2010 Commencement Speech

Cambridge, Mass.

As delivered

It is a great pleasure to be here with you today and to deliver this year’s report of the president to the alumni. My role in this gathering each spring seems to be to delay the main event — the address you are all waiting for from our distinguished honorand. It is a great honor to serve as Justice Souter’s warm-up act.

I intend to do so by exploring with you for the next few minutes a set of long-held values and commitments to which we at Harvard have devoted particular attention this year. These commitments are in fact those that Justice Souter’s life and accomplishments exemplify, and I am proud to claim and honor him as an embodiment of these fundamental university values. I speak, of course, of Harvard’s long tradition of public service, going back to our 17th century roots.

The University’s founders described the arc of education as one that moves from self-development to public action. John Cotton, a prominent figure in Harvard’s founding, wrote “God would have (a man’s) best gifts improved to the best advantage.” But the student, he continued, would also “see that his calling should tend to public good.”

This prescription, articulated nearly four centuries ago, captures with remarkable fidelity a fundamental purpose of the modern research university, the development of talent in service of a better world. This commitment is at the heart of all we do — and at the heart of what we celebrate today as we mark the passage of more than 6,000 graduates from our precincts into wider realms of challenge and achievement. We have equipped them, we trust, with the abilities, in the words of Charles William Eliot, to go forth “to serve better thy country and thy kind.” We hope that we have equipped them as well with the capacity to lead fulfilled, meaningful, and successful lives.

Yet not infrequently, these missions of private accomplishment and public duty have been seen in tension. Phillips Brooks, for whom the Phillips Brooks House for social service is named (and this is a place where Justice Souter spent time as an undergraduate) once remarked, “We debate whether self culture or our brethren’s service is the true purpose of our life.” But, he determined, the two must coexist, in a creative balance in which we develop our talents in order to share them. Brooks concluded that while, as he put it, “No man can come to his best by selfishness … no man can do much for other men who is not much himself.”

In the mid-20th century, John F. Kennedy worried about the potential conflict between “the public interest and private comfort.” Our students still struggle with these choices today. Two College seniors who have decided to join Teach for America recounted to me how hard it was to explain to their parents that they were turning down offers at J.P. Morgan and IBM. Yesterday, I attended the commissioning of ROTC cadets who are likely to find themselves soon serving the public interest in the considerable discomfort and danger of the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq.

For these students, however, service represents not sacrifice, but the most important form of fulfillment — in which one’s talents can be harnessed for purposes transcending one’s own individual life. A. J. Garcia, who worked in the president’s office during much of his undergraduate career, is now with Teach for America in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. He reports, “It is possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life, but by far the most rewarding. At the end of every day, I might leave work mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted, but it is the best type of exhaustion and … well worth the impact of closing the achievement gap one child at a time.”

Bill Gates visited Harvard last month and charged our students to bring the world’s best minds to the world’s biggest problems. We do that on the one hand through direct engagement in service like that of A. J. Garcia. But universities, their faculty, and their students play another important role in contributing to the public good. And that is through engaging those remarkable minds in discovering solutions to those biggest problems — solutions that will close the achievement gap — so we don’t have to address it one child at a time, solutions that will help deliver health care, address climate change, resolve ethnic conflict, and advance post-disaster recovery. Some serve as they discover and discover as they serve, like Paul Farmer and his work in Haiti, or Kit Parker, a faculty member in our School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a major in the U.S. Army. Late last summer, he returned from his second tour in Afghanistan. Here in his Cambridge lab, he works on tissue therapies for blast injuries, like those he has too often seen inflicted by improvised explosive devices, or IED’s.

Harvard students and faculty have given us cholera vaccines and skin grafts, and the field of aquatic chemistry, the foundation for addressing water pollution. They have recently combined the latest developments in cell biology with the sociology of rural Africa to all but halt the mother-to-child transmission of AIDS in one community.

A professor at the Harvard Kennedy School has shaped strategies for international climate change agreement, and his ideas have helped to reduce the causes of acid rain and lower sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants.

It was a Harvard faculty member who understood early on the dangers certain financial instruments posed for ordinary Americans and devised public solutions to help them. Congress tapped her to oversee its $700 billion TARP program.

Another professor has helped us to understand what compels people to save for the future. His work has fostered participation in 401(k) plans, which are now the most prevalent retirement savings vehicles in the nation.

A faculty member in the Graduate School of Education has influenced how we think about teacher effectiveness, teacher recruitment, and teacher retention. He testified before a Senate committee on this topic just last month.

Faculty from our School of Public Health and School of Engineering have invented an inhaler for the tuberculosis vaccine that, with no need for refrigeration or water, revolutionizes its delivery to hot, dry parts of the world.

And students and faculty in the Graduate School of Design have designed post-earthquake shelters in Haiti, and developed architectural strategies to combat airborne disease in a new tuberculosis hospital they have built in Rwanda.

In the Alumni Association, under the leadership of Teresita Alvarez-Bjelland, you have embraced these traditions as well, declaring public service your year-long theme. You organized a global month of service designed to mobilize all Harvard alums worldwide, and you have made an invaluable contribution to all of us by launching “Public Service on the Map,” an interactive web site connecting Harvard students, faculty, staff, and alumni to public service opportunities and experiences all over the world.

Within Harvard, we have explicitly highlighted our public service mission this year through a number of special activities. In October, we held “Public Service Week,” which included a career fair, a graduate student summit, and appearances by notable Harvard alums in public life, including Governor Deval Patrick and Shaun Donovan, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who credited his PBHA experiences and a course with Robert Coles that he took as an undergraduate at Harvard as the source of his passion for service.

And we are working hard to help students identify paths to public service careers. Dean Evelynn Hammonds and I created a Public Service Committee, whose membership was drawn from across the University, to recommend ways to enhance the support we give to interested undergraduates. The committee documented something we all felt must be true, namely that the most important factor drawing students into public service is the opportunity to try it out. Students involved in public service during their undergraduate years are almost twice as likely as others to enter a public service job upon graduation. Given the strong connection between such opportunities and later career and life choices, beginning next year, I plan to create the Presidential Public Service Fellowships program to honor and to fund 10 outstanding students from across the University for a summer service opportunity. Additionally, as part of an anticipated University fundraising campaign, we will include as our explicit goals doubling the current amount of funding for undergraduate summer service opportunities, and a significant increase for graduate students as well. Currently, the demand for these awards far outstrips supply.

Harvard Law School has responded to expanding student interest in public service by establishing important new opportunities for civic engagement, a Public Service Venture Fund to help graduating students provide vital legal services in nonprofit and government organizations, and the Holmes Public Service Fellowships, which fund a year of service. This year’s recipients will be involved in projects ranging from public interest law in Louisiana to social and economic rights assistance in South Africa.

As I looked out over the graduates’ expectant faces and colorful robes this morning — the gavels of the Law School, the Divinity School halos, the Kennedy School globes — I found myself wondering which of those students had been involved in some sort of service during their years at Harvard. Harvard contributed nearly a million hours of service to our neighboring communities last year, so I know it was the case for thousands of those sitting before me. But I believe we should expect it of all our students. We are proud of the number of today’s graduates who have, often in defiance of obstacles, decided to take jobs in public service. The proportion of seniors choosing public service upon graduation has increased over the last two years, from 17 to 26 percent. This year, nearly 20 percent of our graduating seniors applied for Teach for America, a percentage that, I am proud to say, outstrips that of any of our peer institutions. And we can see these increasing numbers at the graduate level as well. At the Law School, for example, public-sector employment for graduates is 25 percent greater than it was just two years ago.

Ultimately more important than students’ brief years at Harvard is what these graduates will do with their diplomas and their lives. I would like to imagine that whatever career our graduates pursue, whether in the private or the public realm, they will choose to make service an ongoing commitment.

We as a university live under the protections of the public trust. It is our obligation to nurture and educate talent to serve that trust — creating the people and the ideas that can change the world. Harvard has worked, in the words of John Cotton, to improve our graduates’ “best gifts” to the “best advantage.” Now, as Cotton did nearly four centuries ago, we charge you, in your varied fields and callings, to, in Cotton’s words, “tend to public good.” We and the world need you.

- Drew Gilpin Faust