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Remarks at Opening Exercises

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Welcome to the members and the families of the Class of 2009. On behalf of all of us, I’d want to thank Dean Gross for the weather today. That is really splendid, Dick, and we will count on you to do an equally good job with respect to every other aspect of students’ lives for the next four years.

I confess, I have not read for myself the application essays for the members of the Class of 2009. But I do feel I know you, for I have been browsing on Actually I got really excited about the facebook, and I was going to register myself on the facebook, but my teenage daughters told me that if I wish to do so, I had to do so with a different last name than theirs.

This week will be for you a moment of anticipation, of exhilaration, and yes, of registration. Each year at this ceremony, I recount one of my first experiences I had when I came back to Harvard as resident in July of 2001. I walked over to the Coop, looked around a little bit, and went to the appropriate desk. That was the dark ages; I was told you do this today online. I said, “I’m Larry Summers, the new president of Harvard, and I would like to get a Coop number.” Very politely the woman behind the cash register said, “Do you have your Harvard ID?” And I said, “Not yet.” And she said, “Well, then you certainly can’t have a Coop number.”

I found my way, and you will find yours. I remember well opening exercises at the small technical school just up the street along Massachusetts Avenue from here, where I spent my undergraduate years. I worried about how well I would measure up, about how hard courses would be, and so forth. All I can tell you is what Harry Truman said, many years before, about the United States Senate. Truman said that, “For the first six months, I wondered how I could be a member of the Senate. And ever after, I wonder how all of them ever got to be a part of the Senate.” Actually, that’s how it will probably be for many of you.

Each four years we accomplish what I think you’ll agree is both an educational and a statistical miracle. You see, we survey the first-year students. We ask the students if they think they’re in the top half of the class. In each year’s fresh class, only a third of the students think they are in the top half of the class. And then we do the same thing for the seniors. Each year, two-thirds of the seniors think they’re in the top half of the class. It’s really quite a miracle of education that we perform, isn’t it?

All of us who are here have much to be proud of, much to celebrate, much to look forward to, but this cannot be, I don’t think, a moment of unalloyed joy. It must also be a moment of shared and solemn commitment. Four years ago to this very hour, a Harvard community came together right here, right where you are all sitting, in shock and sorrow and solidarity on Sept. 11, 2001. Today, four years later, after that catastrophe, our thoughts are with those, here and beyond, whose lives have been shattered by Hurricane Katrina.

Each of us will have our own reaction to these events and to all that these events laid bare. But we are all reminded that there is much that we can do, much that we must do, to create a more secure, a more just, and a more beautiful world. And each of our efforts will be magnified because we are privileged to be a part of the community – a community of a great university. It is a place that William James once called a “forcing house for thought” in a time when a world has never been more in need of the best ideas and the highest ideals. It is this community and its values that I want to reflect on for a few minutes this afternoon.

Universities like this one embody a paradox. On the one hand, they are bastions of tradition. Harvard is the longest continually operating institution in the Western Hemisphere. It is one of the very few where important business is done in buildings that are hundreds of years old. We dress up in black gowns for our most important rituals. We use titles like proctor, senior tutor, and master.

On the other hand, it is out of institutions like this that much of the world’s newest thinking comes. The most fundamental difference between a college like Harvard and the schools that almost all of you came from is that Harvard is committed not just to transmitting, disseminating, and teaching what is known, but also to advancing the frontiers of knowledge in every direction.

Consider some of the things that members of the faculty, with whom many of you will study, have done in the last few years:

  • They helped to demonstrate that the galaxies of the universe are not just flying apart, but are flying apart at an ever-accelerating rate. And accelerating in ways that it takes an understanding of not three, but five, or six, or eight, or 11 dimensions to understand.
  • They have transformed the way in which we think women lived and women changed society in early America, and transformed our understanding of the sources of Shakespeare’s genius.
  • They have put forth ideas that have shaped our national – and, indeed, international – debate on questions ranging from what should be done about genocide in Darfur, to the reform of Social Security, from the provision of health insurance for all Americans, to the prevention of nuclear proliferation around the world.

And advancing knowledge is not just the work of the faculty; it is the work of all of us.

I was reminded of this very powerfully when I met a student in the Yard last year, and I asked him what his undergraduate thesis was about. He said, rather rapidly, something like this: “I’m making use of two-photon microscopy to witness individual neurons firing in the neural cortex of a rat.”

I’m not often at a loss for words, but that did leave me slightly stymied. I could think of only one question to ask: I said, “Tell me, is two-photon microscopy better than one-photon microscopy?” And he said it absolutely was.

And that paper represented an important publication and contribution to knowledge. So too did original performances of any number of plays and pieces of music put on by Harvard students in the last several years. So too did the invention of the, which is changing college student life across this country, which came from Harvard students.

Progress at Harvard takes many, many different forms and it is something of which we can all be part. You know there is another aspect that is important in understanding an institution like this. It is, I think, very much related to perhaps a product of our success in being both a bastion of tradition and a fount of novelty. And that is that, almost uniquely among institutions, great universities like this one manage to preserve their greatness over very long periods of time.

Harvard was America’s leading university a century ago, and it is today America’s leading university. And if you think about it, there are not many institutions that were leaders a hundred years ago and are still leaders today. What is it that gives us this distinctive strength? What is it that enables great universities to stay great? I would suggest that there are three important things.

First, we are a place that is committed to excellence, whatever its source may be. Ours has been a continuing march and a continuing struggle – and not one that is complete – towards greater openness. Yours is a very different class than the Harvard class of a decade ago, or a quarter century ago, or two generations ago. It includes students from every state of the union, from nearly a hundred nations, and members of every ethnic group.

It would have been unthinkable when I was a graduate student here just 30 years ago that it would be true, as it is true today, that two-thirds of Harvard students will, at some point in their Harvard careers, room with a student from a different race than theirs. That is a great source of our strength. It is our continuing willingness to be open to people who can make a great contribution no matter where they come from. That is an important part of what defines our excellence.

And it is my hope for all of you that, in your years here, you will reach beyond the comfort zone, beyond people like yourself, to get to know people who are very different, to learn from them, to appreciate them, and to broaden your own perspective on this world. For there are few institutions anywhere as open and diverse as a university community like this one, and it is all of our responsibility to make sure we all benefit as much as we can from this diversity.

There is a second crucial aspect – perhaps it is the one that is most central – that uniquely defines a community like this among all the world’s institutions. That is that we are a community that is committed to the authority of ideas, rather than to the idea of authority.

Perhaps my favorite Harvard memory of the last four years is of a freshman seminar, or of one moment in the freshman seminar, that I taught two years ago. My freshman seminar was addressed to the topic of globalization. Its forth or fifth meeting addressed the issues associated with global capital flows – issues that I had been very involved in during my time at the United States Treasury.

I had put on the reading list an honorary lecture that I had given to the American Economic Association. And as I did at each of the seminar’s meetings, I asked two of the students to give their own summary of the readings, and their own view of the readings. And the student went along, he said something like the following: “And then there was President Summers’ lecture on global capital flows. It was interesting, but the data didn’t really come close to supporting the conclusions.”

And I thought to myself, I don’t actually agree with him, but what a wonderful thing this is that we’re in a place where it doesn’t matter whose idea it is. It is a place where a distinguished professor who has been working in a field and has developed a pet theory over 25 years may well be the first to congratulate a graduate student who provides a very different view that can overtake his own; that the only test of an idea is not its source, but its quality. Can an interpretation stand up to sustained criticism? Does a theory meet the test of experiment? Is an idea workable in practice? These are the questions that an intellectual community like ours asks.

And if you think about all the world’s institutions, think about all the different places where people come together, there are very few where it is only the authority of the idea and not the idea of the authority that matters.

There’s a third very special aspect of the community like this, and that is that we are a place of ideas, but also a place of high ideals. Yes, we are committed to truth for its own sake and no other truth, no other sake, and again and again it turns out that what seems most abstract and irrelevant has the most enduring impact.

You know that mathematics is the most abstract of the sciences, and number theory is the most abstract part of mathematics. And yet every ATM transaction that any of you engage in depends for its security on fundamental advances in number theory regarding prime numbers.

And yes, it is probably the case that no writing, no single piece of writing has influenced so fundamentally discussions of fairness, of income equality, as a book that was written in Emerson Hall, right over there, a little over a generation ago. John Rawls’ Theory of Justice has shaped the thinking of what constitutes fairness for hundreds of thousands of people who have read the book and millions more who haven’t, but are saying what was said in that book.

And yes, this contribution to knowledge is an ideal in and of itself, but it is the values of this institution that carry on.

You know the foreign policy of the United States – John Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis – that may well have been the most dangerous moment for mankind ever – was, he wrote later, very importantly influenced by his experience of writing an undergraduate thesis here at Harvard on the lessons that should and should not be drawn from what Neville Chamberlain did at Munich.

It is there again and again that people who make the most important decisions in the world, who make the greatest artistic contributions, when they are asked how and why their inspiration came, point back to what they learned and to what they did while they were undergraduates here at Harvard, and at other great research universities. So I say to you that it is a great privilege for all of us to be a part of this great community. But it is also a great responsibility to take advantage of all that it can offer.

Phillis Wheatley, whose work has been brought to prominence in recent years by Professor Gates, was a slave woman who was given a chance to speak at Harvard in 1767. She said this, which in somewhat different language was something we might say today: “Students, to you ’tis given to scan the heights above, to traverse the ethereal space and mark the systems of revolving worlds…. Improve your privileges while they stay, ye pupils, and each hour redeem, that bears or good or bad report of you to heaven.” Those reports we will not give, but that responsibility is yours.

I’ve been speaking to the new students. Let me say something in conclusion to the parents sitting here. I remember very well, like it was yesterday, the day just about 35 years ago when I bid my own parents farewell, after a ceremony similar to this at MIT. I remember the look in my parents’ eyes. There was pride for what I was going to do, and sadness that I would not be at the family breakfast table the next morning. There was the excitement about their son’s future, the apprehension about their son’s future. This day does mark the end of one stage in the relationship between parent and child. But it also represents a beginning of a different and equal, and in some ways more fulfilling, relationship between child and parent.

Good luck and Godspeed to the students and families of the Class of 2009!