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June 5, 2007 3:00 am

Observer: On good terms

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Bill Gates, Harvard's most famous drop-out, returns to Cambridge this week to pick up, finally, a degree, albeit an honorary one. He will also speak at the Ivy League school's graduation ceremony.

Gates arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1973. That year, he met Steven Ballmer (now Microsoft's chief executive) who lived on the same floor of his dormitory. "Steve and I would pay very little attention to our classes and then furiously inhale the key books just before an exam," Gates said in his autobiography.

Gates dropped out of Harvard to devote himself to Microsoft, the software company that he and Paul Allen, his childhood friend, founded. (Ballmer, incidentally, did graduate with degrees in mathematics and economics.) But Harvard is willing to give the world's richest man a break. Harvard still considers him to be a member of the Class of 1977, which celebrates its 30th reunion this week.

The events surrounding Gates's exit from Harvard have been a point of debate. According to The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, the administration disciplined Gates for conducting commercial business on the university's computers, but Gates himself claims that he left of his own volition in 1975 because "I wasn't sure the window of opportunity for starting up a software company would open again".

Apparently, there are no hard feelings. Over the years, Gates has given millions of dollars to the university. In 1996, he and Ballmer gave $25m to construct Maxwell Dworkin, the computer science building, which bears their mothers' maiden names.

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