Freshman Convocation Address to the Class of 2020

Tercentenary Theatre, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

As prepared for delivery.

Welcome, Class of 2020. When I saw many of you at Visitas last April, you were making up your minds about where you wanted to spend the next four years. I am delighted that the 1,667 of you have accepted our invitation to join this community and to become the present and future of the venerable institution called Harvard.

You are entering college and embarking on a new and critical chapter of your lives at an unsettling time. In the weeks since I saw you last spring and since the Harvard community gathered to celebrate Commencement here in Tercentenary Theatre in late May, it seems a great deal has happened in the world. We are grieving for innocent victims of terror and violence here at home and around the globe — in Orlando, Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Nice, Munich, Milwaukee. Media present us with an unrelenting flow of heartbreaking images of war, displacement, injured children, and desperate refugees. And we have seen within our own nation startling public expressions of hatred and bigotry distressingly at odds with values fundamental to who we believe ourselves to be — as citizens of this nation and of the world and as members of this University community.

Today I want to talk about those values, and about what it means to be part of a university, part of the Harvard community. You arrive here at a moment when institutions like this one confront profound challenges to their identity, purposes, and principles. So I want to share with you, the newest members of our community, some reflections about what this place called a university is and what that means at this particular moment in both Harvard’s history and your own.

Harvard is a research university, an institution devoted to continuing discovery of new facts, new knowledge, new ideas, because we believe that ideas drive and improve the world. You will experience this part of Harvard in multiple ways. The faculty teaching you will be engaged in pressing the boundaries of understanding in their fields, and they will invite you to join in that pursuit — whether it is in a laboratory exploring the potential of stem cell science to mitigate pain and disease or mining the libraries’ special collections to mount a path-breaking exhibition on illuminated medieval manuscripts. You might help identify 19th-century volcanic residue in an ice core that enables us to better understand the progress of climate change, or improvise jazz riffs with a professor of music. For centuries, universities have been environments in which knowledge was collected, studied, debated, expanded, changed, and advanced through the power of human reason and the crucible of rational argument and exchange. Harvard’s motto is Veritas — truth. This is what we pursue unrelentingly, but we are never so complacent as to believe we have unerringly attained it. Veritas is an aspiration and an inspiration. We assume there is always more to know and more to discover, so we open ourselves to challenge and change. We believe that any idea — whether about the origin of black holes or the ethics of Internet privacy or the role of women in the Industrial Revolution — can be revised, enhanced, improved. We must be ready and willing to be wrong, so being part of a university community requires courage and humility. New evidence, sharper reasoning, and changed perspectives replace old understandings with new, fuller insights. New building blocks are erected on the old in order that those blocks may themselves someday be surmounted. Universities must be places open to the kind of debate that can change ideas and committed to the standards of reason and evidence that form the bases for evaluating them.

So what does all this mean for you as you embark on your own pursuit of truth — knowledge that may well provide the foundation not just for your career but for how you come to understand yourselves as human beings, as citizens, as workers, as partners, as friends — for how you use your education to build lives of meaning and purpose?

It was on this annual occasion of welcoming the incoming College class that a former dean of the Faculty Arts and Sciences, the late Jeremy Knowles, vividly described what he saw as the most important goal of higher education: to enable graduates to recognize when “someone is talking rot.” Your capacities to make such judgments and assessments will be nurtured here and will serve you well beyond your years at Harvard. You learn this through challenging and being challenged. It requires engagement. I urge you to take full part in this rigorous exploration, this wild rumpus of ideas — with your roommates, in your entryways, in class, online, in The Crimson. I know it isn’t risk-free to put forward an idea and seek to defend it. It takes courage. And it also requires trust — trust that the idea will be given a fair shot by generous listeners who see themselves as part of a shared commitment to, and search for, truth. So I ask you to seize the opportunities this University offers by being courageous speakers and generous listeners, fueling the lively and demanding exchange of ideas that has for centuries propelled universities and their faculties and students forward. At a time when we find ourselves in what pundits have dubbed a “post-factual world,” universities must embrace, embody, and actively defend their very different standards of truth: their commitment to evidence, proof, and fact as the foundation for knowledge and the basis for action in the world. Harvard’s ability to do this depends on you and on all of us who together with you are Harvard.

Welcoming you to this community means inviting you, indeed urging you, to set off on the bumpy road toward Veritas prepared to risk the turbulence ahead — to take a chance on an idea and to be ready and willing to defend it, change it, reshape it, even abandon it when it has led you to a better one.

But I recognize that if I am going to succeed in convincing you to plunge into a maelstrom of debate, to be a full and active participant in this community, I need to assure you of something else. In fact, we need to reassure one another because this is a responsibility that rests with us all. It goes back to that issue of trust I mentioned a minute or two ago. Everyone in this community has the right to be heard, to be listened to, to be treated with dignity and respect. Our life together, our success as a university, and our aspirations towards Veritas depend upon it. We need to feel safe enough, included enough, understood enough to dare to disagree.

This is why the vile discourse of ethnic, religious, and racial hatred that has spread with such active virulence in recent months poses a special threat to the purposes of a university. Together we must resist it whenever and wherever it appears. But we must be especially vigilant about its incursions into our own community. We must endeavor to make ourselves a model of a different way for human beings to live and work together. I often note that Harvard is perhaps the most diverse environment in which most of you ever have lived. That is an opportunity — for that student from Delaware I met Tuesday to learn from his Scandinavian roommate, for example, as it was an opportunity for the student who has blogged about how much he learned about LGBTQ issues when he, a straight black man, appeared on the Loeb mainstage as a gay student in the play “Black Magic,” just as it has been an opportunity for Emma Woo to be part of the broad interfaith community she just described. Harvard enables all of us to reach beyond the familiar and open ourselves to new understanding and new possibilities.

So this is what I ask of each of you today. Join with us in taking responsibility for the special place we intend Harvard to be. Talk a lot; listen even more. Engage wholeheartedly in that search for truth — in your personal and your academic life. Take the risk of being wrong. It is the best way to learn and grow. And listen generously so that others may take risks, too.

Let us work to build a world different from the horrifying reports of violence and hatred that confronted us nearly every day this summer. Let us each do our part to make Harvard the community of mutual respect that will enable us to do our best work and be our best selves. Given what is happening all around us, it will not be easy. But we have never needed it more. We have never needed one another more. We have never needed the promise of this University more. Welcome to Harvard.