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Commencement Address 2005

Cambridge, Massachusetts

I am pleased to have this opportunity to report to the Harvard Alumni Association. I want to address what I think is perhaps the defining development of our time, what your University has been doing about it, and what we hope to do in the future.

I refer to the growing integration between the developing world and the developed world, and the rising importance of the developing world in shaping human history. My guess is that when the history of our time is written 300 years from now, what is happening in the developing world and how the United States responds to it will be the most important story. A university as fortunate and as strong as ours can, should, and will play an important role in shaping that story.

The remarkable opportunities inherent in the current global moment bear emphasis:

  • For the first time in all of human history, a majority of people now live in countries where leaders are democratically elected, where women are treated as full citizens, and where the press is free.
  • Both the proportion of the world’s population that lives a full lifespan and the proportion that is literate are higher and rising more rapidly than at any time in the history of civilization.
  • Nations where more than one-third of humanity lives are seeing their economies grow at a rate where living standards could rise thirty-fold in a single human lifespan, a trend that, if it continues, will rank in the last one thousand years only with the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution.
  • Despite all the tragedies of war that rightly preoccupy us, the fraction of the world’s population killed each year in wars has, in recent times, been more than 95 percent lower than the comparable fraction for an average year of the 20th century.
  • The United States is more extraordinary in its military strength and the global extent of its cultural influence than any nation has been at least since the Roman Empire.

All this suggests opportunity. But it does not suggest any lack of challenge or any grounds for complacency. As long as any child is hungry or any war is being fought, as long as any person is dying of an easily treatable disease, or any political dissidents are being denied their human rights, there is vital work to be done. Moreover, if history teaches anything, it is that there is nothing inexorable about positive trends.

  • We know that especially in new democracies there is the risk that brutal tyrants will be freely elected.
  • We know that rising economic powers have rarely been accommodated by the world system without turbulence and turmoil.
  • We know that the same scientific progress that has fueled prosperity has also made it possible to kill more people with less effort than ever before.
  • We know that while basic indicators of human development have progressed overall, they have regressed in dozens of countries, primarily in Africa, where one-tenth of humanity lives. Even now, 1.2 billion people today struggle to live on less than $2 a day.

Finally and critically, we have to acknowledge that while the United States may today be at the zenith of its power, there has not been another moment when the perceptions of the United States around the world have been as troubled, and as troubling, as they are today.

All of this is to say that we are at a hinge point in history. The 21st century can be a far better one than the 20th century, with less brutality and more human freedom, and many more people lifted beyond bare subsistence. But it need not be so. What happens will depend more than anything else on ideas, and on the wisdom of people who are in positions to use them.

Isaiah Berlin famously observed that “philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor’s study could destroy a civilization.” Berlin might have continued that wars can start or end depending on what leaders do or do not understand about history or religion or culture, that economies can grow or contract depending on what policymakers do or do not understand about economic theories and models, that people live or die depending on what we do or do not understand about biology and medicine and public health.

A great university like ours, rooted in an American tradition – committed to education, to spreading and creating knowledge, to ideas and the people who bring them forth – has a responsibility not just to our students, but to our nation and to the world. History will judge us on how we build on Harvard’s strong foundation to meet this responsibility.


At a time when the United States has never been so misunderstood by the rest of the world, and quite likely has never been so misunderstanding of the rest of the world, we have a special need to prepare our students with international understanding and a lifetime commitment to comprehending changing global realities.

This is a matter of paramount concern to the faculty as it debates the reform of the undergraduate curriculum. Even as those discussions continue, I am pleased to be able to report to you that the Harvard student experience is changing in ways that prepare our students for a world that some of them will go on to shape, and in which all of them will need to think globally.

  • The enrollment in foreign language courses at Harvard has increased 45 percent in the last decade, and enrollment in Arabic has increased more than three-fold since 2002.
  • From greatly increased coverage of non-Western material in art, music, literature and social science courses, to the expansion of the role of the African-American Studies department to embrace African studies, to the extension of our network of area studies programs to cover every major region of the world, we are assuring that our students graduate with much more understanding of the developing world than any previous generation of students.
  • The number of Harvard College students studying or working abroad during the term or the summer has more than doubled in the last few years. Indeed, in this academic year alone, more than 800 students – equivalent to roughly half a Harvard class – will have spent some amount of meaningful time in a foreign country. This summer a biochemistry concentrator will be assisting medical professionals in a hospital in East Timor, a young woman interested in public service will be gathering oral testimony from North Korean refugees, and through new programs in the Summer School, more than 200 students will be studying abroad for credit with Harvard faculty, from Barcelona to Beijing.

These kinds of opportunities can be transforming. I know that the course of my own life was changed forever by the chance Harvard gave me 25 years ago to do economic work in Indonesia. And, of much greater moment, historians record that John F. Kennedy’s vision of the world was importantly shaped by what he learned traveling through Europe while preparing to write his Harvard undergraduate thesis.

Dean Kirby is fond of remarking that there is no place to study China like China. With his leadership and that of his colleagues, I am pleased to report that we are approaching the day when, like the swimming test for a previous generation of Harvard undergraduates, an international experience will be the norm for future generations of undergraduates.


One way we promote international understanding is by including opportunities to study and work abroad within a Harvard education. Equally important is the commitment to bringing international students here to Harvard. Harvard is and will remain an American university. But it must be a university that increasingly welcomes students from all over the world if it is to provide the best possible learning environment for American students and if it is going to meet its obligations to the world.

The University’s degree students come from nearly 90 different countries. International students account for nearly one-third of the population of degree students in our Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Kennedy School, and the Schools of Business, Public Health, and Design. Dean of Admissions Bill Fitzsimmons estimates that one-third of admitted students in Harvard College speak a language other than English at home.

It is hard to overestimate the benefits of opening our doors to students from around the world. Again and again during my years in Washington, I would meet with foreign officials. We would go through our respective talking points. And then the foreign officials would ask whether I was the same Larry Summers who had taught at Harvard. I would say yes. And they would then go on to explain how their years at Harvard had changed their lives – and their attitudes towards America.

Professor Nye likes to tell the story of Alexander Yakovlev, who was a key ideological advisor to Mikhail Gorbachev. Yakovlev was asked about the origins of the ideas that helped to bring down the Berlin Wall. Inevitably there were many sources, but notable among them was what he had seen and learned studying political science in the United States in the 1950s. If Yakovlev was even a small contributor to the end of the Soviet Union, and if his study in the United States was even a partial factor shaping in his advice, I would suggest that his experience alone may well justify a half century’s national investment in exchange programs.

We as a university must do more in the years ahead to recruit the most able students from all over the world:

  • We have taken an important step towards recruiting more of the most able students by establishing the global principle that anyone with a family income under $40,000 can come to Harvard College with no parental contribution.
  • We have an arrangement that will allow any student from any country in the world to borrow the entire cost of his or her education at a sub-prime interest rate.
  • Our new Presidential Scholars program provides grants that enable dozens of foreign students to study in our public service-oriented graduate schools each year.
  • And in what I hope will be a precedent-setting agreement for other countries with other Harvard schools, this year the government of Mexico, along with a private consortium, has agreed to finance Ph.D. training for all Mexican students admitted to Harvard.

This is all progress. But our goal should be clear: let us work towards the day when cost will not stop any student anywhere in the world from studying at any of Harvard’s schools.

As we continue to seek the best students from around the world, our success will depend on national policy as well as our own efforts. While there have been some significant improvements recently, restrictions on student visas have become a very serious issue for our students, our University, and our nation.

I think of a brilliant science student at Harvard who returned to China for his father’s funeral and then missed a chance to publish his first major scientific paper because he was not allowed back into the country for several months. We understand the government’s concerns when it comes to security. At the same time, let us do everything we can to send a clear signal that foreign students are welcome at Harvard and in America, and to ensure that every Harvard student we accept is able to enter this country and begin his or her studies on time.


Harvard, of course, exists not only to spread knowledge but to create it. Much research at Harvard is directly focused on key global problems. Consider a few examples:

  • Research at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center has set the agenda for our national effort to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism by securing weapons-grade materials around the world.
  • Research at the Graduate School of Education has shown how recent policy reforms in Latin America have resulted in expanding access to school and educational attainment for all children.
  • Research at the Divinity School on the tenets of Islam has demonstrated how terror is an affront to its deepest traditions and ideals.
  • Collaborative research between Professor Dyann Wirth at the School of Public Health and scholars at our new Broad Institute is seeking cures for malaria by better understanding the genomics of resistant strains.
  • And award-winning research at the Design School has led to innovative design responses in the wake of the tsunami disaster.

Beyond these examples of research that focuses on pressing problems, much of the humanistic scholarship that is Harvard’s deepest tradition develops the wisdom that is essential to create a secure world. George Marshall famously remarked on the need to have thought hard about Thucydides to have a prospect of understanding international politics. The novels of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene speak more powerfully than any bit of social science to the difficulty of nation building. We saw in the successful American occupation of Japan after World War II the benefits of the kind of deep cultural understanding that comes out of thoughtful research in anthropology.

It is not for the University to have a foreign policy. But it is very much for the University to encourage and support our faculty as they engage their intellectual strength with the vexing problems of the world – a world where decisions and actions taken in ignorance can have terrible consequences – and where decisions and actions informed by deep knowledge can transform a great many lives for the better.


Through the international experience our students enjoy, through the education Harvard offers students from abroad, through the work of our community in advancing knowledge and understanding, we make crucial contributions. But if Harvard is to maximize its contributions to the world, then we will have to find more ways in the future than in the past to be in the world.

We will need to pursue a growing presence abroad – carefully, prudently, mindful of quality, remembering always that what is so special about Harvard is the community of people who gather in Cambridge and Boston – yet also respond in cases where a foreign presence is compelling.

  • Last year, I visited the University’s center in Santiago, Chile, which provides a home away from home for our students who choose to study in South America and for our faculty who are pursuing research questions on Latin America. A similar office will soon be opened in Bombay.
  • Harvard Medical International harnesses the expertise of our medical faculty to train doctors and scientists, design models for patient care, and generate new discoveries in more than 30 countries worldwide.
  • The Business School’s Global Initiative now has research centers in Hong Kong, Paris, Buenos Aires, and Tokyo that allow faculty to immerse themselves in the culture and business practices of these regions, leading to business cases that are more global in perspective than ever before.
  • The School of Public Health is one of a handful of schools chosen for a very large program under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, to provide capacity building and treatment for tens of thousands of people where the AIDS pandemic has already taken a grotesque and staggering toll, in Nigeria, Botswana, and Tanzania.

Let us build on these steps and look forward to the day when there will be Harvard offices supporting the foreign study of our students, the research of our faculty, the dissemination of our ideas, and the involvement of our alumni in every part of the world.

I suspect, though, that when historians of higher education look back at our period, even more important than physical presences that universities establish abroad will be what they are able to do virtually. Here are two examples that point to the potentially transformative impact of information technology on what we can accomplish as a university.

  • Business School Professor Michael Porter, an international expert on strategy and competition, is teaching a class on the microeconomics of competitiveness that is now being offered simultaneously in universities in 56 countries. Partner universities have the opportunity to participate in classes, in sessions where teaching plans are developed, and supplement the course with materials on matters of local concern.
  • Harvard has long been proud of having the world’s largest open stacks library collection. This year Professor Sid Verba, the head of the Harvard University Libraries, took a bold step towards dramatically opening our stacks even further when we announced the pilot phase of a project with Google that may eventually lead to the digitization of vast portions of our library collections.

Information technology offers the potential to multiply manyfold the number of students and scholars with access to Harvard’s unique intellectual resources. Without diluting the special character of the education that can only be obtained here as a member of the Harvard community, I call on each of the Faculties to think creatively and boldly about how they can extend the reach of their excellence through technology in the years ahead. And I commit the University’s strong support for these efforts.


I mentioned John F. Kennedy a moment ago. More than 40 years ago, mere months before his assassination, he addressed a commencement at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. It was a moment when the South and our nation faced a simple question: Would we honor our founders’ promise and extend to all Americans equal opportunity and liberty under the law?

He said that day, “We live in an age of movement and change, both evolutionary and revolutionary, both good and evil. And in such an age a university has a special obligation to hold fast to the best of the past and move fast with the best of the future.”

I believe we at Harvard are aiming to live by those words. While affirming and renewing our best traditions, we are teaching more broadly, and our students are living and studying more widely. Our community is richer than ever in international students. Our researchers are tackling more extensively the most serious global issues of the day, and perhaps of any day. And our pedagogical reach into the far corners of the globe is deeper, and more complete, with each passing year. We understand the importance of an enlightened response to a shrinking world and our role in fostering it.

Even more important, let me say to our newest alumni that we understand your role. It is now your turn to engage with the world in ways that realize the broadest possible benefits of your education. It is a world unlike any we have known, where literally billions of people stand at the edge of an historic opportunity, for better health and higher incomes, for more education and greater freedoms.

Your ideas, shaped by your time here, hold the promise, in turn, to shape that world. How you take advantage of the opportunities before you can, in turn, enlarge the opportunities of people around the globe. I know you will more than meet this challenge, with the same drive and insight you have graced us with here at Harvard.