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Freshman Orientation Day Address

If I may, welcome fellow members of the class of 2005. Having just returned to Harvard, I think of myself as a member of your class. I have been here since July enjoying an indoor orientation program of my own, not precisely the same as the orientation that you have enjoyed, but perhaps there have been some similarities in the experience.

Around the first week of July, I walked into the Coop, and I said that I was Mr. Summers, the new President of the University, and that I’d like to get a Coop number. The person behind the counter looked at me, and said, ‘Well, that’s very nice. Do you have a Harvard ID?’ I said, no, I didn’t. I went without a Coop number.

I’m sure we’ll all get lost and confused more than once. And I’m equally sure that we will all enjoy this new beginning together.

Let me say a word about your class, a word about Harvard and what it means, a word about the great things we can do together, and finally, a final thought for your families.

This class is truly a remarkable group of people. Already you include professional level musicians and successful Internet entrepreneurs, published scientists and published poets, star athletes and dedicated social service providers, speakers of more than a dozen languages, and experts in countless areas. Every one of you has stood out, and every one of you has great potential.

Many of you must wonder — I know I did when I went away to college — what life would be like in a world so different from your high school, and in a world and living situation so different from that of your family home.

I know that when I was called on to respond to my appointment as President of Harvard, I found myself saying how exhilarated I was, but also, that I was a bit daunted to be here. And so are we all, given Harvard’s history.

But to say that your classmates are impressive is not to say that anyone should ever be intimidated. You know, Harry Truman said of the United States Senate, that ‘The first six months, I wondered why I was there. And ever after, I wondered why all my colleagues were there.’

That may be taking things a bit too far, but everyone here belongs, and everyone will find their place.

What about Harvard? You know, I must, at this point, confess that I did my undergraduate work at a small technical school located down Massachusetts Avenue, but also, along the Charles River. But I think I do know much about what is special about great universities, and especially about this one.

There will be many things, many traditions, that you will come to know. But you will come to understand what I believe is most important about this place — that it is a center of new and original thought and ideas. And it is ideas that are ultimately most important in this world.

Isiaih Berlin remarked that governments fall because of ideas developed by a professor in the quiet of his study. At the beginning of this century, an American could expect to live only to the age that I now am, about 47. Today, you all — students, anyway — can expect to live until nearly the age of 80. And there’s really only one fundamental reason, new ideas in the medical and biological sciences.

We think about the conceptions we have of ourselves, conceptions we have of our family, conceptions we have of relations between the sexes. They are the way they are today only because of the development of new ideas, new conceptions, new theories, new imaginations.

This University is, above all, founded on a core conviction that ideas, their development, and their transmission are what is ultimately most important.

Now, I’ve said that as President of Harvard, strengthening the undergraduate educational experience here is one of the most important priorities that I face. How can you get the most out of your time here?

As hard as it may be to imagine, in just 45 months, most of you will be Harvard alumni. And for 361 years, Harvard’s alumni have been literate, opinionated, and vocal chroniclers of their Harvard experience and what it has meant.

I read this summer about how the great jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes said that he had been — and these are his words – “set on fire in his freshman year by reading the essays of Emerson.” If I had but one wish for each of you, it is that in the years ahead you be set on fire, that your mind be captured by some set of external questions, by some area of human understanding; that you develop a passion for understanding, for progressing, that is so central to successful people everywhere.

This University and its faculty have no more important goal than helping you in this quest. How? It’s hard to say. Fires can’t be controlled. Passions can’t be predicted or planned. You are all different.

But I give this advice:

  • First, follow your passion, not your calculation. What you will remember of your time here will be the special experiences, the things that really catch your imagination. Choose courses that cohere. Follow a program towards your objectives. But most importantly, do what catches your imagination. If there is something you really want to do, some curiosity that you want to pursue, make sure that you do it, and don’t let anything stand in your way.

  • Second, the faculty is here for you. There is no more important responsibility for any of us as members of the faculty than teaching and working with you, the students of Harvard College.

    One of the former young men — I guess he’s middle-aged now — who’s now one of the stars of our Economics Department, was at one time a sophomore at Harvard College. He approached me and said, ‘Professor Summers, the paper you wrote is really quite good, but it has a few mistakes. I’d like a job as a research assistant.’ That led to an enormously productive relationship for both of us. It may not be everyone’s chosen approach to the faculty.

    But I promise you — I promise you that you will find faculty very willing to respond to your interests, to your curiosity, and to your invitations. Do not feel that you are ever wasting anyone’s time pursuing your curiosity or your interest. That is what we are all here for.

  • The last thing I would say is focus on ideas. This is an extraordinary, rich, and diverse community. There are enormous opportunities of all kinds — extracurricular, athletic, social. Those experiences will have a huge impact on many of you. But I hope that none of you will lose sight of how special this time in your life is. It’s a time to learn. It’s a time to expose yourself, as you likely will only do during this period in your lifetime, to ideas that are completely different from what you have done, what you have seen, perhaps even from what you will see.

I was very struck by the story in “Time Magazine” two weeks ago about a Harvard professor in the Medical School who had been named by “Time Magazine” as, at this point, a leading researcher in cardiology in the United States. He talked about how, during his undergraduate years, he had studied English and had studied furniture because he knew that for the rest of his life, he would be studying medicine and biology. And that was a curiosity that he wanted to satisfy. And so he did, and it didn’t seem to have held him back.

You can focus on ideas. Remember that faculty is here for you, and pursue our passion. You, too, can be lighted on fire during your years here.

Let me conclude with one final thought, if I may. I remember very well, like it was yesterday, the day just about exactly 30 years ago today when I bid my own parents farewell after a similar ceremony at MIT. I remember the look in my parents’ eyes that day, the pride in what I was going to do, the sadness that I would not be at the family breakfast table the next day, the excitement about their son’s future, the apprehension about their son’s future.

This day does, in some ways, mark the end of one stage in the relationship between parent and child. But it also represents the beginning of a different and equally fulfilling stage in a relationship between child and parent. Students call often. Parents call back. If I may presume myself, colleagues of the Class of 2005, good luck and Godspeed to us all.