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Letter to the Harvard community about the global economy

Dear Members of the Harvard Community,

Earlier this month Harvard celebrated its 358th Commencement, capping what was by any measure an extraordinary year.

It began with a tropical storm and a blackout greeting our freshmen on their first night in the Yard. It ended with sunshine in Tercentenary Theatre, with festive graduation ceremonies and a singular rendition of “America the Beautiful” by Wynton Marsalis, one of our honorary degree recipients. We started the year naming Julio Frenk, the former Mexican health minister, as our new dean of public health, later announced Cherry Murray of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as our new dean of engineering and applied sciences, and just last week appointed Martha Minow, a longtime member of our law faculty, as the Law School’s new dean.

In the fall we marked the Harvard Business School centennial, hailed “green as the new crimson,” created the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, and embarked on new directions in the arts. In the spring we explored the sustainability of cities, readied the launch of our new General Education curriculum, admitted students from the largest applicant pool in the history of Harvard College, and loaned more than a dozen faculty members — in law, government, science, economics, medicine, and public health — to the new administration in Washington. From September through June, our faculty, students, and staff navigated a year filled with unprecedented financial challenges but also with remarkable achievements.

The global economic crisis and its impact on our endowment will continue to challenge us — as we, like other institutions, confront difficult and at times wrenching choices about how to align our spending with significantly reduced resources. But, as I said at Commencement, our focus belongs not on what we have lost, but on what we have.

Whether the subject is climate change or the battle against infectious diseases, K-12 education reform or the future of financial regulation, international conflict or health care policy, our faculty and students are more than ever bringing their knowledge to bear on the world’s most daunting challenges. Just as important, they are pursuing the timeless work of humane learning — drawing wisdom for the present from the experience of the past, situating questions of immediate practical concern in the context of enduring values, reminding us of all there is to learn from making as well as understanding art.

Even as we work to resize and reshape aspects of our enterprise, let’s not for a moment forget the immense contributions that our community continues to make to the advancement of knowledge. Especially at a time of volatility, uncertainty, and change, we must be sure to make ourselves the architects of change, not its victims.

As we end a year with more than its share of challenges, I hope we can pause to remember what defines us: The undergraduate students whose diverse talents and energy continue to amaze. The professional school students who are helping redefine their fields at a moment when the call to public service is resonant and strong. The graduate students who are transforming their disciplines with their doctoral research. The faculty members who each day are shedding new light on everything from stem cells to the structure of the universe, from early-childhood development to the role of religion in public life. The staff members whose dedication enables the core academic work of the University to advance and thrive.

When I spoke to our graduating seniors at baccalaureate, I tried to convey some sense of how the learning that happens here can help us improvise through times of uncertainty and come out stronger and wiser, more resilient, more adaptable, and better prepared to lead fulfilling lives. I hope our graduates’ experience here, in the classroom and beyond, will serve them well — and inspire them to serve others well. And I hope you’ll take a moment to look at the following slide show of images and sounds from the past year, which captures vividly why Harvard continues to draw us together and how it helps change the world.


Drew Faust