Good morning, friends. Thank you for joining me here in this sacred space at the heart of our campus. I cannot imagine a better way to begin my last academic year as your president.
What will this semester bring for me? For you? For our community?
It’s been years since those questions existed outside of the pandemic, outside of testing cadences, dashboard statistics, and contingency plans. Yet—despite the procession and persistence of variants—it finally feels as if we can live life again. And I want to take a moment to recognize that change—and to be filled with gratitude and hope for it.
So, here we are, imagining the future together. A lot could go right this semester—a lot could go wrong. Nothing is certain except for one thing: If you and I are doing our jobs—are doing what this institution expects and demands of us—what this nation needs of us—what this world needs of us—we will be arguing.
Everywhere the stakes have gotten higher, and what we have to lose—a functioning democracy, a habitable planet, the list goes on—has become clearer and clearer. Gone are the days of quiet assurance and polite acquiescence. If we stand for Veritas, we must speak for Veritas. We must be both its bearer and its defender.
Being quick to understand and slow to judge does not mean being unwilling to argue—it means arguing in a way that celebrates and strengthens our mission, that demonstrates the power of knowledge and the forbearance of wisdom.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ argument for argument is among the most compelling I have encountered. We ought to argue, he asserts, “out of a desire to discover the truth, not out of cantankerousness or a wish to prevail over [our fellows],” not “out of envy and contentiousness and ambition for victory.”
When we argue for the sake of the latter, he continues, “what is at stake is not truth but power, and the result is that both sides suffer. If you win, I lose. But if I win, I also lose, because in diminishing you, I diminish myself […] The opposite is the case when the argument is for the sake of truth. If I win, I win. But if I lose, I also win—because being defeated by the truth is the only form of defeat that is also a victory.”
Rabbi Sacks referred to this type of argument as argument not for the sake of victory but for the sake of heaven. As we begin again to imagine the future—as individuals and as a community—may we all find ways to resist the lure of righteousness. May we embrace the possibility of transcendence through argument. And may we live life again with greater appreciation of its fragility—and for our dependence on one another.
Our beloved Harvard—and all of the institutions that preserve and protect truth—must endure. And we must do all that we can to see that they do, with gratitude and hope for our time and for times to come.
Thank you—and take care.