Skip to main content

2006 Commencement Address

Cambridge, MA

Today, I speak from this podium a final time as your president. As I depart, I want to thank all of you – students, faculty, alumni and staff – with whom I have been privileged to work over these past years. Some of us have had our disagreements, but I know that which unites us transcends that which divides us. I leave with a full heart, grateful for the opportunity I have had to lead this remarkable institution.

Since I delivered my Inaugural address, 56 months ago, I have learned an enormous amount -about higher education, about leadership, and also, about myself. Some things look different to me than they did five years ago. And yet the convictions I expressed as I entered Harvard’s presidency I feel with even more urgency these five years later. It is the urgency, and the possibility, of all Harvard can accomplish in the next years that I want to focus on this afternoon.

The world that today’s Harvard’s graduates are entering is a profoundly different one than the world administrators like me, the faculty, and all but the most recent alumni of Harvard entered.

It is a world where opportunities have never been greater for those who know how to teach children to read, or those who know how to distribute financial risk; never greater for those who understand the cell and the pixel; never greater for those who can master, and navigate between, legal codes, faith traditions, computer platforms, political viewpoints.

It is also a world where some are left further and further behind – those who are not educated, those trapped in poverty and violence, those for whom equal opportunity is just a hollow phrase.

Scientific and technological advances are enabling us to comprehend the furthest reaches of the cosmos, the most basic constituents of matter, and the miracle of life. They offer the prospect of liberating people from drudgery on an unprecedented scale and of eliminating dreaded diseases.

At the same time, today, the actions, and inaction, of human beings imperil not only life on the planet, but the very life of the planet.

Globalization is making the world smaller, faster and richer. One-third of human beings now live in places where the standards of living may increase 30 fold in a single human lifespan – a transformation that dwarfs what we call the Industrial Revolution. Still, 9/11, avian flu, Darfur, and Iran remind us that a smaller, faster world is not necessarily a safer world.

Our world is bursting with knowledge – but desperately in need of wisdom. Now, when sound bites are getting shorter, when instant messages crowd out essays, and when individual lives grow more frenzied, college graduates capable of deep reflection are what our world needs.

For all these reasons I believed – and I believe even more strongly today – in the unique and irreplaceable mission of universities.

Universities are where the wisdom we cannot afford to lose is preserved from generation to generation. Among all human institutions, universities can look beyond present norms to future possibilities, can look through current considerations to emergent opportunities.

And among universities, Harvard stands out. With its great tradition, its iconic reputation, its remarkable network of 300,000 alumni, its unmatched capacity to attract brilliant students and faculty, its scope for physical expansion in Allston and its formidable financial resources, Harvard has never had as much potential as it does now. Thanks to your generosity and the endowment’s strong performance, our resources have increased in just the last three years by nearly seven billion dollars. This is more than the total endowment of all but four other universities in the world.

And yet, great and proud institutions, like great and proud nations at their peak, must surmount a very real risk: that the very strength of their traditions will lead to caution, to an inward focus on prerogative and to a complacency that lets the world pass them by.

And so I say to you that our University today is at an inflection point in its history. At such a moment, there is temptation to elevate comfort and consensus over progress and clear direction, but this would be a mistake. The University’s matchless resources – human, physical, financial – demand that we seize this moment with vision and boldness. To do otherwise would be a lost opportunity, not only for Harvard but also for humanity. We can spur great deeds that history will mark decades and even centuries from now. If Harvard can find the courage to change itself, it can change the world.


All over the world, and in every corner of America, Harvard’s prestige, and wealth, inspires awe. For some, the name Harvard is synonymous with privilege.

In fact, Harvard is a place of great and transforming opportunity. This week we read of a Bronx postman’s son whose life was changed by his years of study in this Yard. This man is now to lead one of America’s great financial firms. I know that scores of you from every alumni class gathered here have similar stories. When I became president of Harvard, I resolved that, on my watch, we would have more such stories of opportunity to tell.

Thus, in the last five years we have eliminated the necessity of contribution towards tuition for families earning below $60,000 per year. We have seen an increase by a third in the number of eligible lower- and middle-income students attending Harvard, and even more importantly, we have seen other institutions follow our lead.

Still, when the gap between the life prospects of the children of wealthy parents and those of middle class and poor parents is widening, we have only made a beginning. I look forward to the day when Harvard sets a standard by eliminating any financial burden for lower and middle class families and when students from these backgrounds are fully represented in every Harvard class.

There is more to equal opportunity. Should not every young person have the opportunity to choose a career that, while it may not be lucrative, serves our world – whether it is performing basic research, counseling the troubled, teaching in urban schools, struggling to bring peace to nations, preserving the public health? A university like ours cannot change the distribution of financial rewards in our society. But we can press on to find more financial aid, more ways to support those who commit themselves to service.

We have, in the last years, begun to treat financial aid as a university-wide responsibility, creating new fellowships and increasing the resources available for students who pursue public service. But there is much more to do. I look forward to the day when Harvard sets a standard by insuring that every student with the ability and the drive to study here can pursue a career of service to society without fearing the debt that they will incur.


Ponder this. Within the next 25 years, it is more likely than not that genomics will have led us towards a cure for many cancers; that stem cell research will transform treatment of diabetes, that basic research will make possible a vaccine for Alzheimer’s, and that we will have means to control AIDS and malaria.

Draw a circle with a five-mile radius from this point and you encompass the greatest concentration of biomedical talent on earth, and, almost as remarkable, the undeveloped urban real estate capable of making Harvard the world’s epicenter of biomedical progress.

Recognizing the potential, we have in the last five years created a Stem Cell Institute to fill the gap left by federal policy and so ensure that this research area – with its promise for diabetes, Parkinson’s and much else – is fully explored.

We have launched the Broad Institute for Genomics in collaboration with MIT, and embarked on planning and construction of more than 20 football fields’ worth of laboratory space to be devoted to interdisciplinary science in Cambridge and Allston. We have expressed our commitment to scientific education in new undergraduate courses that cut across scientific disciplines, and that focus, too, on the economic, social, and ethical aspects of scientific discovery. And we are on the verge of creating, at last, a new school for engineering and applied science.

All this represents a significant, and rapid, expansion of Harvard’s prior investment in science. But there is much, more for Harvard to do. We owe to the next generation, and to our own, every effort we can make.

I look forward to the time when because of Harvard’s bold investments and its magnetic power, Boston is to this century what Florence was to the 15th – not the richest or most powerful, but the city that through its contribution to human thought shone the brightest light into posterity.

I look forward to the lives we will save.

The World

America today misunderstands the world and is misunderstood in the world in ways without precedent since World War II. A great university like ours has a profoundly important role to play in promoting international understanding.

I know that my own professional path was set by the summer during graduate school I spent in Indonesia. There is no substitute for living abroad if one is to understand another country or even, I dare say, one’s own. The number of Harvard College students studying or working abroad has sharply increased over the past few years: now nearly two-thirds of a Harvard class – 1,100 students – will work or study abroad this year.

I look forward to the day when Harvard sets a standard for future leaders of our country by assuring that all students have meaningful international experiences before they graduate.

There is much more to be done, too, in truly integrating Harvard with the world. Students from abroad coming here to study return home changed people, and those they meet here are changed by them. Remember a few years ago the rescue of a doomed Russian submarine crew? This rescue was only made possible by a contact between a Russian admiral and an American admiral – two who never would have communicated if they had not met in a Kennedy School joint military program.

New research offices in major cities on every continent, our agreement with Google for the potential digitization of our entire library collection, our ongoing experiments in distance education – these demonstrate that Harvard can educate far beyond the boundaries of its campus. A century ago, our Extension School opened these gates to the greater Boston community. I look forward to the day when Harvard fully uses information technology to extend its reach into the entire world.

The College

At the very center of the University lies Harvard College, where, every year, 1,650 of the most impressive students on earth begin their undergraduate educations. In my Inaugural address I called for a comprehensive review and reform of the Harvard College curriculum, for the curriculum had not been addressed in over a generation.

We can take satisfaction that now we do offer freshman seminars for all, and that there now exist faculty-led seminars in many concentrations. We have increased student choice and flexibility within general education and within concentrations, we have begun a much-needed overhaul of our advising system, and we have begun to bring practice in the arts – the creation of music, of visual art, of film and of writing – fully into the Harvard curriculum. I was honored to approve the appointments that have allowed the faculty to grow so rapidly in recent years, and I was especially excited to promote to tenure from within some of the College’s most superb teachers.

And yet, we are still short of realizing the truly great curriculum our students are waiting for.

I believe that to realize this curriculum, the Faculty of the College will need to put individual prerogatives behind larger priorities and to embrace new structures and norms of teaching and learning. To provide the closer student-faculty contact our students deserve, faculty will need to take a greater role in leading discussions, in responding to student writing, in advising student concentrators.

They will need to provide the broad introductions to large bodies of knowledge the students are right to demand. They will need to think with vision, and with generosity, across disciplinary borders and their particular purviews to craft a compelling description of just what, in the 21st century, it means to be an educated person. I look forward to the day when Harvard is not just the greatest research university in the world, but is also recognized for providing the best undergraduate education in the world – the day when once again what we do here in this Yard defines the ideal of liberal education.


Yes, I have these last years been a man in hurry. My urgency boils down to this:
For an institution like ours to make the great contributions the world rightly expects of us, we cannot rest complacent on this, the more comfortable side of innovation; on this, the more familiar side of the lectern; or, even, on this, the reassuringly red brick side of the river.

Harvard must – we must – cross over: 
Cross over from old disciplines to new;
Cross over from old structures of governance to new;
Cross over from outdated lectures to new active modes of learning,
Cross over from the confines of Harvard Square and put down new, ambitious stakes, in Allston and beyond.

We owe it to those who come after us to become for this city, this region, this nation and this world a center of human improvement.

Our long preeminence must become a spur, not a bar, to our constant transformation.

I am honored to have served as your president during the early days of what I hope – and believe – will be Harvard’s greatest epoch. I have loved my work here, and I am sad to leave it. There was much more I wanted, felt inspired, to do. I know, as you do, that there are many within this community who have the wisdom, the love of Harvard, the spirit of service, and the energy that will be necessary to mount the collective efforts that this moment in history demands.

I bid you farewell with faith that even after 370 years, with the courage to change, Harvard’s greatest contributions lie in its future.