In 2004, Annan told Harvard grads the world needs ‘enlightened American leadership’

In 2002, Kofi Annan received a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award. Here, he received his award while Senator Edward Kennedy and Carolyn Kennedy looked on.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File
In 2002, Kofi Annan received a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award. Here, he received his award while Senator Edward Kennedy and Carolyn Kennedy looked on.

In 1971, when Kofi Annan was a student at MIT Sloan School of Management, he was walking along the banks of the Charles River, ruminating about his place in his class.

Annan, who would one day serve as the secretary general of the United Nations and be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, would later say the answer came to him “most emphatically,” causing his anxieties to begin to fade, according to MIT.

“Follow your own inner compass . . . know who you are, what you stand for, where you want to go, and why you want to get there,” Annan said, according to the school’s website for its Sloan Fellows MBA program.


Annan, who died Saturday at age 80 following a short and unspecified illness, was tied to the Boston area through his Sloan degree, which he earned in 1972. On Saturday, the school community joined Annan’s friends and family in mourning his death, David C. Schmittlein, the school’s dean, said in a statement.

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“He was widely praised for committing the United Nations to human rights, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, and for strengthening management processes and practices of the United Nations. His many honors, awards, and leadership positions speak to his global leadership during a time of great change and challenge,” Schmittlein said.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Annan spoke with Margaret Atwood during Harvard University’s 2004 commencement.

Annan reflected on his time at MIT, where he gained intellectual confidence, the ability to see challenges as an opportunity for growth, and the ability to seek help while “not fearing to do things my way,” according to the school.

Annan also gave at least two commencement addresses in the area, one to MIT in 1997 and the other at Harvard in 2004.

In his MIT speech, Annan struck a jovial tone, and noted the surprise that a UN secretary general would be trained at MIT, where one could imagine “Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry and economics, or business tycoons, or engineers” working to improve our lives.


“But a secretary general of the United Nations? That’s hardly the first answer anyone would blurt out on a TV quiz show,” Annan said.

But it was not that much of a stretch.

“Science and international organizations alike are constructs of reason, engaged in a permanent struggle against the forces of unreason... science and international organization alike speak a universal language and seek universal truths,” Annan said, according to an MIT statement.

Annan’s speech at Harvard struck a harder note, coming in the years immediately after the 9/11 terror attacks and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

He called the US invasion illegal, and he suffered a personal loss when a Brazilian official representing him in Baghdad was killed in a suicide truck bombing.


Annan said the world needs “enlightened American leadership” and countries should not launch unilateral action to shape world events, the Globe reported at the time.

While Annan didn’t mention then-President George W. Bush by name, he obliquely criticized Bush and his administration’s policies.

“What kind of world would it be, and who would want to live in it, if every country was allowed to use force without collective agreement, simply because it thought there might be a threat?” Annan said.

John Ruggie, a professor of international affairs at Harvard and a former assistant secretary general to Annan, helped to organize his visit.

“He was not tall, he was not a big person, but he had this authoritative voice the students just soaked in,” Ruggie recalled of the speech. “He spoke at the Kennedy School as well and people were hanging from the rafters in awe of his presence, his understanding, his wit, his sense of humor.”

Annan received an honorary doctorate degree from Harvard that day, according to the university. He deplored allowing anti-Muslim or anti-Semitic beliefs to take hold.

“We must not allow ourselves, out of fear or anger, to treat people whose faith or culture differs from ours as enemies,” Annan said, according to the university.

He also called on graduates to “live up to your country’s best traditions of global commitment and global leadership,” according to the university.

“Now is not the time to abandon our rule-based international system. Let us preserve it. Let us improve it. And let us pass it on — intact, and stronger than ever,” he told graduates, according to the university.

9/17/98 Globe staff pat Greenhouse story/ News,metro. Cambridge ma. Harvard University United nations secretary General Kofi Annan holds news conference, and gives public adress and receives honorary degree at Harvard University.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Kofi Annan spoke at Harvard University in 1998.

Globe correspondent Marek Mazurek contributed to this story, and material from The New York Times was used in this report. John Hilliard can be reached at