Dropout Bill Gates returns to Harvard for degree

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts Thu Jun 7, 2007 5:55pm EDT

1 of 5. Chairman of Microsoft Corporation Bill Gates stands to accept an honorary Doctor of Laws degree during the 356th Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts June 7, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Brian Snyder

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CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (Reuters) - Bill Gates attended to a bit of unfinished business on Thursday.

Gates, who dropped out of Harvard and co-founded Microsoft Corp. to become the world's richest person, stopped off at his former stomping grounds to collect an honorary law degree.

"We recognize the most illustrious member of the Harvard College class of 1977 never to have graduated from Harvard," said Harvard University Provost Steven Hyman. "It seems high time that his alma mater hand over the diploma."

"I've been waiting for more than 30 years to say this, Dad, I always told you I'd come back and get my degree," Gates, 51, told the crowd, which included his father, also named Bill.

"I'll be changing my job next year, and it will be nice to finally have a college degree on my resume," said Gates in a reference to his plan to shift full-time into philanthropy.

The lack of a degree didn't slow Gates' rise to the top echelons of business.

In 1980, Gates and his colleagues at Microsoft were canny enough to negotiate an agreement with International Business Machines Corp. that gave the start-up software company the right to license its operating system for a new generation of personal computers to other manufacturers.

That arrangement ultimately turned the computer business on its ear, shifting power from hardware manufacturers to software programmers. Today, hundreds of companies manufacture hundreds of thousands of brand-name personal computers each year, but more than 90 percent of those machines use Microsoft's Windows operating system.

PHILANTHROPIC WORK

At Harvard, Gates lived down the hall from Steve Ballmer, now Microsoft's chief executive, who stayed on to graduate and joined Microsoft in 1980. Gates dropped out to focus on Microsoft, which he founded in 1975 with childhood friend Paul Allen.

Microsoft went public in 1986 and by the next year the company's soaring share prices had made then-31-year-old Gates the world's youngest self-made billionaire.

Last year, Gates said he would step down from his day-to-day management role at Microsoft in 2008 to focus on philanthropic work.

"Humanity's greatest advances are not in its discoveries, but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequality," Gates said. "I love getting people excited about software, but why can't we generate even more excitement for saving lives?"

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, founded in 2000, supports projects to improve health, reduce poverty and increase public access to technology.

Gates' commitment to charity caught the attention of famed investor Warren Buffett, the world's second richest man. Last year, the chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., pledged the bulk of his fortune to the Gates Foundation.

That $30.7 billion donation, to be paid out in stages on the condition that the money be given away in the year it is donated, roughly doubled the size of the Gates Foundation.

Harvard also awarded honorary degrees to former National Basketball Association great Bill Russell and former treasury secretary Lawrence Summers, a former president of Harvard who was forced out after making controversial comments about women in academia that ignited a firestorm among the faculty.

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