JK Rowling to speak at Harvard, but students say she's 'a flash in the pan'

SHE has sold nearly 400 million books, is worth £500 million and has inspired millions to get back to reading. But for some students at one of the world's most prestigious universities JK Rowling is just a "flash in the pan".

A row has erupted over whether Ms Rowling is the right person to give the most important speech of the year at Harvard University as thousands of students graduate on 5 June. She was asked in January to give the commencement address at the Ivy League institution, but some students have complained that they deserve better.

Last year's words of wisdom to graduates, from Microsoft boss Bill Gates, reportedly inspired a large number of students to opt for charitable work rather than Wall Street firms. Previous speakers include kings, presidents and towering literary figures, so some students awaiting the ceremony have complained that 42-year-old Ms Rowling, the 144th richest Briton, won't be impressive enough.

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Adam Goldenberg, a Canadian student who writes for the Harvard Crimson, the daily newspaper at the university, said: "Our commencement speaker tricked parents into letting their kids read books filled with sex, murder, and homosexual role models.

"Harvard seniors have every right to demand a Harvard-calibre speaker. Harry Potter – and JK Rowling – is just a flash in the pan. Writing bedtime stories is lame – just ask Tolkien and CS Lewis. The class of 2008 has been royally screwed by Harvard. A petty pop culture personality of questionable permanence will send us on our merry way, while figures of real substance wait in the wings."

But Harvard is hardly an anti-Harry Potter zone. Last July, on the eve of the publication of her seventh and final novel, dozens of restaurants and stores on campus opened late and offered Harry Potter-themed specials. There was a three-hour performance by Harry and the Potters, and hundreds of fans queued to buy the book at midnight. Marc Lambert, chief executive of the Scottish Book Trust, said Ms Rowling should inspire graduates as the embodiment of the American dream – a self-made billionaire, in dollar terms. He said: "She is obviously an interesting and intellectual person who gives money to a lot of different causes. I can't think of anyone better to inspire people to go out in the world and make a name for themselves."

Ms Rowling is just the fifth woman since 1950 to speak at Commencement, although not the first female British novelist. Lady Barbara Ward Jackson was first in 1957. The other women were Benazir Bhutto, former Irish president Mary Robinson, former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, and US congresswoman Barbara Jordan.

Other speakers have included John F Kennedy, before he became US president, Nobel Prize-winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and the King of Spain, Juan Carlos I. Writers Ralph Ellison and Lionel Trilling have also spoken at the event.

The speaker for Class Day, chosen by students, is chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke. Class Marshall Alexander J Tennant said: "When we found out JK Rowling was going to be speaking, we wanted to find someone that would kind of balance our graduation ceremonies."


HARRY Potter and his creator, JK Rowling, have evoked strong emotions from fans and critics alike over the years.

Ms Rowling herself said this year that she had received death threats from Christians opposed to her novels. Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican's chief exorcist, has previously attacked the books, saying: "Behind Harry Potter hides the signature of the king of the darkness, the Devil."

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Stephen King, the horror writer, praised Ms Rowling for "having fun" in the last Harry Potter novel, adding that she had "set the standard – it's a high one".

For all she has her critics, JK Rowling has even more defenders. One reviewer at the San Francisco Chronicle received threats over an unkind reading of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

He defended his comments, but added: "Every book critic ought to get down on his or her knees to Rowling because, thanks appreciably to her, most of a whole generation may just grow up reading after all."