Skip to main content

Freshman Convocation Address to the Class of 2021

Tercentenary Theatre, Cambridge, Mass.

As delivered.

Welcome, Class of 2021. I was pleased to meet many of you at Visitas, and I am delighted that 1,702 of you have decided that this is where you would like to spend your next four years. We greet you as the present and the future of Harvard.

You are embarking on this new chapter at a time that is not just consequential for your own lives, but also critical for the country and the world. In recent weeks we have heard threats of global nuclear war, we’ve seen frightening examples of extreme weather, devastating acts of terrorism in Spain, Finland, Belgium, and Afghanistan, and chilling instances of hatred, racism, anti-Semitism, and violence in an American college town not so different from this one. What should a university education be at such a moment and what should it mean? And what indeed is a university? How do we think about its responsibilities — our responsibilities — at such a challenging and unsettled time in our country and in the world?

First, universities are about knowledge and the pursuit of truth. We believe in facts and in the power of the human mind to ascertain them. We are committed to education and learning as vehicles for human betterment and as essential foundations for democratic government. Harvard is a research university, which means that its faculty is engaged in pushing the boundaries of knowledge in their wide-ranging fields of endeavor. And as you learn, you are invited to be part of this adventure of discovery — in and beyond classrooms, laboratories, libraries, and museums. You may eventually write a senior thesis — about 40 percent of last year’s graduates did — a project in which you pursue an interest, a problem of your own independent research — or perhaps you will spend a summer as part of our undergraduate research village, living on campus together with other student researchers while you work closely with faculty in pursuit of new knowledge in fields of science and engineering, or social sciences, or markets and organizations, community engagement, global health, or humanities and arts.

We believe that the pursuit of truth requires a continuing process of testing and reassessment, of argument, and challenge and debate. We are never so complacent as to believe we have unerringly attained it. Veritas is both aspiration and inspiration. We recognize there is always more to know, so we must be open to new ideas and new perspectives, to the possibility — even the probability — of being wrong. This requires all of us to work with courage and generosity and humility — to be willing to engage in the great debate that is an intellectual community, open to others’ ideas and willing to change our views based on reason and evidence. But these are not just important intellectual skills that we hope to nurture in each of you. These are critical human capacities as well — the ability to make judgments, to evaluate facts, and the willingness to be open to learning and growth as new truths unfold.

It was on this annual occasion of welcoming the incoming College class that a former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the late Jeremy Knowles, described what he saw as the most important goal of higher education: it was, he said, to ensure that graduates can recognize when “someone is talking rot.” You learn this through challenging and being challenged, through being confronted by disagreement and difference and amidst it all finding your way.

Which brings me to the second essential characteristic of universities that I want to emphasize to you today. Many of the most important ideas you will encounter over the next four years will not come from a professor or a lab or a book or an online assignment. They will come from those sitting next to you right now. Many of the questions you come to ask, the challenges you learn to parry, the new perspectives you come to embrace will be the result of your interactions with one another. This is why it is imperative that your class collectively represent the widest possible range of backgrounds, and experiences, and interests, the broadest diversity of geographic origins, socioeconomic circumstances, ethnicity, race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, political perspective. It is possible, in 2017, to accumulate enough information and pass enough tests through online learning to get a college degree. But we have asked all of you to uproot your lives, move to Massachusetts with carloads filled with paraphernalia and teary-eyed families forced to bid you good-bye. Why do we do this? We do it because we believe in the power of community as an essential educational force. But that community must be constituted so that it does not simply present you with what you already know or with people whose life experiences and outlooks are just like yours. It is its diversity, its elements of unfamiliarity, its elements of difference that render Harvard College the extraordinary experience that I know you will find it to be. We are excited to welcome you, Class of 2021, because you are in yourselves a great educational machine — destined to teach one another — and, of course, teach us as well — because of the variety of who you are and what you bring. When the admissions office decided on you, it was because they wanted your voice, your contribution as part of this creative cacophony. So don’t be silent. (And please don’t live your life online as if you weren’t here at all!) Engage with one another. Talk a lot so others can learn from you. Listen even more so that you can learn from them. Don’t be afraid to take the risk of being wrong. Don’t be afraid to admit you are wrong. It is the best way to learn and grow. And listen generously to others so that they may take risks too. Use the community of your fellow students as one of the greatest gifts and opportunities of your time here. Help us to build at Harvard a model of how people can be enriched rather than divided by their differences.

Now, let me briefly address two current issues that grow out of the principles I just articulated. In the year ahead, you are going to hear a great deal about the commitment to diversity I just described because it is being directly challenged in what has already become a highly publicized lawsuit. At issue is the very admissions process that resulted in your selection and in the creation of this remarkable variety of individuals that we are so pleased to welcome as the Class of 2021. We will continue to fervently defend our admissions processes and the importance of diversity as essential to our educational philosophy and as a critical opportunity for students to reach beyond the familiar and to open themselves to new understandings and new possibilities.

You are also likely to hear a lot this fall about final clubs, fraternities, and sororities at Harvard, and about a policy designed to take effect for the first time for your class. One of you, in fact, asked me a question about this in the Q&A after my talk at Visitas, so I know a number of you have been thinking about this issue. This new policy is motivated by the same commitment to providing an educational experience that affirms the importance of every student at Harvard and urges students to learn from classmates unlike themselves. During your four years here, we want you to stretch beyond who you were when you arrived last week; we want you to explore what you have taken for granted and to develop the ability to thrive in the kind of diverse and varied environments in which you are likely to find yourselves in the years to come. Those purposes animate the living-learning environment of the House system, which, come March, will randomly assort all of you into three-year living-learning communities. Those purposes also make clear that the powerful and expanding influence of discriminatory, exclusionary, overwhelmingly homogeneous organizations is antithetical to our values and educational goals.

You arrive at Harvard at a critical time — for our country and for our University. You are now an essential part of the almost 400-year-old experiment that is Harvard. It is up to us to ensure that it continues to be dedicated to the rigorous and reasoned pursuit of truth. And it is up to us to ensure that the talents of every member of this community are fully welcomed and engaged in that work. Let us each do our part to make Harvard the place of mutual respect that will enable all of us to be our best selves. In face of proliferating incidents of hatred and violence across the country, we need to insist on a different way of being together. Let us strive to be a model of unity at a time of fracture and divisiveness. We have never needed the promise of this University more. Welcome to Harvard.