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Harvard's top dropout drops in with a lesson

Bill Gates urges grads to end poverty, disease

CAMBRIDGE -- Harvard University's most famous dropout returned to his alma mater yesterday to urge the school's students, faculty, and alumni to help end poverty and preventable diseases worldwide.

"You have technology that members of my class never had. You have an awareness of global inequity, which we never had," said Bill Gates, co founder and chairman of Microsoft Corp., the world's largest maker of computer software. "Be activists. Take on the big inequities. It will be one of the great experiences of your lives."

Speaking in front of a packed commencement crowd in Harvard Yard, Gates described his two-and-a-half years at the school, where he joked he had been the "leader of the antisocial group," as a "phenomenal experience." But he also said that when he dropped out during his junior year in 1975 to create Microsoft, he was unaware of the entrenched poverty and widespread illnesses that exist worldwide.

Learning about those "appalling disparities of health and wealth and opportunity that condemn millions of people to lives of despair," Gates recalled, spurred him to use his education, money, and the power of technology to try to combat those problems.

Gates is one of the world's richest and most influential businessmen, as well as one of its most prominent and generous philanthropists.

Microsoft has annual revenue exceeding $44 billion, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the charitable organization he established with his wife in 2000, has an endowment of more than $30 billion. Making grants of more than $1.5 billion a year, it fo cuses on global health, particularly on battling malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS in the developing world. It also supports major initiatives to alleviate global poverty and hunger.

Gates said he is committed to improving world health because he remains shocked by the number of people in poor countries who die each year of diseases that are easily treatable or preventable, such as measles, hepatitis B, and yellow fever.

Those diseases continue to claim victims, he said, because developing nations often lack the resources to obtain vaccines and medications -- and because wealthy nations do too little to make those cures available to their poorer counterparts.

"It's revolting to learn that some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not," Gates said, prodding his listeners to harness their minds, material resources, and technological know-how to remedy that problem.

"Yes, inequity has been with us forever, but the new tools we have to cut through complexity have not been with us forever," he said. "And the defining and ongoing innovations of this age -- biotechnology, the computer, the Internet -- give us a chance we've never had before to end extreme poverty and end death from preventable disease."

"When you consider what those of us here in this Yard have been given -- in talent, privilege, and opportunity," he said, "there is almost no limit to what the world has a right to expect from us."

At its graduation yesterday -- the school's 356th commencement -- Harvard awarded 6,871 degrees. Gates, too, received a degree, an honorary doctorate that he jested will come in handy in the future.

"I will be changing my job next year," Gates said, referring to his plan to give up his day-to-day role at Microsoft in July 2008 to spend more time running his foundation. "It will be nice to finally have a college degree on my resume."

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at