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Rathbun Lecture on a Meaningful Life

A poignant letter in The Stanford Daily sparked the tradition.

Harry Rathbun, BA ’16, ENG ’20, LLB ’29, a Stanford Law School professor in the 1930s through the 1950s, was reading the school paper one day and was struck by a letter written by a graduating student. The student wrote that he feared venturing into a world he didn’t quite understand. Professor Rathbun later recalled, “I had to tell those kids that the meaning of life was up to them, that no teacher and no school and nobody else could hand it to them like a diploma.”

With that, he decided to devote the last lecture of his business law class that spring term to a discussion on the meaning of life. An annual tradition was born and over the next three decades “Harry’s Last Lecture” grew so popular that it had to be held in Memorial Auditorium to handle the crowds which turned up to hear it. When Professor Rathbun retired from teaching in 1959, so did the annual lecture, until it was revived in 2008 with the inaugural lecture by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Thanks to a significant gift to the Office for Religious Life by the Foundation for Global Community, the lecture has returned to inspire current generations of Stanford students. The fund was named the Harry and Emilia Rathbun Fund for Exploring What Leads to a Meaningful Life and supports activities intended to encourage self-reflection and moral inquiry. The Rathbun Visiting Fellow program, including the fellow's "Harry's Last Lecture", is its centerpiece. "Harry's Last Lecture" was renamed "Rathbun Lecture on a Meaningful Life" in 2016.

Visiting Fellow Program

Invited fellows are accomplished people living their lives in a meaningful manner and making a difference in a particular way.  Consideration is especially be given to people with interdisciplinary backgrounds leading a ‘whole life with meaningful purpose’ as the intention is to invite speakers who will appeal to students and faculty from different disciplines across the university. 

Invited fellows also participate in “hands-on” activities with Stanford students, faculty, alumni, and local community members. Previous Rathbun Visiting Fellows were Oprah Winfrey, producer, actor, global media leader and philanthropist; Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund; His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama; George Shultz, former U.S. secretary of state; Sandra Day O’Connor, retired associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; and Garry Trudeau, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist.

2017 Rathbun Visiting Fellow: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Rathbun Lecture on a Meaningful Life featuring Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Monday, February 6, 2017
Stanford Memorial Church, 7:00 pm

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, delivered annual Stanford lecture on a meaningful life. Ginsburg, a justice of the Supreme Court since 1993, has been selected as the Rathbun Visiting Fellow by the Office for Religious Life. She offered her personal reflections on life during the “Rathbun Lecture on a Meaningful Life,” held on Monday, February 6 in Stanford Memorial Church.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice, was born in Brooklyn, New York, March 15, 1933. She married Martin D. Ginsburg in 1954, and has a daughter, Jane, and a son, James. She received her B.A. from Cornell University, attended Harvard Law School, and received her LL.B. from Columbia Law School. She served as a law clerk to the Honorable Edmund L. Palmieri, Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, from 1959–1961. From 1961–1963, she was a research associate and then associate director of the Columbia Law School Project on International Procedure. She was a Professor of Law at Rutgers University School of Law from 1963–1972, and Columbia Law School from 1972–1980, and a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, California from 1977–1978. In 1971, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, and served as the ACLU’s General Counsel from 1973–1980, and on the National Board of Directors from 1974–1980. She served on the Board and Executive Committee of the American Bar Foundation from 1979-1989, on the Board of Editors of the American Bar Association Journal from 1972-1978, and on the Council of the American Law Institute from 1978-1993. She was appointed a Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1980. President Clinton nominated her as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, and she took her seat August 10, 1993.

The program was broadcast live. Video is now available at with captioning.

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