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Harvard College Fund President’s Associates Dinner

Cambridge, Mass.

What enthusiasm we see here tonight, on the eve of the annual mayhem that we will see tomorrow between Harvard and Yale. A few weeks ago, I was thinking about tomorrow’s game and what a truly gratifying tradition it is. It’s really quite unlike anything else at Harvard, or really in all of football. And I found myself wondering, How do any of us get to be sports fans? What force has now for more than a century, compelled us into this madding crowd of Crimson for our annual date with the Bulldogs and—if any of you remember two years ago—with November frostbite.

Back before football even had forward passing or modern rules, as many as 43,000 fans crowded into Harvard Stadium. And the sight of students and alumni pouring through the streets of Cambridge is a truly venerable tradition. Harvard’s legendary coach, Bill Reid, described the crowd at the 1905 game as, he put it, “A mass meeting with singing, marching through the yard, calling everybody out, 2,000 strong, clear into Boston with an enthusiasm that has never been equaled.” President Eliot, who was a rower who didn’t much like football, tried to abolish it because he thought it was devious, and thought of it as a game for, as he put it, “the Roosevelts and other worshippers of brute force,” but even President Eliot noted the multitudes that turned out for Harvard football. And so, here we are in 2010, with our Twitter feeds and our chemical toe warmers, still doing the same thing, in largely the same way.

So why are we so engaged with sports? What was it that turned me into a baseball fan when my daughter, Class of 2004 at Harvard, was playing softball for nine-year-olds? I would sit through those innings in absolute paroxysms of anxiety, staring out at the diamond, full of little girls, as Jessica pitched with all eyes on her, the fate of the world seemingly on her shoulders. I became completely absorbed. I had then quite recently finished writing a biography, and I discovered that baseball really is a biographer’s game. It’s a battle between the pitcher and the batter. It’s the conspiring of the pitcher and the catcher and the second baseman. I just loved it, even with nine-year-olds.

And I can’t resist adding that after all those years, I finally got to turn the tides on Jessica when I threw out the first pitch at Fenway in September. And before I went out there, it was her turn to be a nervous wreck. Maybe it was Bob Iuliano’s, Class of ’83, lucky glove. A general counsel has many uses, including as a lender of sports equipment. Or maybe it was Joe O’Donnell’s amazing coaching, but at least I got the ball over the plate, and my daughter was not humiliated.

In between that Red Sox game and tonight, it occurred to me that beyond our love of playing sports, we love them for the simple reason that athletic competition is a place where human dramas are enacted. Sagas, heartbreaks, legends, comebacks—the sports pages are some of our very best writing. Who can forget the essay that John Updike of the Class of 1954 wrote about Ted Williams in his final at bat, hitting the home run that, as Updike put it, “was in the books while it was still in the sky.” But it isn’t just the drama or the incredible talent and athleticism of some of these players. And this year Harvard has a lot of that talent and athleticism. Running back Gino Gordon ranks seventh in the nation in yards per carry and leads the Ivy League. Our women’s squash team took the national championship, and we have top wrestlers and fencers, and I could go on and on. It isn’t just about that kind of talent. It’s that these dramas are about character. We come to the game to see strength and courage on the field. The beauty of teamwork, of trust, of sacrifice for others, of winning with humility and losing with grace. We come to see stories of discipline and dedication, and perseverance of justice and of fair play within the rules. And to see the productive tension between individuals and the group.

These are qualities we care about. These are stories about our values. And those are what I want to talk about tonight. There’s a lot of cynicism about the dark side of college sports—perhaps because that also makes a good story. And certainly, there are real issues of concern that we read about regularly in the news. But I want to focus for just a few minutes on the place athletics holds in higher education as a part of teaching values. In fact, American universities started out as places to teach their students values and the ideas that justified them. Harvard began as a seminary. We produced graduates like Cotton Mather, Class of 1678, a minister who wrote a little instructional volume called Essays to Do Good. Eventually, by the 19th century, one of the most important jobs of the Harvard President became teaching a moral philosophy course to seniors as a capstone to their undergraduate education.

The assumption was that truth and goodness were indivisible, and that the University’s job was to teach both—to give its students the tools to become good citizens and better human beings. And that was what we meant by Veritas. As religious teachings fell away in an increasingly secular world, sports took on a vital role in advancing this moral purpose. President Eliot, football Scrooge that he was, declared that athletics were, and I quote him, “of great advantage to the University,” because, as he said, “the perseverance, resolution, and self-denial that they require turn out to be qualities valuable in business and other active occupations of later life.” He believed that athletics served as key social leavening as students from different groups and backgrounds came together on teams and in the grandstands in a way that nothing else could match.

But by World War II, universities began explicitly to reject the old model of moral education. Many began to assume that the liberal arts should be somehow value-neutral, that teaching of character was no longer a college’s province. Colleges taught fields and disciplines like physics or economics. Faculty came increasingly to regard their responsibility as being to students’ minds, not to their morals. Yet, institutions like Harvard have never abandoned the notion of building character, of creating citizens. And I believe we need to be more direct and forceful in recognizing this. Look at our new General Education curriculum, which states as two of its core goals, and I’m quoting from the General Education document: “To prepare students for civic engagement and to develop students’ understanding of the ethical dimensions of what they say and do.” We require a course on ethical reasoning. Values are at the heart of our curriculum. They’re also at the heart of student life. Our residential house system acknowledges that an essential part of undergraduate education is learning to live with others—a set of human skills you don’t acquire online, but discover through the give and take of close contact and shared experience. And we urge our students to employ their remarkable talents to make a difference for others. More than half of college students participate in public service while they’re here. Phillips Brooks House serves as an umbrella for 86 student-directed programs, which simultaneously teach leadership and compassion.

And of course, athletics have long played a critical role in teaching values and building character as well. The eminent scholar and classicist, George Santayana, part of Harvard’s Philosophy Department in its golden age of the early 20th century, was in fact an ardent football fan. Wearing an exotic European cape, he wandered the upper colonnade at the stadium at every game, and he even wrote a paean to athletics entitled, Philosophy on the Bleachers. He called sports a “drama in which all moral and emotional interests are involved.” And he hailed athletes’ demonstrations of “skill and strength and courage.”

Now, we must acknowledge that all this character building isn’t necessarily always totally high-minded, but there are life lessons in that, too. Offensive lineman Chris LeRoy, a senior, was quoted in the Gazette recently, saying with pride that he had become a “tougher, nastier” player—words that I am sure would have had Eliot flipping in his grave. I remember that my daughter, Jessica’s, softball coach her senior year at her Quaker high school, was a nice, peaceful fellow, who kept saying to the team, “It’s all about the journey. It’s not about the destination.” By this time, Jessica was a catcher and the team captain. In the season championship game, the score was tied at her team’s last at bat. And she was ordinarily a rather soft-spoken captain, but she called the team together in a huddle, looked them in the eye, and said, “Screw the journey, let’s go out and win this thing.”

Competition creates empathy and compassion. There’s nothing like a worthy opponent. Last week, Carl Ehrlich, a linebacker and team captain in last year’s defeat of Yale, wrote a very moving piece in The New York Times about Penn captain and linebacker, Owen Thomas, who lost his life to depression. Carl wrote on behalf of a cause—the need, as he put it, for changing the culture around depression and sports. And Carl reflected that “Owen was very much like me. When I go to Franklin Field on Saturday, it will already be the most heartbreaking loss of my athletic career. Football,” he added, “offers structure and discipline to players and builds communities in meaningful ways.” The Penn and Harvard linebackers were part of the same community.

Contests, for all their fierceness and the will to win, create zones of openness and of understanding. When I was at Fenway waiting to throw my pitch, I was escorted to the dugout, where I encountered Dustin Pedroia, who has an amazing career batting average of over 300. He looked up at me—I’m about twice his height—and he said, “Hello, President Faust, I’m Dustin Pedroia, and when I was in college, I had a grade point average of 1.9.” It made me think about how our obligation is to produce not just students who get good grades. You all came to Harvard already equipped for that. But it is our obligation to cultivate citizens of the world with this kind of humility and openness—young people who know how to navigate triumphs and suffering, who know better how to fail at things because they take risks for something they believe in.

Students are hungry for this sense of purpose. In my three plus years as president, I have discovered that they come to college hoping, among other things, to discover the meaning of life. They want to know the nature of justice, and they flock to Michael Sandel’s course on it. When I see them at dinner in their houses or here in Annenberg, they ask me what they should do with their lives, seemingly seeking my permission to think beyond the instrumental—to pose the big questions. Education must come with ethical understanding. It cannot be value-neutral. If we hope to create the best and the brightest, we must understand the best. We need to help our students understand where they want to go, not just how to get there. We must help them to decide, “What do I truly value? How do I want to live my life?” We must deepen our humanity as we enrich our minds. And we must claim back the moral high ground for higher education.

Student athletics are a vital part of that larger commitment. With your overwhelming generosity and support, we are able to continue that commitment. As our lineman Chris LeRoy put it, “We love the intensity and camaraderie of football. One person cannot win the game.” A few years ago, through the generous efforts of many, at Gate One of Soldiers Field we restored a monument that honors six Harvard alumni who sacrificed their lives in the Civil War. One of them was Robert Gould Shaw. He played football at Harvard, and he died leading the first Union black regiment into battle.

The donor who gave the land for Soldiers Field, Henry Lee Higginson, described these classmates as brilliant, strong, and steadfast. As our Athletic Director, Bob Scalise, said, these Harvard graduates “symbolize the finest values that a school can instill in its students.” Thank you for being here tonight, it’s been a marvelous winning season. And with your endorsement, I grant our football team full permission to instill our finest values into Yale tomorrow. Go Crimson. Thank you very much.

– Drew Gilpin Faust