RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Judging by her book sales, millions of Harry Potter fans consider author J.K. Rowling a genius. Rowling yesterday delivered the commencement address at Harvard University. But many graduating seniors groused that she was unworthy of the honor. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH: From the way she started you might suppose that J.K. Rowling, herself, had doubts as to whether she was up to the challenge.
Ms. J.K. ROWLING (Author): The first thing I would like to say is thank you. Not only has Harvard given me and extraordinary honor, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured...
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SMITH: With humor and poise, Rowling went on to speak of the challenges she's overcome on the way to her success, and she extolled the power of imagination to help right wrongs around the world.
Ms. ROWLING: We do not need magic to transform our world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already. We have the power to imagine better.
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Mr. ROSS LIPSTEIN(ph) (Harvard graduate): She's a rock star. She definitely a rock star.
SMITH: When it was over, graduating senior Ross Lipstein, who basically grew up with Harry Potter, was as thrilled by Rowling as classmate Ken Ferguson was inspired.
Mr. KEN FERGUSON (Harvard graduate): She touched me definitely, without a doubt. I was crying a little bit. I tried to fight it, but J.K. just brought it out.
SMITH: But to other seniors, the guest of honor was, well, not quite magical.
Mr. KEVIN BOMBINO (ph) (Harvard graduate): Lame. I mean, I think we could've done better.
SMITH: Computer science major Kevin Bombino says Rowling lacks the gravitas a Harvard commencement speaker should have.
Mr. BOMBINO: You know, we're Harvard. We're like the most prominent national institution. We should be entitled - I mean, we should be able to get anyone. And, you know, in my opinion we're settling here.
SMITH: Rowling was chosen by Harvard's alumni. President Drew Gilpin Faust applauded her for doing more than anyone to inspire young people to read. But senior John Hyman says she doesn't measure up to past commencement speakers, like Microsoft founder Bill Gates, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright or other heavies in politics, science and the arts.
Mr. JOHN HYMAN (Harvard graduate): She's not like a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist. She writes children's books that are very formulaic. And it's kind of like not in the same court of the things that we, as far as students, really talk about. I just don't feel J.K. Rowling is really kind of what we want here at Harvard.
Mr. ALISTAIR BESON (Harry Potter fan): That's a terrible thing to say. They're just a bunch of muggles.
SMITH: Using the Harry Potter term for ordinary folks without the gift of magic, 10-year-old Alistair Beson lobs one back at Rowling's critics. He skipped school, dressed up in his Harry Potter best, and flew in from New York to hear Rowling speak. He says Harvard seniors who have a problem with Rowling are actually the ones with the problem.
Mr. BESON: Phooey on them for saying that she's not important.
SMITH: They're just missing something, huh?
Mr. BESON: Yep. No common sense.
SMITH: Maybe it just skipped a generation. Parents and alumni seemed to see the wisdom in selecting Rowling, as 1983 graduate David Epstein put it, the grumbling just proves that even Harvard graduates still have a lot to learn.
Mr. DAVID EPSTEIN (Harvard alumni): They'll grow up. They'll continue to have a broader world view and understand that there are many, many ways to contribute.
SMITH: It just goes to show you don't know everything the day you graduate from Harvard?
Mr. EPSTEIN: Well, that's what they say - is that the freshman bring so much, the seniors take away so little.
SMITH: That very notion makes many at Harvard cringe. As one graduate put it, we're going out in the world now and all this arrogance and grousing about J.K. Rowling isn't going to help our reputations as a bunch of intellectual snobs.
Tovia Smith, NPR News.
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