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Using the University – Risk and Reward at Harvard

Cambridge, Mass.

To Incoming Freshmen and Parents

As prepared for delivery

Welcome, Class of 2011. Welcome, parents. Welcome, friends. Seven years ago I sat where you are, beside my daughter and the members of the Class of ’04. So I understand a little about how you feel at this moment. The anticipation, the expectations, the tingling doubts. The small inner voice wondering what you are expected to know, wondering why Harvard chose you, suspecting, as thousands have done before you, that you are the mistake. But I know that you have nothing to worry about. You are supposed to arrive here to begin doubting and questioning things, you are supposed to “unsettle presumptions,” as the University’s recent Report on General Education puts it. As the report says, you are supposed “to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances.” So it’s only natural that you should begin by doubting yourselves. But right now I want to ask you to think for just a few minutes, not about why we chose you, but instead why you chose Harvard. What does it mean for you to have selected us, and how should that shape your behavior over the next four years?

As you have begun looking around your new environment, you know that Harvard can be a bit daunting. Here you are at America’s oldest university. The most iconic. The most steeped in accomplishment and tradition as well as in other ways the most innovative. Perhaps you know that the Law School lies beyond the Yard to the north, the Business School across the Charles to the south. Down the street is The Crimson, its hallway lined with pictures of former editors – JFK, FDR, David Halberstam, Linda Greenhouse, and on the next block is the Lampoon, which helped launch John Updike, Robert Benchley, Conan O’Brien, and countless TV writers and producers. At the more outer reaches you may eventually find the Medical School, or the Center for Astrophysics, or the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, which right now is about one-third of the way to the moon. How do you get a hold of this place? How do you make it yours? As a dean here once put it, the place ought to come with an “Owner’s Manual.” Or at least a map, a whistle, a compass, and a sandwich.

Two things are important for you to know. First, Harvard is not only a big place – a place that has, if we include all of its schools, as many students as Yale, Princeton, and Amherst combined. It is a big research university. It has 10 graduate and professional schools, and Harvard College sits within them. It did not start out that way. Harvard was born a college, a school for the “ambitious village boys” of a 17th century Puritan settlement. A college, unlike a university, exists largely to instruct its students, with a faculty that is focused on teaching an accepted canon of what is already known. The American research university, or the “university college” of the kind that Harvard is now, is a very different creature. Emerging after the Civil War on a wave of new wealth and of scientific discovery, it expanded enormously after World War II by large-scale federal funding of the sciences.

What is a research university? It is a particular and remarkable kind of place. A bit like New England’s Mt. Washington, it creates its own weather. It is an engine of knowledge for our society, a kind of perfect storm for free inquiry. We push ourselves to the edges of known phenomena. We ask questions that have not been answered. We discover new things to analyze. As you get started at Harvard, one thing to remember about a research university is this fundamental premise: we are all teachers and we are all learners. In every seminar and laboratory and archive we cultivate the habits of civil and curious inquiry, of capacious mind and spirit, in order to reconstruct, re-vision and reformulate what is known. Professors, graduate students, and undergraduates alike must believe in this double commitment of teaching and scholarship, and its continuum of discovery and of learning. At the head of your freshman seminar might be a Nobel Prize winner; in fact as I looked through the list of freshman seminars over the weekend, I identified two Nobel Prize winners and two Pulitzer Prize winners offering instruction in freshman seminars this fall. They will be teaching you and undertaking research to expand the boundaries of knowledge at the same time, and you can be a part of that.

The second thing you should know about research universities is that they have missions of public service. The research university is a strange hybrid of free thought and worldly utility, pursuing knowledge for its own sake, and at the same time advancing knowledge for the public good. Harvard received a double dose of its sense of public service – once in the late 19th century, when the usefulness of the university became a pressing goal in American higher education, and originally in 1636, when Harvard’s Puritan founders aimed to rein in what they called the student’s “sensuall Appetite[s]” with “reason,” in order to prepare young people to serve the greater community.

Whatever the fate over the last four centuries of young people’s “sensual appetites,” Harvard undergraduates are still deeply involved in the surrounding Cambridge and Boston communities – running a local homeless shelter, teaching dance to fifth- and sixth-graders, living and working in a public housing program for the summer. You can make yourselves a part of that. And our mission of service is increasingly global. Last year, junior Catherine Vaughan investigated children’s rights violations in St. Petersburg, Russia. Senior Kevin Gan worked with a Harvard Medical School team trying to optimize AIDS health-care delivery in South Africa. Twenty years ago Paul Farmer, a pioneering physician and medical anthropologist on the faculty of the Medical School, founded Partners in Health, where you can volunteer, helping to improve health care for the poorest people in Haiti, Peru, Rwanda, and Russia.

Even if at first it may be a bit overwhelming, Harvard is yours to use – a cauldron of creativity that offers you unparalleled choice and opportunity. So … how do you begin? There are countless ways.

Are you interested in the life sciences? At Harvard, the basic course, Life Sciences 1A and 1B, integrates chemistry, cellular and molecular biology, genetics, and evolution under an interdisciplinary faculty team, who lead you into the most exciting and important questions in the field today. When you take Molecular and Cellular Biology 100, don’t expect cookbook experiments. You can work in a faculty member’s lab staffed entirely by undergraduates, engaged in research projects on the cutting edge of science.

When Lief Fenno, who graduated last spring, sat in your seat his freshman year as a new student from Alaska, he did not know what he wanted to do. He liked science. He took Professor George Whitesides’ DNA and the Molecules of Life class, and was hooked. He got a work-study job in the Organismic and Evolutionary Biology lab, where a grad student helped him analyze samples from a hot springs near his home back in Fairbanks, and where he did some thinking about his grandfather afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. His sophomore year, Fenno sent an e-mail to biology Professor Doug Melton, whom he did not know, asking if he could work on stem cells in Melton’s cutting-edge lab. Within two weeks he was launched. He got the guidance he had hoped for from a post-doc mentor, the reagents he needed from neurology Professor Ole Isacson at the Medical School, and assistance from a host of others, and by his senior year he was using stem cells to grow Parkinson’s disease cells in a dish, groundbreaking work that has made it easier for scientists to understand one of our most enigmatic diseases. “At the beginning,” he said, “I didn’t know how to do this, but people were overflowing with helpfulness. One day I was asking for directions to the bathroom, and then I was asking to work in Professor Melton’s lab. At Harvard, anything you might need is there,” he said. “The equipment, the expertise, the connections, they are all there.”

When rising junior Beth Gettinger came to Harvard as a freshman, she did not expect to have personal contact with her professors. When she took Foreign Cultures 34, a course on Mesoamerican Civilizations, she got an e-mail from her professor, Bill Fash, who was contacting the class about an archaeological field school he was creating in Honduras. “He took me under his wing,” she said. The summer of her freshman year she found herself digging out the stone faces of mythical creatures in a little-explored area of the ancient Mayan city Copan, a premiere Mesoamerican site where few students, let alone undergraduates, ever get to go. She went back the next summer for more field work, and two weeks of exploring Honduran places and culture with Honduran archaeology students. I met Beth in the Peabody Museum, just behind us on Divinity Avenue, where she helps with exhibits and works on the web page. She commented that as a new freshman she didn’t fully realize what great opportunities existed for her, including at Harvard’s museums. “So few students know how incredible the Peabody is,” she said, “that it’s one of the premiere archaeological museums in the world.”

Discover the byways and the rich troves of Harvard. Do not wait. Start exploring now. Harvard is far more than its 10 schools and the College. Think of it as the treasure room of hidden objects Harry discovers at Hogwarts – libraries, museums, centers of all kinds. I dare you to find the Center for Nanoscale Systems. Don’t worry – it’s actually very large. And if that seems perilous, you might try the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. Does Celtic literature interest you? Harvard has over 10,000 books on the subject. Climate change? Land use history? The Harvard Forest in central Massachusetts is one of the oldest and most intensely studied in North America, where undergraduates collaborate on long-term projects. Botany? Harvard has five botany libraries, including 5,000 volumes on orchids. Buddhist texts? Harvard’s holdings are among the finest in the world. Poetry? Check out the Houghton Library, where you will find the original manuscripts of Emily Dickenson’s poems, as well as her recipe for black cake, her jewelry, and even her bedroom furniture. Art? At your disposal is the most important university art museum in the country: its 300 Rembrandt prints are the largest collection outside the Netherlands.

Perhaps you need a special concentration to accommodate a new pairing of subjects that interest you. We have students studying Music and Neuroscience, and designing projects that combine Urban Planning and Sustainable Development.

Or you can explore another part of the world as a Weissman Fellow: like some of your fellow undergraduates, work at a medical clinic in India; aid orphans in China; examine coral reefs at a marine research station in the Red Sea; or report for the Associated Press in Senegal.

You sit before me. You have chosen Harvard. But I urge you, when you rise and go today, to actively choose Harvard. Four years from now, when you receive your diploma, I want each of you to have a story of risk and reward at Harvard: of the professor you e-mailed after you looked up what she had written or discovered; of the obscure collection you called up from the basement of a museum; of the time you got lost looking for the Center for Ethics; or the weekend you tried and failed at contra-dancing, or succeeded at crew. Choose Harvard. Not just the College and your dorm, but the whole sweep of it. Use this magnificent university.

– Drew Gilpin Faust