Thank you, Provost Zappe. Chair Brennan, President Iuliano, Faculty, Students, Staff, Friends of Gettysburg College and of higher education –
I am delighted to be part of this important occasion. I am myself a graduate of a Pennsylvania liberal arts college – one founded a half century later than yours – and I am also a Civil War historian, so I feel especially honored to help celebrate this College’s long traditions of learning, scholarship and service to the world.
I am also a former Harvard president – a fact that might induce a pang of anxiety among those of you who share my interest in history. A little more than 150 years ago, not far from where we gather today, Gettysburg became well acquainted with another Harvard ex-president. Extremely well acquainted. He spoke non-stop to his audience for more than two hours. I’m referring, of course, to the unfortunate Edward Everett, who ever since has been best known not as a Harvard president, or as the senator, governor, and diplomat he also was. Instead he is remembered as the hapless orator who droned on endlessly and forgettably before Abraham Lincoln came to the podium and in 272 words delivered one of the greatest speeches of all time. To Everett’s credit, he recognized this and congratulated Lincoln: “I should be glad,” he said, “if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
Please rest assured. While I could happily speak all day about your new president, I have promised him that I will not pull an Everett. I know full well that the most important words uttered today – the “central idea of [this] occasion” –will be President Iuliano’s words, not mine. But before I cede the podium – and before you hear his own 272 or so well-chosen words – I do want to say something about your new leader and the values of higher education he embodies so well.
We live in a time of enormous challenges for colleges and universities, and I can think of no one better suited to confront them. It was my great privilege to work closely with Bob and to rely on his dedication and exquisite judgment throughout my 11 years as Harvard’s president. He has now been your president for barely more than 11 weeks. But I hope it is already becoming evident to you just how fortunate you are.
Bob is here today, taking on these new responsibilities, because he believes so strongly in the value – and the values – of a liberal arts education. At a time when pressures come from all sides to transform college into an increasingly narrow form of vocational training, colleges like Gettysburg stand for something precious – a commitment essential for us both to carry forward and to continually reimagine. The commitment to an education that leads not only to good jobs but to good lives. An education that provides students with the tools and the spirit to separate truth from untruth, fact from fiction. An education that nurtures habits of mind such as critical inquiry and reasoned argument, generous listening and openness to varied points of view, empathy for others and a will to pursue causes larger than ourselves These are just some of the fruits of liberal arts education at its best, and we have never needed them more.
Higher education must enable us to understand a world beyond the inevitable limits of our own lives – through the pursuit of fields as varied as literature, anthropology, astronomy – and through the experience of interacting with others who differ from us – in origins, identities, and intellectual perspectives. A residential liberal arts college is ideally designed to do just that – in your classrooms, in your dormitories, in the Servo as you share not just meals but food for thought.
The many monuments that fill this campus, this town, this battlefield remind us that this is hallowed ground. Let it also be common ground. This was the place where we as a nation almost came apart. Let it now be a place that models ways of coming together, a place that draws strength from all that makes us different, even as it reveals and reinforces our common humanity. Gettysburg has been witness in the past to acts of extraordinary courage. Learning in our own times requires courage as well – the courage to abandon a preconception, to open a mind, to listen to an unsettling point of view, to risk disagreement, to dare to be wrong – in order to confront the difficult questions that permit us to come ever closer to real truth and understanding. I know “there are no bystanders here.”
Your president understands these challenges well. As Harvard’s General Counsel he was at the epicenter of just about every difficult issue the institution faced. But he was always much more than a General Counsel. In fact, I kept trying to invent additional titles that could encompass the scope and centrality of his work. What matters, of course, was never the title, but the reality. He was not just playing defense—responding to the crises a General Counsel must face. He played an indispensable role in envisioning the future. A future in which college is affordable for all. A future in which the campus community is fully inclusive, and all students can thrive. A future in which free speech can flourish and debate is a means not of scoring points or settling scores, but of bridging differences and seeking truth. A future in which human dignity is nourished and ennobled, not assaulted and belittled.
At a time when education is not perhaps the last but is certainly the best hope for our future, Gettysburg College has vital work to do in pursuit of these ideals. Few endeavors could be more worthy. And no human being could be more deeply dedicated than your new president to leading you forward. My congratulations to Gettysburg College for its inspired choice. And my very best wishes for what I know will be the brilliant success of the Iuliano Era. Together, I know you will do great work. And good work, too.