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2008 Commencement Speech

Cambridge, Mass.

As prepared for delivery

Distinguished guests, graduates and your families, alumni and alumnae, colleagues and friends – witches, wizards, and muggles of all ages – it’s a pleasure to be with you this afternoon.

Looking out from this stage, I’m not surprised that our gathering today includes what I’d imagine to be a record number of audience members who have not yet reached the age when even the most precocious of young people might enter college.

So, I want to say a special word of welcome not only to the members of the graduating Class of 2008 – but also to all of you who may someday be members of the Class of 2018, or 2019, or 2020.

It’s painful to admit, but however hard we might try, I’m afraid that Harvard would be hard pressed ever to measure up to the magic of Hogwarts.

We have our beautiful elms – but no whomping willows.

We have Veritas as our motto – but, though it might come in handy at times, we’ve had no luck concocting a veritas serum.

We have our great residential Houses, with their own storied traditions – but, I’m sad to say, no sorting hat to figure out who belongs where.

And, of course, we have a head of the school – but, I have to admit, someone who’s not quite a year into the job, who would not for a moment claim to have the wisdom, let alone the otherworldly powers, of the inimitable Albus Dumbledore.

Still, it falls to me as Muggle in Chief to say a few words about Harvard, before I turn over the podium to our featured speaker. As one of her many admirers here today, I want to thank her for reminding us that reading wonderful books may well be the closest we ever really come to experiencing true magic. J. K. Rowling, thank you for Harry Potter, and thank you for being with us.

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I want to focus my remarks this afternoon on one aspect of this first year of my presidency, an aspect that has taken on an importance and urgency I had not entirely anticipated. These are the issues that implicate what we might call Harvard’s “public boundary,” issues that cast into relief questions about the role and purposes of universities and of Harvard in particular.

This has been a year in which Congress has asked detailed and probing questions about the finances of the nation’s top colleges and universities; it has been a year in which the pressure on public funding has challenged the crucial role universities play in science and research; and it has been a year in which we have begun to address widespread concerns about cost and access to make sure that American higher education continues to unite excellence and opportunity in a way unmatched in the world.

Frequently, public discussion of the role of universities fixes on the language of “accountability.” Often, however, it is not clear to whom universities are meant to be accountable, and for what. In my installation address this past fall, I ventured the following proposition: “The essence of a university is that it is uniquely accountable to the past and to the future – not simply or even primarily to the present …. A university looks both backwards and forwards in ways that must – that even ought to – conflict with a public’s immediate concerns or demands.” These principles seem to me to touch directly on the debates that have been swirling around us. They can help us understand and frame our public responsibilities and to embrace them as opportunities for leadership and creative action.

In recent months, Harvard’s $35 billion endowment has become something of a target – publicly both envied and maligned. But it is poorly understood. Endowments represent a concrete embodiment of our accountability to the past and to the future. They derive from our history and the dreams of those who have preceded us; they are in turn the vehicle that enables us to project our own dreams into the future.

The endowments at Harvard and other great universities have created a system of higher education that is the envy of the world. It has opened doors of opportunity ever more broadly; it has generated powerful new understandings about human nature and the world we inhabit; it has fueled revolutionary advances in science; it has helped drive economic growth and expansion in our nation and the world.

Some critics have suggested that endowments are vast pots of money for presidents to spend at will. Others hold a more sophisticated, but still sharply limited view. As they would have it, universities like Harvard have built up endowments based on their tax-exempt status, and in return have the obligation, pure and simple, to devote those funds to educating the most students at the lowest cost.

Certainly that is part of our obligation – a vital part – but it is only a part. Our endowment represents the investment of gifts from generations of donors who have viewed Harvard as a place to bring their philanthropic visions to life. It provides the capital for an ambitious enterprise that supports 20,000 students in Harvard College and a dozen different schools, 16,000 employees, and a physical plant comprising over 600 buildings. We are one of the largest employers in Massachusetts; we operate a huge and very costly research enterprise; we support more than 200 service programs in education, affordable housing and community service in Cambridge and Boston; we partner with governments, agencies and universities in hundreds of teaching and research collaborations in 125 countries around the globe. As custodians of civilization we are home to libraries and museums that house priceless collections of books, manuscripts, art works, cultural artifacts, and scientific specimens.

All of this is funded by an annual operating budget of more than $3 billion. Each year, the income from our endowment contributes about a third of this total, as well as supporting substantial capital outlays. If the endowment were smaller, we would have to do less – less research, less teaching, at a lesser level of quality – or we would have to generate more income from other sources – tuition increases or external funding. And in a world where knowledge is increasingly important, our accountability to the future challenges us to do not less, but ever more – to use discoveries in new fields such as stem cell research to pursue cures for diseases like diabetes; to reduce the cost of graduate education, especially in our public service schools; to seize the Allston opportunity; to more fully incorporate the arts in our approach to learning and knowing; to enhance our global engagement in a shrinking world; to commit ourselves through both our practice and our research to the creation of a sustainable future.

Our endowment represents an accountability that generation after generation of Harvard graduates have voluntarily assumed, acknowledging the value of their own past education and investing in the future of learning. Their generosity has created an endowment that is in fact a collection of some 11,000 separate gift funds dedicated to the singular passions and purposes that have animated different individuals over time. A sampling of our endowment funds is a window into Harvard history:

The income from the A.F. Holden Fund is designated for the purchase of “meteorites and meteorite specimens;” Lillian Farlow left a bequest for the acquisition of examples of plants that reproduce by spores. The William and Gertrude Arnold Prize fund recognizes “the most understanding essay on the true spirit of book collecting.” In 1894, Harriet Hayden, who had escaped to Boston from slavery in Kentucky in 1844, bequeathed a scholarship for “needy and worthy colored students” to attend Harvard Medical School, and the Nieman Fellowships were established in 1938 to bring working journalists to Harvard. Many funds support financial aid to students from particular states or countries or to those studying in particular fields. Hundreds of funds support faculty, but few are as charmingly unrestricted in their terms as the Fisher professorship in Natural History established in 1834 to focus on any “of the three kingdoms, animal, vegetable or mineral.”

Harvard’s endowment enables students and faculty of both today and tomorrow to search for new knowledge in ways that may produce immediate success, or fail entirely, or come to ultimate fruition only in combination with other ideas yet to emerge. The accumulated gifts of our alumni and friends offer us both the resources and the independence to support work that may not pay off in the short term. They protect us against over-accountability to the present or to the merely trendy. They preserve our ability to be creative and rigorous, to take intellectual risks in pursuit of ambitious ideas.

It is central to the very notion of endowment that we must balance our use of its income to support the current generation against our duty to preserve its purchasing power for future generations. It means that we cannot treat our endowment as a lump sum to be spent on the projects of any given cohort of faculty or students, the demands of today’s politics, or even the vision of an individual Harvard president.

The model of “voluntary accountability” – by which succeeding generations of alumni and friends embrace the obligation of universities to take the long view, the non-instrumental view – is in large measure responsible for the success of the American system of higher education. In an era in which large and important financial organizations have been known to disappear over a weekend, universities are durable, proven institutions, here for the long haul. They remain respected around the globe. In rankings published by an institute for higher education in Shanghai, for instance, American universities accounted for 17 of the 20 top universities in the world.

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But we can’t afford to take this success for granted. Other countries are working hard to replicate our system of higher education. Every week, it seems, we read about a new multi-billion dollar investment in scientific research by another country. China, India, and Singapore have adopted biomedical research as national goals. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are creating huge new academic enterprises. Top students and scholars increasingly have significant new opportunities beyond our shores. The proportion of scholarly articles in the sciences published in the United States has been declining in recent decades, and the share of patents owned by U.S. inventors has fallen. Recognizing this shifting scientific landscape, over 400 organizations, including General Electric, Microsoft and others, are opening or moving research organizations to China, taking high-skilled jobs with them.

I cite these facts not to be jingoistic. The most pressing issues of our time – and the solutions to them – know no national boundaries, and the scholarly and research enterprise is strengthened immeasurably by the participation of the best intellects from around the world. Harvard, for its part, educates large numbers of international students. In welcoming the best talent from everywhere, we enrich our intellectual community, and we export important values and lasting relationships when those graduates return to their home countries.

To remain a global destination of choice in education and to continue to produce field- and world-changing research, however, we must do all we can to sustain our leadership in a much more competitive global environment. Internally, we must work hard to overcome barriers to collaboration across fields and to leverage our resources and organizational capacity for the strategic purposes of the University. Externally, we must revitalize the partnership between the nation’s leading universities and the federal government in funding basic research.

The progress of science and basic research in America – and the success of the American research university – has for decades depended on a partnership between the government and higher education. Fields like biotechnology, telecommunications, and environmental sustainability all had their beginnings in university-based research. Such research has enabled universities to isolate the genes that contribute to diseases like breast cancer, cystic fibrosis, and Alzheimer’s, to create the basis for modern computing and Internet connectivity, and to generate the basic science that will be needed to develop alternative forms of energy as we grapple with climate change.

But in recent years federal support for university research has weakened. Funding has decreased in a number of fields, and NIH support for the biomedical sciences has been held flat over the past five years, amounting to a real drop of 13 percent. Earlier this spring I joined with scientists from Harvard and other universities to testify before a Senate committee to explain to Congress the problem of the “broken pipeline” – the devastating impact of diminished funding on our brightest young researchers and, therefore, on America’s global leadership in biomedical research.

We cannot afford to take our leadership in science for granted. The American research enterprise has been enormously fruitful over the decades because we couple teaching and research, we encourage exploration based on curiosity and free inquiry, and we situate it in universities. Innovation is the most important source of strength in the American economy today. If we lose that creative spark, we lose an essential asset.

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Finally, we must bear in mind that an excellent university will not stay excellent unless it draws on the broadest possible pool of talent. Higher education in a free and democratic society must serve as an engine of opportunity. The genius of the American system of higher education is that it has managed to combine broad access with unsurpassed intellectual distinction.

That is why we have spent the past five years at Harvard overhauling our approach to cost and financial aid to make sure that Harvard College is genuinely affordable to students from families across the income spectrum, and – equally important – that a Harvard education is understood to be a realistic possibility for any talented student, regardless of financial circumstances. Several years ago, we told families with incomes below $60,000 that they would not be asked to pay any part of the cost of sending their children to Harvard. Since that announcement, the number of students from lower income groups has increased by 33 percent.

Last December, we decided to extend our approach up the income scale, reducing the price of a Harvard College education for middle and upper middle income families by one-third to one-half. Students and families welcome what we have done. Harvard’s effort to reduce financial burdens is a great benefit to undergraduates here at Harvard. But we feel accountable not just to those students, but to the larger system of American higher education and to the values of access, opportunity, and excellence that unite public and private universities in common cause. We hope that the dramatic reduction of the price of a Harvard education will help change the broader conversation about what “affordability” means, because affordability represents a critical dimension of our accountability to the students who will inherit the future.

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American higher education is the most valuable educational resource in the world. It embodies our commitment to learning, our confidence in the power of new ideas, our faith in discourse and democratic values, our belief in human possibility. Our aspirations are hollow unless we, as individuals and as a broader society, join in support of our universities’ deepest and most important purposes. Our presence here today affirms those purposes and our shared dedication to this extraordinary institution and all we know it can and must accomplish.

– Drew Gilpin Faust