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Commencement Address

Cambridge, Massachusetts


Thank you Karen. It was a great pleasure to have Karen Spencer in my Ec 10 section a quarter century ago and an even greater pleasure to work with Karen Kelly as she has led the HAA this year.

Bob Stone, from whom you have just heard — steps down from the Corporation this year after 27 years, and more than four hundred meetings in service to the university. No volunteer servant of the University has done as much for Harvard as Bob Stone. Thank you, Bob, for a job well done.

Virtue has its consequences! I’m delighted to report that Bob will continue to serve as the chairman of the Committee on University Resources — and as a source of wise counsel to us all in the years ahead.

This is my first annual meeting, as President, of the Harvard Alumni Association. This year, I’ve had the chance to meet with 12,000 alumni across the country and around the world. One of the things I see now as President that I never fully understood as a student or faculty member is how essential — intellectually, tangibly, morally — the support of alumni is to everything we do here.

Last October, during my installation address, I spoke about some of the major priorities and opportunities that lie ahead for Harvard. I discussed these imperatives:

  • Strengthening undergraduate education and especially increasing faculty student contact.
  • Creating a 21st century Harvard campus that uses to full advantage the remarkable opportunities opened up by our new land in Allston.
  • Maximizing Harvard’s contribution to the advancement of science, it’s participation in the revolution in the life sciences that is bringing an understanding of disease and how to cure it within our reach. At the same time developing Harvard’s capacity to consider social and ethical implications of scientific and technological revolutions.
  • Working to ensure that in the whole university as in Harvard College, the most talented students, regardless of financial circumstances, are able to attend.
  • Continuing to adapt the university to the forces of globalization and technology that are reshaping our world.

These subjects will concern us all in the years ahead, and I look forward to addressing some of them at future commencements.

But today my intention is more modest –to report to you on my freshman year– as President– to reflect on what I have learned about the University.

Freshman Year

My freshman year, I suppose, has been like that of so many other first year students. Settling into a new place to live — getting an email account up and running — and not getting too much sleep.

I have settled into the new routines of university life. I have visited all the undergraduate houses — I’ve attended some sporting events — and was on the sidelines when Harvard beat Yale in New Haven to complete its first undefeated football season in more than 80 years. I even had a chance to narrate the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra performed by the HRO.

I made some important “elective” choices — Steve Hyman as Provost, Ellen Lagemann as Dean of the Graduate School of Education, and Bill Kirby as the new Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Working with Steve has been great and I look forward to working with both Bill and Ellen.

I must confess, there have been mornings when I have picked up the Crimson and longed for the good old days when all I had to contend with was the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal. Or evenings when I visited the Undergraduate and Graduate Student Councils that made testifying before Congress seem easy.

But what has been most exciting is the people I have met.

  • A member of our biology faculty who goes thousands and thousands of feet under the ocean to collect samples of deep sea life.
  • A student whose research has shown that there were more than a million witch burnings in Europe between 1300 and 1800 and that they varied systematically with the business cycle.
  • A physicist who developed techniques that stopped light.
  • A student who takes a day or two off each month to play piano concertos in the world’s leading concert halls.
  • A member of our African-American studies department who discovered a long lost novel by a female slave and published it 150 years after it was written, adding to our understanding of that crucial period in American history.
  • A member of our History department who has shown that the Igor Tale, a famous medieval Russian poem, taught to every Russian child, is in fact a late 18th century counterfeit.
  • A Kennedy School fellow whose book on America’s past response to genocide challenges our conscience and should influence what we do in the future.
  • A student who covers the Harvard administration for the Crimson better than many Washington professionals, all the while working through difficult organic chemistry problem sets.
  • A student who studies English during the school year but who spends her summer working with refugees, because 19 years ago she was born in Cambodia, near the Laotian border, a refugee herself.

These are just a few of the people that I have met. Most are not people particularly well known outside or even inside the university community, but they are typical of so many others here in this community, working to learn, to do research, to seek truth– veritas.


And I’ve learned something about the history of veritas this year. Originally it was paired on the University’s coat of arms with the University’s real motto “In Christi Gloriam.” Veritas meant divine truth, truth reached ultimately not through reason but through faith.

President Quincy in 1843 suggested to the Harvard Corporation that it adopt the word on the open books as the true symbol of the function of the university. “The duty of considering science and learning as an independent interest of the community, …, giving to that interest … a vitality of its own, having no precarious dependence for existence on subserviency to particular views in politics or religion.” And we continually renew our commitment to veritas.

Today, when we say that the university is a place of veritas, we mean that we are open to all ideas, no matter what their source. We mean that we are committed to a diversity of perspectives and a willingness to draw individuals from any background, in order to advance our excellence. Our openness allows, indeed requires, data and insights from every direction to inform and influence our search for truth.

Let’s never forget that openness is a means, while truth our end. While we are open to all ideas, judging ideas is central to what we do. Openness does not mean supposing that all ideas are created equal.

  • We hire certain scholars over others based on the quality of their work.
  • We award higher grades to some student papers and not others
  • We commit resources to different areas of inquiry, based on careful evaluations of intellectual importance.
  • We study astronomy but not astrology.
  • We assign Shakespeare, not Sidney Sheldon.
  • Our press published Erich Segal’s recent book on The Death of Comedy, but it did not and it would not publish Love Story.

We make the judgments we make with reasonable confidence not because any of us are endowed with a perfect sense of the true and the right. But rather because the institution of the University organizes us to believe in and make full use of an arduous process of threshing, sifting and refining different ideas.

This summer, most of the members of the faculty will think about how to compress years of accumulated knowledge into 13 weeks of 50 minute lectures. They will fret over which perspectives are most important, and which examples will dramatize their points. They will struggle, sometimes for weeks and months, with new ideas and old problems. Then, at a colloquium in October, an irritatingly brilliant graduate student in the back row will tell him that the work of his summer is interesting, though it ignores one essential factor — and she will likely be right.

Our process takes for granted that imperfection, fallibility and incompleteness adhere to veritas — we take as a given that mistakes tutor genius.

As an economist, I am drawn to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., class of 1861’s observation that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” As an economist, I confess that I feel a certain affection for this metaphor.

The marketplace of ideas does not place equal value on all perspectives. No idea or source of ideas can ever be exempt as a matter of right from scrutiny, correction, or when appropriate, rejection. Some will, over time, come to be accepted as better than others. This constant process of competition — the introduction of new ideas, and refinement of old ones — is what drives our university in its search for veritas. We hold that judicious critique in the context of collective inquiry is an act of supreme respect.

Here, in this university, all attempts at intellectual creativity, no matter how young, how tentative, or even how outlandish, merit our tender respect and our rigorous attention. Ultimately, the benefit of our rigor is that everyone gathered here, at the University, has the opportunity to meet his own, her own standard. Thus we grow as intellectuals and flourish as a civil community.


This past year has been an extraordinary one for our university in so many respects. I know Harvard has taught me a lot during my freshman year — I’ve certainly absorbed a lot of information, and hopefully, in the process, grown a little wiser.

But there was one thing that I was certain of when I arrived here last year — and this past year has only made that certainty stronger. And that is the importance of Harvard’s indispensable mission — the education of new leaders and the development and testing of new ideas — in today’s complicated and challenging world.

We have staggering opportunities, but we also have huge challenges. And our prospects for making this world a better, freer, more comfortable place for all who live on this planet depend on nothing as much as clear and imaginative thinking — and people who are capable of thinking clearly and imaginatively. People committed to veritas. That is what we are about here at Harvard. That is our commitment. Thank you very much.