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Alumni Day 2024 Remarks

As delivered

I hope that Harvard will always continue to be a place where free speech continues to thrive.

Greetings, fellow travelers. What a long strange trip it’s been.

With a special shoutout to the Class of 1974. And many of you will remember that you first heard those words on an album that was released during your first semester of college. And I bet they’ve gone through your heads many many times since then.

This has been an difficult year for all of us who love Harvard and who cherish our connection to this extraordinary institution and to one another. I cannot recount everything that’s happened over these past two semesters—we would be here through Sunday no doubt—but I can tell you that I have never felt more grateful for what usually happens here.

We learn, and we teach. We devote ourselves to research and scholarship. We ask questions—and more questions. We expand knowledge. We discover and innovate. And—in too many ways to count—we make life better than it was yesterday.

All of that happens every year. It happened this year, too. Across the University, students had the kinds of experiences and conversations—with friends and with faculty—that set the course of my future when I was an undergraduate. Across fields and disciplines, faculty had the kinds of insights and breakthroughs that expand the frontiers of knowledge and propel humanity forward. Despite challenging circumstances—despite conflict and upheaval—despite relentless scrutiny and public criticism—Harvard never stopped humming with the energy of possibility.

When I spoke with the Harvard College Class of 2024 last week, I focused on some of the ways in which they saw and seized possibilities over these past four years, and I encouraged them to look to one another for inspiration in the years to come, as you surely look to your own classmates and contemporaries. And, when I spoke with the entire Harvard Class of 2024 two days later, I encouraged them to look to research universities for inspiration because no other institution can do what they do to make the world a better place.

Individuals and institutions: This gathering—our gathering—represents the power that exists at that intersection. Harvard is each of us, and each of us is Harvard. It is impossible to imagine all that has been achieved by everyone in this space—and the many more of us who are making contributions around the world. That thought—of effort and excellence that surpasses measurement—makes me incredibly proud to be part of this place, even when times are tough. Especially when times are tough.

I trust that our community can emerge from our trials better and stronger. To do that, we must work to value generous listening at least as much as informed speaking, to celebrate passionate discourse and reasoned debate, to champion decency, empathy, and integrity, particularly in times of conflict and division. We have, perhaps, taken these skills for granted as they have eroded in wider society. Now is the time to think creatively and ambitiously about how we can expand our efforts to rebuild a culture of civility and respect, a culture that empowers people to come together in a spirit of goodwill.

We have just taken an essential step forward on this front. In April, Provost Manning and I asked a working group to consider whether and when Harvard should speak on public issues. On Tuesday, the group’s final report was released. Going forward, in accordance with recommendations accepted by the president, the provost, and the deans—and endorsed by the Corporation—neither the University nor its leadership will issue official statements on matters that do not directly affect our core functions. This approach is intended to preserve open inquiry and academic freedom by making it easier for all members of the community to express their views. It is a foundational commitment, and I am eager to see it implemented.

I will have more to share with you when we meet one year from now—all good things, I hope. I look forward to charting our path forward, keeping our community on firm footing, and ensuring that the University succeeds in its core mission of excellence in teaching, learning, and research.

Finally, some words of gratitude. You, the alumni community, have been a source of wisdom, inspiration, and joy for me over the decades. Never more so than in the past five months. When days seemed longer and stranger than I could have dreamed, there always seemed to be a Harvard person who had just said or done something wonderful—islands of calm through change and through storm.

Enjoy your precious time together. And enjoy this precious place, which is better beyond measure for your being part of it.

Thank you.