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2011 Commencement Speech

Tercentenary Theatre, Cambridge, MA

Distinguished guests. Harvard faculty, alumni, students, staff, friends.

As we celebrate the Class of 2011 and welcome them to our alumni ranks, I feel a special sense of connection to those who just received their “first degrees,” to use the words with which I officially greeted them this morning. I began as president when they arrived as freshmen, and we have shared the past four years here together. Four world-changing years. From the global financial crisis, to a historic presidential election, to the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring — not to mention earthquakes, tsunamis and tornadoes. The choices and circumstances these new alumni face are likely to be quite different from the ones they expected when they moved into Harvard Yard in September 2007. And I hope and trust that they too are transformed — shaped by all they have learned and experienced as Harvard College undergraduates.

Their departure marks a milestone for me as well. One that prompts me, as Harvard enters its 375th year, to reflect on what these four years have meant for universities, and what universities must do in this time of worldwide challenges when knowledge is becoming ever more vital to our economies, our societies and to us all.

Education has never mattered more to individual lives. In the midst of the Great Recession, the unemployment rate for college graduates in the United States was less than half that for those with just a high school diploma. Those with bachelor degrees earn half again as much as high school graduates. Doctoral or professional degrees nearly double, on average, earnings again. And education of course brings far more than economic benefits. We believe that the graduates of institutions like Harvard are instilled with analytic and creative habits of mind, with a capacity for judgment and discernment that can guide them through a lifetime that promises an abundance of change.

But education is not just about individuals. Education has never mattered more to human progress and the common good. Much of what we have undertaken at Harvard in these past four years reflects our fundamental sense of that responsibility: to educate individuals who will understand the difference between information and wisdom, who will pose the questions, and create the knowledge that can address the world’s problems, who can situate today’s realities in the context of the past even as we prepare for the future.

Yet universities have been deeply affected, as events have reshaped the educational landscape in the United States and abroad. The cost of higher education has become the source of even greater anxiety for American families. At a time when college matters more than ever, it seems increasingly less affordable. Access to higher education is a national priority, and at Harvard we have significantly enhanced our financial aid policies to make sure that Harvard is attainable for talented students regardless of their financial circumstances. This is fundamental to sustaining Harvard’s excellence. More than 60% of undergraduates received financial aid from Harvard this year; their families paid an average of $11,500 for tuition and room and board. The composition of our student body has changed as a result, and we have reached out to students who previously would not have imagined they could attend. This past year, for example, nearly 20% of the freshman class came from families with incomes below $60,000. We want to attract and invest in the most talented students, those likely to take fullest advantage of their experience at Harvard College.

Our graduate and professional schools recognize a similar imperative and seek to ensure that graduates are able to choose careers based on their aspirations rather than on the need to repay educational debt. The Kennedy School, for example, has made increasing financial aid its highest priority; Harvard Medical School’s enhanced financial aid policies now assist over 70% of its student body.

Like American families, institutions of higher education face intensified financial challenges as well. At our distinguished public universities, pressures on state funding threaten fundamental purposes. The governor of Pennsylvania, for example, proposes cutting state appropriations for higher education by half. Leaders of the University of California system warned last week of a possible tuition increase of 32% in response to reduced state support. Some in Congress are threatening to reduce aid for needy students, and to constrain the federal funding that fuels scientific research at Harvard and at America’s other distinguished universities. By contrast, support for higher education and research is exploding in other parts of the globe. In China, for example, undergraduate student numbers have more than quadrupled in little over a decade; India has more than doubled its college attendance rate and plans to do so again by 2020. Higher education, these nations recognize, is a critical part of building their futures. As battles rage in Washington over national priorities and deficit reduction, we need to make that case for America as well. Universities are an essential part of the solution—providing economic opportunity and mobility, producing discoveries that build prosperity, create jobs and improve human lives. And American higher education—in its dedication to knowledge in breadth and depth, beyond instrumental or narrow technical focus — has proved a generator of imagination, wisdom and creativity, the capacities that serve as foundations for building our common future. When I met last year with university presidents in China, they wanted to talk not about science or technology, where we all know they have such strength, but instead about the liberal arts and how to introduce them in their country. They believed those principles of broad learning had yielded the most highly regarded educational system in the world. This year, Tsinghua University in Beijing introduced a new required course called “Moral Reasoning and Critical Thinking.” It is modeled on Professor Michael Sandel’s famous Harvard undergraduate class, “Justice,” and he lectured in that course last week. This is a time for us to convince Americans of what these Chinese educational leaders affirmed to me: that we in the United States have developed a model of higher education that is unsurpassed in its achievements and distinction, in the knowledge it has created and in the students it has produced. It must be both supported and adapted to help secure the future in which our children and their children will live.

That future encompasses a second powerful force shaping higher education. When Thomas Friedman famously proclaimed that the world was “flat” in 2005, he drew attention to the ways in which ideas and economies no longer respect boundaries; knowledge, he emphasized, is global. Yet societies, cultures and beliefs vary in ways that affect us ever more deeply. If the world is flat, it is far from homogeneous. Universities must embrace the breadth of ideas and opportunities unfolding across the world, and at the same time advance understanding of the differences among distinctive cultures, histories and languages.

I am repeatedly struck when I meet with undergraduates at the intensity of their interest in language courses, which at Harvard now include nearly 80 languages. These undergraduates understand the kind of world they will live in, and they want to be prepared. One member of the class of 2011, who will be a Marshall scholar next year, told me about how she took up the study of Chinese at Harvard and when she traveled abroad recognized how speaking the language transformed her relationship to those she met. “When you learn a language,” she said, “you get goggles. My Chinese goggles. You have different kinds of conversations with people in their own language … we’re going to grow up in the world together in countries with such intertwined futures. We are,” she concluded, “an international generation.”

In these past four years, Harvard has reached into the world, and the world has reached into Harvard as never before. I have traveled as Harvard president on five continents. I have met with thousands of the more than 50,000 Harvard alumni who live outside the United States, and I have visited Harvard initiatives that address issues from AIDS in Botswana to preschool education in Chile to Renaissance studies in Italy to disaster response in China. Our new Harvard Center Shanghai joins 15 offices supporting Harvard faculty and student research and engagement abroad. We have over the past several years launched the university-wide China Fund, the South Asia Initiative, and an enhanced African Studies effort that recently received a coveted Title VI recognition as a National Resource Center. Undergraduate experiences abroad have more than doubled since 2003. Design School field studios reach from the favelas of Sao Paolo to the townships of Mumbai, and Harvard’s clinical and research opportunities in medicine and public health range from tuberculosis in Siberia to adolescent health in Fiji.

Here in Cambridge, teaching incorporates an enhanced global perspective, from newly required international legal studies at the Law School to an international immersion experience beginning next year for all MBA students at the Business School, where 40% of case studies now have a significant international component. And we benefit from an increasingly international faculty and student body — 20% of our degree students overall.

But it is not just knowledge that knows no boundaries. The world’s most critical challenges are most often borderless as well, and it is these pressing problems that attract the interest and talents of so many in our community. Universities are critical resources in addressing issues from economic growth to global health, to sustainable cities, to privacy and security, to therapeutics. To borrow a phrase from the Business School mission statement, Harvard faculty and students want to “make a difference in the world” by creating and disseminating critical knowledge.

And we increasingly understand how to bring the elements of knowledge-creation together by crossing intellectual and disciplinary boundaries just as we cross international ones. I speak often of “one university,” for it is clear that we work most effectively when we unite Harvard’s unparalleled strengths across its schools and fields — and do so at every stage of the educational process, from College freshmen through our most accomplished senior faculty members. The new Harvard Global Health Institute is a case in point, engaging more than 250 faculty from across the university in addressing issues that range from post-earthquake response in Haiti and Chile to reducing cardiovascular disease in the developing world. We have established an undergraduate secondary field in Global Health, and over 1,000 College students are involved in courses, internships and related activities. Similarly, the Harvard Center for the Environment draws on graduate and undergraduate students and more than a hundred faculty, in law, engineering, history, earth sciences, medicine, health policy and business — to look comprehensively at problems like carbon capture and sequestration, or the implications of the Gulf oil spill for structures of environmental regulation.

This brings us finally to innovation, a third powerful force in higher education — and in the wider world in which higher education plays such an important part. Students and faculty working together in new ways and across disciplines, are developing wondrous things — from inhalable chocolate to inhalable tuberculosis vaccine. Our undergraduates have invented a soccer ball that can generate enough power to light villages; Business School students are launching more and more start-ups; Medical School experiments have reversed the signs of aging — in mice at least. The Dean of our School of Education has been named one of the region’s foremost innovators for inventing a new degree, a doctorate in educational leadership — the Ed.L.D. — whose graduates, trained by faculty from the Business, Kennedy and Education schools, will be ready to lead change in America’s schools. New ideas and new ways of enabling those ideas to reach a wider world. That is the essence of what we are about.

And we as an institution have some new ideas about how we do our own work as well. We have innovated after 350 years with governance, expanding and enhancing the Corporation. We are innovating (after almost as long) with the organization of our libraries — at the heart of how we learn and teach. We are in the second successful year of a new undergraduate curriculum. We created a new School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. We are exploring new ways of teaching, with new technologies and new partners. We are integrating the arts into our teaching across fields, recognizing that the act of “making” — whether in the arts or, perhaps, engineering — is an essential part of creative learning. In the fall we will open a new Innovation Lab, to foster team-based invention that connects students across disciplines and with local entrepreneurs.

Perhaps every generation believes that it lives in special times and perhaps every cohort of graduates is told just that at ceremonies like these. But both the depth of the challenges we face and the power of knowledge — and thus of universities — to address them is unprecedented. Harvard must embrace this responsibility, for it is accountable to you, its alumni, and to the wider world. Universities are among humanity’s greatest innovations and among humanity’s greatest innovators. Through universities we find a better future, where our graduates and their children and the greater global community may lead lives of peace, prosperity and purpose in the centuries to come.

Thank you very much.

– Drew Gilpin Faust