I love Oprah! I do. I love her embrace of education and teachers. I love her books. I’m pretty sure I love her philanthropy, though I don’t know much about its effectiveness. I also have a subscription to her magazine. (I actually cook the recipes.) I love the interviews. I am an eager devotee of the beauty and fashion advice. And I’ve seen/heard Oprah up close, in person, three times and found her beautiful, smart, wildly charismatic (in a good way), and all things admirable.
Just look at these photos and try to tell me you don’t love Oprah. (My favorite is the one with President Drew Faust. Totally adorable.)
And yet… I think Harvard and Oprah don’t mix. It’s true that a lot of famous Harvard commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients are a much worse fit with Harvard than Oprah, among them: the Shah of Iran and Mother Teresa. Do I think Oprah has great things to say to Harvard undergrads? I do. (But I thought her speech was a little thin and cliched, to be honest, not nearly as interesting as other things I’ve heard her say over the years or anywhere approaching the inspiration offered by J.K. Rowling, another controversial Harvard commencement speaker.)
I was moved by Oprah’s tears yesterday, and her genuine enthusiasm (which I observed close-up as she walked in the commencement parade and seemed bubbling over with childlike giddiness.) I was touched by how excited the students were to see her. I love Oprah!
And yet… can I be a wet blanket, please? I think symbols are important, and the symbolism of Harvard anointing Oprah doesn’t sit well with me. I’m sure lots of people don’t agree with me, and that’s fine. Disagreement and dialogue are good, as Queen O. tells me all the time. So, here’s my take, co-authored with my husband, at TIME.com:
It’s possible to admire Oprah Winfrey and still wish that Harvard hadn’t awarded her an honorary doctor of law degree and the coveted commencement speaker spot at yesterday’s graduation. There’s no question Oprah’s achievements place her in the pantheon of American success stories. Talent, charisma, and a prodigious work ethic have rarely catapulted anyone as far as they have this former abused teenage mother from rural Mississippi who became one of the world’s most successful entertainment moguls and the first African American female billionaire.
Honorary degrees are often bestowed to non-academic leaders in the arts, business, and politics. Harvard’s roster in recent years has included Kofi Annan, Bill Gates, Meryl Streep, and David Souter. But Oprah’s particular brand of celebrity is not a good fit for the values of a university whose motto, Veritas, means truth. Oprah’s passionate advocacy extends, unfortunately, to a hearty embrace of phony science. Critics have taken Oprah to task for years for her energetic shilling on behalf of peddlers of quack medicine. Most notoriously, Oprah’s validation of Jenny McCarthy’s discredited claim that vaccines cause autism has no doubt contributed to much harm through the foolish avoidance of vaccines…