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Amartya Sen to speak at Heller commencement

Published: April 5, 2012
Section: Front Page, News

Dean Lisa Lynch of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management announced that this year’s commencement speaker will be Nobel Prize-winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen.

Sen is the winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences; this year’s recipient of the National Humanities Medal; and Lamont Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University. While he has received recognition largely for his contributions in the field of economics, his work extends far beyond. According to Professor of Philosophy and Affiliate of the Heller School Andreas Teuber, “He helped give an ethical dimension to economics and has written extensively on poverty and inequality.” In addition, he has recently written about justice, and his thesis that famine does not exist in true democracy is now commonly accepted by the international community. In India, many call Sen “the Mother Teresa of economics,” and in 1999, he was awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest award.

“The range and depth of Amartya Sen’s work is truly astonishing,” said Teuber. “He’s internationally respected for his groundbreaking work on liberty and equality, poverty and famine, and changed the way many of us think about development economics by conceiving human well-being in terms of capabilities for choosing lives we have reason to value rather than in terms of GNP, utilities and the satisfaction of preferences.” As the Swedish Academy put it when it awarded him the Nobel Prize he has “restored an ethical dimension to the discussion of vital economic problems.’”

Sens work is far from limited to his role as speaker and writer. He has worked as an educator around the world; in addition to his current post at Harvard, he has taught as visiting professor at MIT, the University of Oxford in England, Delhi University in India and at the London School of Economics, where Dean Lynch was his student. “I never missed a chance to hear him lecture there,” Lynch said. “I still recall many an evening at the Beaver’s retreat (the LSE pub) vigorously debating the implications of his theory with my classmates and professors as we struggled to develop a ‘new’ framework for thinking about labor and welfare policy … there was also a significant focus on the measurement of poverty and inequality so, as Professor Sen moved into this area of research, he again shaped the thinking and approach of many scholars in my generation.”

Sen’s time at Brandeis will not end with his speech. On May 20, Sen will be able to add Brandeis to a list of more than 90 major institutions in Asia, the Americas, Africa and Europe from which he has received an honorary degree. Also receiving this distinction will be Brandeis graduate and this year’s undergraduate commencement speaker Deborah Bial; late philanthropist and Brandeis trustee Myra Kraft; Nobel Prize-winner Sydney Brenner; and Juilliard School President Joseph W. Polisi.

According to Lynch, the reaction by students and faculty alike has been positive. “I just hope that our students have the same reaction that I did when I heard him first speak as a student—this is a man who uses his knowledge to challenge conventional thinking and was never content with just achieving success in the academy,” Lynch said.

Lynch is not the only faculty member who shares this sentiment. According to Assistant Professor of Justice, Rights and Social Change Raj Sampath, each year during orientation for the Sustainable International Development programs at Heller, entering students participate in an afternoon symposium on Sen. During this part of the orientation, they read the introduction to “Development as Freedom,” arguably Sen’s most widely-read book. “Approximately 65 percent of SID students are international, and Sen is a global figure who can speak to a
diversity of cultures and traditions,” said Sampath.

Both Teuber and Sampath discussed the Sustainable International Development program further. Sampath hopes that Sen’s work will help to highlight how the social sciences and liberal arts interact in progressive ways and in an ever-changing international community. He hopes students will see Sen as an “academic who has had real-world impact in advancing social justice and improving lives on a global scale.”

“Our motto at Heller is ‘knowledge advancing social justice,’” Lynch said. “Professor Sen epitomizes this in so many ways.”