2018 Commencement Speech

Tercentenary Theatre, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

As delivered.

Thank you, Susan, for those generous words, and thanks to everyone for that generous welcome. Heartfelt congratulations to you, our graduates, and to your families for the hard work and many accomplishments that have brought you to this day. I am especially grateful to John Lewis for sharing his inspiring words and presence with us. There can be no finer example of how to live a life than that of John Lewis, whose courage, dedication, selflessness, and moral clarity have for more than a half-century challenged this country to realize its promise of liberty and justice for all. It is an inexpressible honor and privilege to stand on this stage beside him.

Almost eleven years ago I stood on this platform to deliver my inaugural address as Harvard’s twenty-eighth president. Today’s remarks represent something of a bookend — a kind of valedictory — valedictory, literally, farewell words. When I spoke in 2007, I observed that inaugural speeches are “by definition pronouncements by individuals who don’t yet know what they are talking about.” By now I can no longer invoke that excuse. I am close to knowing all I ever will about being Harvard’s president.

But I then went on to say something else about the peculiar genre of inaugural addresses: that we might dub them, as I put it then, “expressions of hope unchastened by the rod of experience.” By now I should know that rod. In my mind I hear Jimi Hendrix of my youth asking: “Are you experienced?” I would have to answer affirmatively. Perhaps not as experienced as Charles William Eliot, who made it through forty years as Harvard president. But eleven years is a long time. 

Think about it: The iPhone and I were launched within forty-eight hours of each other in the summer of 2007. All of us are now so attached to our devices that it seems almost unimaginable that they were not always there. The smartphone initiated a revolution in how we communicate, how we interact, how we organize our lives. And we are only beginning to understand the impact of this digital transformation on our disrupted society, economy, politics — even on our brains.

Two thousand and eight brought the financial crisis and the loss of close to a third of our endowment — prompting us in the ensuing years to overturn a system of governance that had been in place here at Harvard since 1650, and to transform our financial — and ultimately our investment — processes and policies.

Five years ago, we lived through the Marathon bombings and the arrival of terror in our very midst — and we came together as Boston Strong.

We have experienced wild weather, from hurricanes to Snowmageddon to Bombogenesis, and we’ve doubled down on our commitment to combat climate change.

We have confronted a cheating crisis, an email crisis, a primate crisis, and sexual assault and sexual harassment crises — and we’ve made significant and lasting changes in response to each.

We have faced down H1N1, Ebola, Zika, and even the mumps.

We have been challenged — as well as often inspired and enlightened — by renewed and passionate student activism: Occupy; Black Lives Matter; Divest Harvard; I, Too, Am Harvard; Undocumented at Harvard; and #MeToo.

We have faced a political and policy environment increasingly hostile to expertise and skeptical about higher education: The unprecedented endowment tax passed last December will, we estimate, impose on us a levy next year equivalent to $2,000 per student.

There has indeed been a good measure of chastening. But today I want to focus not on that “rod of experience,” but on what I then defined as the essence of an inaugural message: the expression of hope. Now, as then, that is what fills both my mind and my heart as I think about Harvard, about its present and its future. These past eleven years have only strengthened my faith in higher education and its possibilities. Hope, I have learned, derives not just from the innocence of inexperience, but from the everyday realities, the day-to-day work of leading and loving this University. At a time of growing distrust of institutions and constant attacks on colleges and universities, I want to affirm my belief that they are beacons of hope — I think our best hope — for the future to which we aspire. In their very essence, universities are about hope and about the future, and that is at the heart of what we celebrate today.

Hope is the foundation of learning. The 6,989 graduates we honor today arrived here with aspirations about what education could make possible, with dreams about how their lives would be changed because of the time they would spend here. Dean Rakesh Khurana of the College regularly speaks to students about the transformations — intellectual, social, personal — they should seek from their undergraduate experience — he urges them to articulate their hopes and define a path toward realizing them. And we do have such very high aspirations for them: that they find lives of meaning and purpose, that they discover a passion that animates them, that they strive toward veritas, that they use their education to do good in the world.

Never has the world needed these graduates more, and I think they understand that. I had lunch with a dozen or so seniors about a month ago, and I asked them to characterize their four years here. They spoke of the ways they had changed and grown, but, more pointedly, they spoke of how the world seemed to have changed around them. They worried about the health and sustainability of the Earth; they worried about the health of our democracy and of civil society. And they described how their attitudes and plans had altered because of these changed circumstances. They no longer took their world for granted; the future of our society, our country, our planet could not be guaranteed; it was up to them. Their careers and life goals had shifted to embrace a much broader sense of responsibility extending beyond themselves to encompass an obligation to a common good that they had come to recognize might not survive without them.

I thought of these students as something akin to alchemists — confronting dark realities and forging a golden path that offered hope — to themselves about their own lives, but to all of us as we imagine what these extraordinary graduates will do with and for the damaged world we offer them as their inheritance. It would be impossible to be surrounded by these students as they move through their time at Harvard without being filled with hope about the future they will create. To paraphrase the Ed School’s campaign slogan, they are here learning to change the world. 

Building a more enlightened world is, of course, the fundamental work of the faculty as well, and at the core of Harvard’s identity as a research university. The fundamental question we ask as we consider appointing a professor is, “What has this person done to alter and enhance our understanding of the world?” Perhaps they have revealed how the microbiome works, or how international trade agreements affect economic prosperity, or how undocumented students confront educational challenges. Perhaps they’ve unlocked ways to identify the actual location of genes that cause schizophrenia, or perhaps they have discovered how to engineer an exosuit to enable a person to walk. Harvard scholars explore history and literature to help us understand tyranny; art to illuminate the foundations of justice; law and technology to address fundamental assaults on assumptions about privacy.

With its eye cast on creating a different future, all of this work is founded in hope — of seeing something more clearly, of influencing others to change their understanding and perhaps even their actions. We are by definition a community of idealists, thinking beyond the present and the status quo to imagine how and when things could be different, could be otherwise.

The privilege of interacting with Harvard’s remarkable students and faculty, and the dedicated staff who support their work, has uplifted me every day for the past eleven years. It would be next to impossible not to believe in the future they are so intent to build. But there is another way that Harvard fills me with hope, and that is the way that we as a community — living and working together within these walls — are endeavoring ourselves to grapple with the challenging forces dividing and threatening the world — forces like climate change, or the divisiveness that poisons our society and polity, or the undermining of facts and rational discourse, or the chilling of free speech. 

We might in some ways see the work we have undertaken together on sustainability as emblematic of these wider efforts. We have come to consider ourselves a living laboratory. Our research and engagement on environmental issues of course stretches well beyond our walls: Our faculty, for example, have played critical roles in forging international climate agreements, have engineered innovative ways to create and store renewable energy, have influenced regulatory frameworks from Washington to Beijing, have explored the searing impact of climate change on health. But at the same time we have endeavored to make our own community a model for what might be possible — what we might hope for as we imagine the future. We have reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent, our trash by 44 percent; we produce 1.5 megawatts of solar energy — enough to fuel 300 homes. We have programs experimenting with healthy building materials, green cleaning, and food waste, and we have constructed HouseZero, an energy-neutral structure that is essentially an enormous computer generating data about every aspect of its operation and design, making information available to others as they build for the future.

We seek to be a living experiment in other ways as well. We gather here in Cambridge, face-to-face in a residential educational setting because we regard this very community as an educational machine. I have often observed that Harvard is likely the most diverse environment in which most of our students have ever lived. We endeavor to attract talented individuals from the widest possible range of backgrounds, experiences, and interests, from the broadest diversity of geographic origins, socio-economic circumstances, ethnicities, races, religions, gender identities, sexual orientations, political perspectives. And we ask students to learn from these differences, to teach one another — and to teach us as well — with the variety of who they are and what they bring. This isn’t easy. It requires individuals to question long-held assumptions, to open their minds and their hearts to ideas and arguments that may seem not just unfamiliar, but even disturbing and disorienting. And it is an experiment that becomes ever more difficult in an increasingly polarized social and political environment in which expressions of hatred, bigotry, and divisiveness seem not just permitted but encouraged. But in spite of these challenges all around us, we at Harvard strive to be enriched, not divided, by our differences.

To sustain this vision of an educational community, we must be a living laboratory in another sense as well. We must be a place where facts matter, where reasoned and respectful discourse and debate serve as arbiters of truth. There has been much recent criticism of universities for not being sufficiently open to differing viewpoints. Protecting and nourishing free speech is for us a fundamental commitment, and one that demands constant attention and vigilance, especially in a time of sharp political and social polarization. The uncontrolled — and uncontrollable — cacophony that defines a university means that sometimes inevitably we will fall short; we cannot always guarantee that every member of this community listens generously to every other. But that must motivate us to redouble our efforts. Silencing ideas or basking in comfortable intellectual orthodoxy independent of facts and evidence blocks our access to new and better ideas. We must be dedicated to the belief that truth cannot be simply asserted or claimed, but must be established with evidence and tested with argument. Truth serves as inspiration and aspiration in all we do; it pulls us toward the future and its possibilities for seeing more clearly, understanding more fully, and improving ourselves and the world. Its pursuit is fueled by hope. Hope joins with truth as the as the very essence of a university. 

And so I come back to hope — the hope implicit in our efforts to model a different way for humans to live and work together, the hope in the ideas and discoveries that are the currency we trade in, the hope in the bright futures of those who graduate today. Yet as I step down from my responsibilities as Harvard president, I am keenly aware of another of hope’s fundamental attributes. It implies work still unfinished, aspirations not yet matched by achievement, possibilities yet to be seized and realized. Hope is a challenge.

I think of the words the beloved late crew coach Harry Parker once spoke to a rower — words I quoted often during the campaign: “This,” he said to the rower, “this is what you can be. Do you want to be that?” These are the words and the message I would like to leave with Harvard. The work is unfinished. The job remains still to be done in times that make it perhaps more difficult than ever. May we continue to challenge ourselves with the hope of all we can be and with the unwavering determination to be that.

May Harvard be:
As wise as it is smart
As restless as it is proud
As bold as it is thoughtful
As new as it is old
As good as it is great.