tolerance, and mutual respect. These are profoundly important things for progress in the world. And when we do them well, there are impacts that go far beyond any individual university campus. So as we celebrate Dudley Herschbach, we are also celebrating a profoundly important enterprise.

The most important task I have as the President of the University is reviewing and giving people academic appointments as professors throughout the University. We try to look forward with respect to each candidate and make an assessment of what a Harvard career will look like. We look at a number of areas.

What would somebody have seen if they had had perfect foresight and a clear crystal ball at the time that Dudley Herschbach was appointed? They would have seen that Harvard was going to appoint someone who made transformational breakthroughs in his chosen field, and would be recognized in every way by the scientific community of which he was part. It would have seen that he would not simply achieve his transformational breakthroughs sitting in splendid isolation in his quiet study, but that he would work collaboratively and stimulatively with generations of graduate students and junior colleagues, and that he would be a major source of inspiration to the University in just about any field.

Back then, we probably would not have asked as we would today whether this towering and great figure would make a substantial contribution to our undergraduate program, but if we had had a clear crystal ball we would have seen that Dudley was to be a person, who at a remarkable, lofty point in his career, would choose, along with his wife, to move into a Harvard house and be much loved and remembered as a House Master. This was a person who would actually work closely with undergraduates in an academic sense, and we would frankly probably have disbelieved it if our crystal ball had told us, that at the very height of his career after he had been awarded the Nobel Prize, Dudley would be pleased to teach freshman chemistry and would label it his most satisfying and difficult experience.

Someone might have asked the crystal ball if Dudley was a person who would fit helpfully into our University community and work to bring calm and wise judgment to the various issues that challenge the university community, and we would have been told by the crystal ball that, yes, Dudley is someone who said yes, many times; this is someone who took a major interest and was enormously accomplished and would be prepared to bring the full weight of his credibility behind the crucial objective of bringing greater diversity to our science faculty. And that crystal ball would have told us that Dudley would spend a remarkable amount of time making absolutely clear that Harvard would have a much stronger science faculty if you actively worked to include representatives of all the human population as part of that faculty rather than let it be dominated by representatives of half the human population, and Dudley has worked very powerfully towards that end. I am sure he and I would agree that considerable progress has been made. I’m sure if I were to raise any question about whether there needs to be enormously more progress, he would very quickly set me straight because there surely does need to be this progress.

These are records of an academic life. A Harvard professor who is exemplary in even one of the respects that I have just described would have had an exemplary career at Harvard. Dudley has had a truly remarkable career in all those respects. Because of this, it can be said that Harvard University is a greater and better university, a far greater and better university because of Dudley Herschbach’s service to it.

Dudley, thank you.