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2008 Remarks at ROTC Commissioning Ceremony

Cambridge, Mass.

Thank you so much for inviting me to be with you here today. It is a privilege to congratulate you on your commissioning as officers. This moment in your lives marks a great accomplishment. For four years you have gone the extra mile – literally – up Mass. Ave. to MIT to complete your training. You have awakened at dawn while your roommates slept in. You have jumped out of airplanes, challenged your bodies and your brains and become mentally and physically prepared for service. You have our respect for your choices, our admiration for your commitment, and our deep gratitude for your willingness to confront dangers on the nation’s behalf in the months and years to come.

You are part of a glorious and long tradition of military service at Harvard. We are surrounded by memorials to Harvard’s soldiers and officers. Memorial Hall commemorates those who lost their lives fighting for the Union in the Civil War – 136 of them, honored on the plaques in its transept. The youngest fell at Gettysburg, two years before his graduation. The grandson of Paul Revere also died there, and Robert Gould Shaw lost his life leading one of the first black regiments of the Union, the Massachusetts 54th. The 20th Massachusetts Regiment was known as the “Harvard Regiment” because so many of its officers were from this University. Memorial Church, just behind us, was built in memory of the hundreds who died in World War I, including three Radcliffe women, out of the some eleven thousand from Harvard who served with the Allied forces, and we have since added memorials to those who sacrificed their lives in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Harvard students and graduates continue to serve as leaders in our nation’s military, still exhibiting courage and self sacrifice, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world. And perhaps few people know that Harvard established one of the very first ROTC programs in the country, formed during World War I when Woodrow Wilson signed the National Defense Act. More than 1,000 students joined, and marched through Boston in a show of national “preparedness.”

I celebrate you on this important day, as you join these traditions and vow to support and defend the United States Constitution. The freedoms we enjoy depend vitally on the service you and your forebears have undertaken in our behalf. Indeed, I wish that there were more of you. I believe that every Harvard student should have the opportunity to serve in the military, as you do, and as those honored in the past have done.

Universities like Harvard are special places, places not just where minds can flourish but where hearts are nourished as well – by commitment to the pursuit of truth, to the availability of opportunity based on merit, to the full inclusion of all in our hopes and possibilities.

The United States has long turned to education to nurture the equality fundamental to our national purposes. In 1779, for example, Thomas Jefferson called for a national aristocracy of talent chosen, as he put it, “without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance,” and “rendered by liberal education . . . able to guard the sacred deposit of rights and liberties of their fellow citizens.” Education has enlisted the talented – “without regard to condition or circumstance” in the service of broader purposes of nation and community.

So too has the military served as a foundation for citizenship and a pathway to full participation in American life. Thousands of immigrants have achieved citizenship as a result of national service, in Jefferson’s words, “guarding the sacred deposit of rights and liberties.” And it is no accident that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation guaranteed both freedom and the right to military service. As a convention of African American veterans declared in 1865 as they petitioned for the right to vote, “What higher order of citizen is there than the soldier? Or who has a greater trust confided to his hands?”

As women claimed the full rights and obligations of citizenship in the course of the twentieth century – the right to vote, the right to serve on juries – so too they sought full inclusion in the military. That there is a woman here about to be commissioned as an officer today – that I am here as president to address you – is because of the inexorable logic of those principles of inclusion operating “without regard to … accidental condition or circumstance.” These are the principles that have made Harvard what it is, that have made the American military what it is; these are the principles that have made our nation what it is. These are principles we must continue to honor and strive to extend.

One of the gates to Harvard Yard says “Enter to grow in wisdom.” This we hope you have done. That same gate, as you walk out, reads, “Depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.” This we know you will do. To you and your families, at this proud moment in your lives, we express our profound appreciation, and wish you the very best in your endeavors to make the world a safer and better place. Congratulations.

– Drew Gilpin Faust

Five graduate to service »