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2022 Convocation Remarks

Good afternoon, Class of 2026. It is an honor to add my voice to the chorus welcoming you officially as members of the Harvard community.

Fifty-three years ago this week, I said goodbye to my friends and family in Pontiac, Michigan and arrived here in Cambridge, Massachusetts for my first year of college. Not here, exactly, but just down the street at MIT.

It seems like yesterday.

I can tell you with complete confidence that memories of your first few weeks on this campus will remain vivid throughout your lifetime. You will recall who you met, who you befriended, your very first class, your very first burger at Bartley’s—everything.

Among my most vivid memories is my freshman roommate. His name was Alan.  He was a lacrosse player from New Jersey.  He was big.  I was small.  He was messy.  I was neat.  He brought his stereo to campus and liked to study with it on.  I liked to study with it off.  He liked to listen to the Rolling Stones, The Who and The Band.  I liked Bob Dylan, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. He liked almost all New York sports teams.  I hated them.  He was politically quite conservative.  I was anything but.

“This will never work out,” I thought.  So—you can probably tell where this story is going—I could not have been more wrong.  Alan, beneath a seemingly crusty, loud, opinionated exterior, proved to be one of the kindest, most interesting people I met during my time in college.  He was incredibly well read, a terrific writer, and very generous with his time, patiently helping me navigate through freshman physics, calculus, and chemistry. While we differed on almost everything related to politics, he loved a good argument, and we had many.  He became one of my closest friends, and we continued to live together, even as graduate students.  On my first day at Harvard Law School, he fixed me up on a blind date with his girlfriend’s roommate.  That blind date is here today.  Let me introduce you to her, my wife of 47 years, Adele.  And Alan wound up marrying Adele’s roommate, Debby, one week before Adele and I got married.  The two of them came to our wedding on their honeymoon.

Today, 53 years after we met, Alan and Debby remain two of our closest friends.  This summer, they spent three days with us at our home.  We have been through all of life’s passages together—the birth of our children and their children—the work of building careers and families—the joys and disappointments of life—the sweetness of every milestone and the sorrow of every loss.

We still agree about very little when it comes to politics, but we have civil conversations—even debates from time to time—and usually end up agreeing to disagree.  But we always respect each other, and we often learn from each other. And, after 53 years, we love them like family.

During your time here, please don’t overlook your Alan.  Please don’t judge people quickly based on their outward appearances or your first impressions.  One of the many reasons we admitted students from around the world, people with every interest imaginable, is because we learn from our differences.  As you get to know your roommates and your classmates, try to be slow to judge and quick to understand.  Give everyone the benefit of the doubt, at least initially, not just at Harvard but throughout life and you will be surprised by the number of friends you will acquire, people quite different from you, but people who will enrich your life immensely. 

If you are like most Harvard students, the friendships you make in the next few days will stay with you forever.  A few of you are even likely to meet your spouse or life partner here.  I know this statement to be true because I attend a lot of Harvard reunions.  I hear the same stories over and over about lifelong relationships that started during the first few days of school.  Your best friends, people with whom you will share your life together, are sitting among you.  Your job is to find them.

Let me also acknowledge that you may meet people at Harvard that you do not like.  Harvard is a microcosm of the larger world, and everything that you may find objectionable in the larger world is present in some measure here.  We are not perfect, but we strive to be better.  While trying to be a caring, understanding, and welcoming community, we cannot protect you from everything that is unpleasant.  Our job is to prepare you for the world you will inhabit when you graduate.  And that world is not going to treat you with kid gloves simply because you have a Harvard degree.  We would not be doing you a favor if we placed you in an emotional bubble and did not let your emotional immune systems develop.  We are here to prepare you to deal with a world that will challenge you—and sometimes even offend you.  I hope you will master these skills while you are at Harvard so you can devote your life to repairing a world that we all know is far from perfect. 

I know from conversations that I have already had with some of you that you want to change the world.  Good for you.  That is one of the reasons we admitted you.  But if you want to change the world, you need to master the art of persuading people to change their minds.  And I guarantee that you will not be effective at doing so unless you first have the experience of changing your own. 

Our motto at Harvard is Veritas.  It is more than a motto.  It is the reason we exist, to seek the truth.  Over time, truth is revealed, it needs to be tested on the anvil of competing ideas.  If you really seek the truth, you must engage with those who think differently than you.  Even more importantly, you must be willing to change your mind – to be persuaded by a better argument or new information.  Only when you have this experience will you be well equipped to make a difference in the world.  This is another skill I hope you will master at Harvard.

On move in day, Adele and I met many of your families.  We witnessed more than one emotional goodbye.  Most of you have been at the center of your loved one’s lives since the day you entered their world.  Now you are gone, and, for many left behind, the silence is deafening.  You have many people to help you make your transition to college—academic advisors, peer advisors, residential advisors, proctors, deans—you name it.  But your loved ones are on their own.  They are also going through a big adjustment, and it is up to you to help them through it.  Please give them a call from time to time, not a text – a call, and ask them how they are doing.  I guarantee you they will appreciate it.

Class of 2026, we have great expectations for you.  I hope that Harvard is everything you dreamed it will be—intellectually, socially and personally. I only wish I could be there at your 50th reunion so you could tell me how your life turned out and the role that Harvard played in it.  

Best of luck to each of you, and Godspeed.