2009 Commencement Speech

Tercentenary Theatre, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

As delivered

Distinguished guests, graduates and families, alumni and alumnae, colleagues and friends – and Secretary Chu, welcome.

It is customary on this occasion for the president to talk about the year that has passed, to report on the University’s achievements and directions to gathered alumni/ae and friends. This June, I have quite a year on which to reflect — a year of unanticipated and dramatic change.

Perhaps I should have realized that something unusual was afoot when the freshmen were greeted their first night at Harvard in September with a blackout in the Yard. Within weeks, financial markets were in turmoil, venerable firms began to fall, and we watched trillions of dollars of wealth disappear around the globe. Nine months later, we inhabit a new world — one of changing structures, assumptions, and values as well as changed resources. Few expect a return anytime soon to the world we had come to take for granted just a year ago.

We graduate a class of seniors from the College today who, according to The New York Times, face the most difficult job market in decades. We award professional degrees to students entering fields that are searching for new moorings as they face demands for changed regulation, compensation, and public purpose. And we see the roles and resources of universities changing as well in this environment of global crisis. It is clear we have never been more needed. We have watched as Harvard became a kind of employment bureau for the new administration in Washington. As the White House seeks solutions for the economic downturn, for climate change, health care delivery, regulatory reform, and K-12 education, it has called so many of our faculty to service that Senator Susan Collins of Maine was prompted to ask at the confirmation hearing of one of our colleagues whether any Law School faculty members were left in Cambridge. And not just our faculty but many of our alumni have been drafted as well, occupying numerous cabinet and subcabinet posts — and of course the Oval Office itself.

Knowledge — and people with knowledge — are critical to addressing the challenges that face us. This is what we do as a university; this is who we are. We produce knowledge, and we disseminate it — as we teach our students, as we share the fruits of our research. The new president has declared that the United States must support “colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age,” and must, he has said, “restore science to its rightful place,” and must lead the world in research and discovery. His Secretary of Energy, our speaker Steven Chu, has reinforced this message, predicating our prosperity as a nation in the years to come upon, he has said, our “ability to nurture our intellectual capital.”

But even as we reaffirm the importance of universities and their work, we have begun to see that we need to do this work differently. At Harvard, as at our peer institutions, we confront changed circumstances that require changed strategies. As a university community we have spent a great deal of time this year focused on these difficult new realities — beginning to decide what we can and must live without. For all this work, we are still at the outset of a process that will define Harvard’s future and, as our peers undertake similar exercises, the future of higher education. But as we come to the end of this year of change and adjustment, we must focus not on what we have lost, but on what we have. It is time to think of ourselves not so much as objects of a global economic crisis beyond our control, but as heirs of a nearly 400-year-old institution that defines academic excellence for much of the world. In the halcyon days of my installation a year and a half ago, I spoke about that accountability — what we at universities owe one another as teachers, students, and scholars and what we as universities owe the world. These responsibilities, this accountability, have now been magnified by the times that confront us. We cannot simply serve as stewards or curators of Harvard’s storied traditions and proud distinction. We must define and shape the purposes of universities for a changed future.

The distinguished medieval historian Caroline Bynum once observed that “change is what forces us to ask who we are.” What is ephemeral? What is essential? What is just habit? Our accountability — to Harvard, to one another, and to higher education — means that we must ask these questions and we must seize the moment of change and opportunity before us. Change can happen to us — or through us. We must make sure we become its architects, not its victims. We must ask ourselves what it is we want to be on the other side of recession and crisis — when the world has reached what we might call a new normal. How should we envision ourselves and our purposes?

These are questions that demand planning and consultation across the University and these processes are under way. They are questions that require decisions and trade-offs from every part of the institution. Each specific choice will have its own impact and significance. But I want to draw our attention today to the meaning of the accumulation of these decisions — a sum far more consequential than any of its parts. These choices, taken as a whole, will constitute our statement of what we at Harvard believe the research university of the 21st century should and must be.

I want to focus for a few minutes on three essential characteristics of universities. Only three. These brief reflections cannot possibly touch on all that we must do and be in the future. But I have chosen these three because they represent especially important and long-lived understandings of our identity — of responsibilities and opportunities that must continue to guide us. But I also want to note the very real challenges we face — as universities and as a nation — in sustaining these commitments in a world that the past year has redefined.

First: American universities have long been regarded as engines of opportunity and excellence. Education has been central to the American dream since the time of the nation’s founding. Yet as we all know, rising college costs have increasingly strained the resources of average American families. Keeping higher education affordable is crucial to the nation and crucial to Harvard. Opportunity is about fairness; it is also about excellence. We must be a magnet for talent.

We have acted decisively on these convictions. Over the past five years, we have created a transformative undergraduate financial aid program meant to ensure that every student of ability can aspire to attend Harvard College regardless of financial circumstances. And over the past decade, we have tripled levels of financial aid offered by our graduate and professional Schools as well. Our support for students of talent is an essential part of our identity, because we believe that the best ideas do not come from a particular social class or ethnicity or gender or place of origin. Providing broad access is a fundamental dimension of our responsibility and our legitimacy — in our own eyes, given our strongly meritocratic values, and in the eyes of a broader society that provides us with the support of tax exemptions and research dollars. Even as rising need among students and diminishing resources from our endowment have made these commitments increasingly costly, we must affirm these principles of access and opportunity as defining aspects of who we are.

Just as we are committed to bringing the brightest minds to fill our classrooms, so we must continue to invest in exceptional faculty to lead them and to pursue the work of discovery that defines Harvard as a preeminent research university. Even in the face of constrained resources we must sustain and build this faculty for the future. Talented students and talented faculty require one another. Let us make sure that we succeed in continuing to attract and nurture both.

The second aspect of university identity I want to address is the role of universities as the primary locus for both basic and applied research in the United States. In the years after World War II, federal policy established structures of scientific and social scientific inquiry based on a partnership between government and research universities. Research and development drew limited investment within private industry, and in recent years even these modest levels have declined in a trend best symbolized by the contraction of the storied Bell Labs, which in an earlier era enabled basic research like the Nobel prize-winning discoveries of our honorand Steven Chu.

But even as private industry’s commitment to research declined, so too did government support for science. Over the last three decades, federal funding dedicated to research and development has actually decreased, as a proportion of our GDP, by more than 15 percent. The federal stimulus offers a reprieve from this trend — with an infusion of 21 billion dollars to be spent over the next two years, and the administration has set a goal of devoting more than 3 percent of GDP to research and development even as the stimulus comes to an end. But steep federal deficits will combine with diminished university resources to produce real challenges in meeting this very ambitious intention. Even before the economic downturn, the model for supporting science needed overhaul. As a report from the National Academies warned in 2007, we as a nation were already facing a “gathering storm” in which too few students were choosing science; too few were finding the support necessary to launch and sustain their careers; too many were choosing safe and predictable research in order to secure funding; too few were able to follow their curiosity in pursuit of truly transformative ideas. The financial crisis has only laid bare problems already evident about the future of scientific research in the United States and about the support for science at our research universities.

The short-term lift of stimulus funds must not divert us from seeking long-term solutions. Federal funding levels are a critical part of the answer but they are only a part. For example, as we here at Harvard contemplate how to support science in these changed economic circumstances, we find ourselves thinking about new kinds of partnerships with foundations and industry, as well as with neighboring educational institutions. Already, we see collaborations across Harvard Schools, with affiliated hospitals, with the Broad Institute, with MIT, and with other universities as essential to our current and evolving work in stem cells, neuroscience, genetics, and bioengineering. And as we consider how to make our Allston dreams affordable, partnerships beyond Harvard offer great promise. If we — as Harvard and as universities more generally — are going to sustain our pre-eminence in scientific discovery we must devise new ways both to conduct and to support research.

Third: universities serve as society’s critics and conscience. We are meant to be producers not just of knowledge but of doubt — of understanding rooted in skepticism and constant questioning, not in the unchallenged sway of accepted wisdom. More than perhaps any other institution in our society, universities are about the long view and about the critical perspectives that derive from not being owned exclusively by the present.

For nearly four centuries now, Harvard has looked beyond the immediately useful, relevant, and comfortable to cast current assumptions into the crucible of other places and other times. Universities are so often judged by their measurable utility — by their contributions to economic growth and competitiveness. We can make a powerful case with such arguments. Harvard is the second largest private employer in the Boston metropolitan area, and it directly and indirectly accounted for more than 5.3 billion dollars in economic activity for Massachusetts last year. But such contributions are only a part of what universities do and mean. We need universities for much less immediate and instrumental ends.

I worry that we as universities have not done all we could and should to ask the deep and unsettling questions necessary to the integrity of any society. As the world indulged in a bubble of false prosperity and materialism, should we — in our research, teaching and writing — have done more to expose the patterns of risk and denial inherent in widespread economic and financial choices? Should our values have posed a firmer counterweight and challenge to excess and irresponsibility, to short-term thinking with long-term consequences?

The privilege of academic freedom carries the obligation to speak the truth even when it is difficult or unpopular. So in the end, it comes back to veritas — the commitment to use knowledge and research to penetrate delusion, cant, prejudice, self-interest. That truth may come in the form of scientific insights freed from ideology and politics. It may come in the interpretive work of humanists who show us how to read and think critically and offer us the perspective of other places, other tongues, and other times. It may come through the uniquely revisionary force of the arts — which enable us to understand ourselves and the world through changed eyes and ears. It may come through placing questions of ethics and responsibility at the core of our professional School programs. In fact, in recent weeks a group of students at the Business School have created an MBA oath pledging graduates to “serve the greater good.” Asking how business schools and their graduates might have done more to avert the financial crisis, these students seek to encourage conscience and critical consciousness in both business education and business as a profession.

The enhancement of our role as critics and doubters must come as well through the education of our undergraduates, where we seek, in the words of the new General Education program, “to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar . . . to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves.” As we adapt to a rapidly changing world, we must build anew on Harvard’s long traditions of liberal arts education and of humanistic inquiry. These traditions can generate both the self-scrutiny and self-understanding that lead through doubt to wisdom.

Universities as engines of opportunity; universities as the principal sites of America’s scientific research; universities as truth tellers: these are three fundamental aspects of our understanding of ourselves. Yet each faces challenges in the new era that lies ahead of us — challenges of structures, of affordability, and of values. And we are challenged in turn to demonstrate our commitment to these principles, which have so long been at the heart of how we have defined ourselves. We must not take these principles for granted, and we must not lose sight of them as we make the many choices about what to keep and what to forego in the months ahead. But we must devise new ways of sustaining them for changed times. We are accountable to and for these traditions and the values they represent — the belief that the open and unfettered pursuit of truth will build a better world for us all. This is what inspires all that we do and all that we are — for now and in the years to come.

- Drew Gilpin Faust