Commencement Address by President Lawrence H. Summers

On behalf of every student, faculty member, and every member of the staff of Harvard University...

by Lawrence H. Summers


On behalf of every student, faculty member, and every member of the staff of Harvard University, I want to thank the alumni for all of their support—moral, intellectual, tangible, financial. Without the loyalty of Harvard’s alumni, Harvard could not stay Harvard. Thank you very much.

I’m honored again to have the opportunity to make an annual report to the Harvard Alumni Association. I want to address this afternoon what I think is perhaps the defining development of our time, what your University has been doing about it, and what we hope to do in the future.

I refer to the growing integration between the developing world and the developed world, and the rising importance of the developing world in shaping human history. I expect that when the history of our time is written 300 years from now, what is happening in the developing world and how the United States responds will be the most important story. A university as fortunate and as strong as ours can, should, and will play an important role.

The remarkable opportunities inherent in the current global moment bear emphasis:

•   For the first time in all of human history, a majority of people now live in countries where leaders are democratically elected, where the press is free, and where women are treated as full citizens, where the proportion of the world’s population that is literate and lives a full lifetime is higher and rising more rapidly than at any time in the history of civilization.

•    Nations—primarily, but not only, in Asia—where more than one-third of humanity lives are seeing their economies grow at a rate where living standards could rise by a factor of 30 in a single human lifespan, a trend that, if it continues, will rank in the last thousand years of economic history only with the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution.

•   We are rightly preoccupied, as Harvard students were this year, with the tragedies of war in Darfur and other places, but let us also remember that the fraction of the world’s population killed each year in wars has, over the last several years, been 95 percent lower than in the average year of the twentieth century.

•   And our country, the United States, is more extraordinary in its military strength and the global extent of its cultural influence than any nation has been since the Roman Empire.

All of this suggests tremendous opportunity. But it does not suggest any lack of challenge or any grounds for complacency. As long as any child is hungry or any war is being fought, as long as any person is dying of an easily treatable disease, or any political dissidents are being denied their human rights, there is vital work to be done. Moreover, if history teaches anything, it is that there is nothing inexorable about positive trends.

•   We know that especially in new democracies there is the risk that brutal tyrants will be freely elected.

•   We know that rising economic powers have rarely been accommodated by the world system without turbulence and turmoil.

•   We know that the same scientific progress that has fueled prosperity has also made it possible to kill more people with less effort than ever before.

•   We know that while basic indicators of human development have progressed, 1.2 billion people on this planet struggle to live on less than $2 a day.

And we have to acknowledge that while the United States may today be at the zenith of its power, there has not been another moment in the lifetime of anyone here when the perceptions of the United States around the world have been as troubled, and as troubling, as they are today.

All of this is to say that we are at a hinge point in history. The twenty-first century can be a far better one than the twentieth, with less brutality and more human freedom, and many more people lifted beyond bare subsistence. But it need not be so. What happens will depend more than anything else on ideas, and on the wisdom of people who are in positions to use them.

Isaiah Berlin famously observed that “philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor's study could destroy a civilization.” Berlin might have continued that wars can start or end depending on what leaders do or do not understand about history or religion or culture, that economies can grow or contract depending on what policymakers do or do not understand about economic theories and models, that people live or they die depending on what we do or do not understand about biology and medicine and public health.

A great university like ours, rooted in an American tradition — committed to education, to spreading and creating knowledge, to ideas and the people who bring them forth — has a responsibility not just to our students, but to our nation and to the world. History will judge our generation on how we build on Harvard’s strong foundation to meet this responsibility.


At a time when the United States has never been so misunderstood by the rest of the world, and quite likely has never been so misunderstanding of the rest of the world, we have a special need to prepare our students with international understanding and a lifetime commitment to comprehending changing global realities.

This is a matter of paramount concern to the faculty as it debates the reform of the undergraduate curriculum. Even as those discussions continue, I am pleased to be able to report to you that the Harvard student experience is changing in ways that prepare our students for a world that some of them will go on to shape, and in which all of them will need to think globally.

•   The enrollment in foreign language courses at Harvard has increased 45 percent in the last decade, and enrollment in Arabic has increased more than three-fold in the last few years.

•   From greatly increased coverage of non-Western material in art, music, literature and social science courses, to the expansion of the role of the African-American Studies department to embrace African studies, to the extension of our network of area studies programs to cover every major region of the world, we are assuring that our students graduate with much more understanding of the developing world than any previous generation of students.

•   The number of Harvard College students studying or working abroad during the term or the summer has more than doubled in the last few years. Indeed, in this academic year alone, more than 800 students—equivalent to roughly half a Harvard class—will have spent some amount of meaningful time in a foreign country. This summer a biochemistry concentrator will be assisting medical professionals in a hospital in East Timor, a young woman interested in public service will be gathering oral testimony from North Korean refugees, and through new programs in the Summer School, more than 200 students will be studying abroad for credit with Harvard faculty, from Barcelona to Beijing.

Dean Kirby is fond of remarking that there is no place to study China like China. With his leadership and that of his colleagues, I am pleased to report that we are approaching the day when, like the swimming test for a previous generation of Harvard undergraduates, an international experience will be the norm and expectation for future generations of Harvard undergraduates.


One way we promote international understanding is by including opportunities to study and work abroad within a Harvard education. Equally important is the commitment to bring international students here to Harvard. Harvard is and will remain an American university. But it must be a university that increasingly welcomes students from all over the world if it is to provide the best possible learning environment for American students and if it is going to meet its global obligations.

Today, the University’s degree students come from nearly 90 countries. International students account for nearly one-third of the degree students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Kennedy School, the Business School, the Public Health and Design Schools. Dean of Admissions Bill Fitzsimmons estimates that one-third of admitted students in Harvard College speak a language other than English at home.

It’s hard to overestimate the benefits of opening our doors to students from around the world.

Professor Nye, the former dean of the Kennedy School, likes to tell the story of Alexander Yakovlev, who was a key ideological adviser to Mikhail Gorbachev. Yakovlev was asked about the origin of the ideas that helped to bring down the Berlin Wall. Inevitably there were many sources, but notable among them was what he had seen and learned studying political science in the United States during the 1950s. If Yakovlev and his advice was even a small contributor to the end of the Soviet Union, and I think he was, and if his study in the United States was even a partial factor shaping his advice, and I think it was, I would suggest that this experience alone may well justify a half-century’s national investment in foreign-exchange programs.

We as a university must do more to recruit the most able students from all over the world. We’ve taken important steps:

•   I am pleased again to report to you that we have established the global principle that anyone anywhere on this planet with a family income under $40,000 can come to Harvard College with no contribution whatsoever requested from their family.

•   We now have an arrangement that will allow any student in any Harvard graduate school from any country to borrow the entire cost of his or her education at a sub-prime interest rate.

•   But for some, the ability to take loans is not enough. Our new Presidential Scholars program provides grants that enable dozens of foreign students to study in our public service-oriented graduate schools each year.

•   And in what I hope will be a precedent-setting agreement for other countries and for other Harvard schools, this year the government of Mexico, along with a private consortium, has agreed to finance Ph.D. training for all Mexican students admitted to Harvard.

This is progress. But our goal should be clear: let us work towards the day when cost will not stop any student anywhere in the world from studying at any of Harvard’s schools.

It must be said, though, that as we continue to seek the best students from around the world, our success will depend on national policy as well as on our own efforts. While there have been some significant improvements recently, restrictions on student visas remain a very serious issue for our students, our University, and our nation.

I think of a brilliant science student at Harvard who returned to China for his father’s funeral and then missed a chance to publish his first major scientific paper because he was not allowed back into this country for quite a number of months, and the research went forward without him. We understand the government’s concerns when it comes to security. At the same time, let us do everything we can to send a clear signal that foreign students are welcome at Harvard and in America, and to ensure that every Harvard student we accept is able to enter this country and begin his or her studies on time and on schedule.


Great universities like Harvard exist not just to educate and spread knowledge but to create it. Much research at Harvard is directly focused on key global problems.

•      Research at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, for example, has set the agenda for our national effort to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism by securing weapons-grade materials around the world.

•      Research at the Graduate School of Education has shown how recent policy reforms in Latin America have resulted in expanding access to school and increased educational attainment for children on that continent.

•      Research at the Divinity School on the tenets of Islam has demonstrated how terror is an affront to its deepest traditions and ideals.

•   Award-winning research at the Design School has led to innovative design responses in the wake of the tsunami disaster.

•      Collaborative research between Professor Dyann Wirth at the School of Public Health and scholars at our new Broad Institute is seeking cures for malaria by better understanding the genomics of resistant strains, using the most modern scientific techniques.

Beyond these examples, though—I can point to many more—that focus on pressing problems of the day, much of the humanistic scholarship that is Harvard’s deepest tradition develops the wisdom that is essential to create a secure world. George Marshall famously remarked on the need to have thought hard about Thucydides if one was to have any prospect at all of understanding international politics. The novels of Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene speak more powerfully than any bit of social science data to the difficulty of nation-building. Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, newly arrived at Harvard, teaches us all about a vital part of the world. We saw in the successful American occupation of Japan after the Second World War the benefits of the kind of deep cultural understanding that comes out of thoughtful research in anthropology—the kind of understanding we could do with more of today.

It is not for Harvard University to have a foreign policy. But it is very much for the University to encourage and support our faculty as they engage their intellectual strength with the vexing problems of the world — a world where decisions and actions taken in ignorance can have terrible consequences — and where decisions and actions informed by deep knowledge can transform a great many lives for the better.


Through the international experience our students enjoy, through the education Harvard offers students from abroad, through the work of our community in advancing knowledge and understanding, we make crucial contributions. But if Harvard is to maximize its contributions to the world, then we will have to find more ways in the future than in the past to be in the world.

We will need to pursue a growing presence abroad— carefully, prudently, mindful of quality, remembering always what is so special about Harvard is the community of people who gather in Cambridge and Boston—yet also responding in cases where a foreign presence is compelling.

•   Last year, I had the chance to visit the University’s center in Santiago, Chile, which provides a home away from home for our students who choose to study in South America and for our faculty who are pursuing research questions on Latin America. A similar office will be open soon in Bombay.

•   The Business School’s new Global Initiative now has research centers in Hong Kong, Paris, Buenos Aires, and Tokyo that allow faculty to immerse themselves in the culture and business practices of these regions, leading to business cases that are more global in perspective than ever before.

•      Harvard Medical International harnesses the expertise of our medical faculty to train doctors and scientists, design models for patient care, and generate new discoveries in more than 30 countries worldwide.

•   The School of Public Health is one of a handful of schools chosen for a very large program under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, to provide capacity building and treatment for tens of thousands of people where the AIDS pandemic has already taken a grotesque and staggering toll, in Nigeria, Botswana, and Tanzania.

Let us build on these steps and look forward to the day when there will be Harvard offices supporting the foreign study of our students, the research of our faculty, the dissemination of our ideas, and the involvement of our alumni in every part of this complex world.

I suspect, though, that when historians of higher education look back at our period in the next quarter-century, even more important than physical presences that universities establish abroad will be what they are able to do virtually. Here are two examples that point to the potentially transformative impact of information technology on what we can accomplish as a university.

•      Business School Professor Michael Porter, an international expert on strategy and competition, is now teaching a class on the microeconomics of competitiveness that is being offered simultaneously at universities in 56 countries. Partner universities have the opportunity to participate in classes, in sessions where teaching plans are developed, and to supplement the course with materials on matters of local concern.

•      Harvard has long been proud of having the world’s largest open-stacks library collection. Any of you who haven’t should look at Widener Library after its beautiful renovation. This year, though, University Librarian Sid Verba took a bold step towards dramatically opening our stacks to a new level when he announced the pilot phase of a project with Google that may eventually lead to the digitization of the vast portion of all our library collections.

Information technology offers the potential to multiply many-fold the number of students and scholars with access to Harvard’s unique intellectual resources. Without diluting the special character of the education that can only be obtained here as a member of the Harvard community, I call on each of the Faculties to think creatively and boldly about how they can extend the reach of their excellence through technology in the years ahead. And I commit the University’s strong support for these efforts.


I mentioned a few minutes ago—actually I didn’t; I was going to, but I cut it—what I was going to say about John F. Kennedy was that his study-abroad experience as a Harvard student in the 1930s, researching his undergraduate thesis on Britain’s response to the gathering Nazi threat, had a very profound influence on American foreign policy many years later. More than 40 years ago, he addressed a commencement at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. It was a moment when the South faced a simple question: Would we honor our founders’ promise and extend to all Americans equal opportunity and liberty under the law?

He said that day, “We live in an age of movement and change, both evolutionary and revolutionary, both good and evil. And in such an age a university has a special obligation to hold fast to the best of the past and move fast with the best of the future.”

We at Harvard are aiming to live by those words. While affirming and renewing our best traditions, we are teaching more broadly, and our students are living and studying more widely. Our community is richer than ever in international students. Our researchers are tackling more extensively the most serious global issues of the day, and perhaps of any day. And our pedagogical reach into the far corners of the globe is deeper, and more complete, with each passing year. We understand the importance of an enlightened response to a shrinking world and our role in fostering it.

Even more important, let me say to our newest alumni that we recognize your role. It is your turn to engage with the world in ways that realize the broadest possible benefits of your education. It is a world unlike any we have known, where literally billions of people stand on the edge of a historic opportunity, for better health, for more education, and for greater freedom.

Your ideas, shaped by your time here, hold the promise, in turn, to shape that world. How you take advantage of the opportunities before you can, in turn, enlarge the opportunities for all people around the globe. I know, recent graduates, that you will more than meet this challenge, with the same drive and insight you have graced us with here at Harvard.

Thank you.

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