Deval Patrick and Drew Faust Address Harvard Commencement

The principal speeches from the afternoon program

The Honorable Deval L. Patrick
President Drew Faust

The Afternoon Exercises of Harvard Commencement (this 364th edition, and its predecessors) are officially the annual meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA).

The Business Meeting

HAA’s president—this year, Cynthia A. Torres ’80, M.B.A. ’84 (the daughter of a migrant farmworker, who attended the ceremony, and a homemaker, she had a career in financial services and now runs a college-access advisory business)—ran the meeting (read the program here). Her remarks covered the history of Tercentenary Theatre, included statistics on the range and number of those attending their major reunions—some 800 members of the class of 1990 returned for the twenty-fifth—and in particular welcomed the newest members of the HAA, the class of 2015, encouraging them to remain connected to the University through the association. She also reported generally on recent fundraising (a report that has become progressively more succinct as the sums raised, now in furtherance of the $6.5-billion Harvard Campaign, become successively more staggering) and shared the results of annual elections for membership on the Board of Overseers and the HAA’s board.

President Drew Faust presented five Harvard Medals to figures important to the institution. Among them were Charles J. Egan Jr. ’54, Michael E.A. Gellert ’53, and Sandra Ohrn Moose. Ph.D. ’68.

Another, as is often the case, is a University staff member: Thomas W. Lentz, Cabot director of the Harvard Art Museums, whose renovation and reconstruction he effected, and who is now stepping down from his post.

The recognition given the final medalist, Robert D. Reischauer ’63, who stepped down as senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation last June 30, merits further comment.  He played a central role in the epochal reform of Harvard governance announced in late 2010 (including enlargement of the Corporation’s membership; creation and populating of standing committees; inclusion on those committees of members who do not serve on the governing boards, to bolster the Corporation’s access to expertise in furtherance of its fiduciary duties; and the presumption of term limits for members). Faust’s citation called him “a stalwart champion of good governance.”

It would have been natural for Reischauer to be recognized with an honorary degree at the Morning Exercises—as were recent predecessors such as James R. Houghton ’58, M.B.A. ’62, senior fellow from 2002 to 2010, and his predecessor, Robert G. Stone Jr. ’45. The award selection process is, for good reason, veiled in secrecy. But it would be consistent with Reischauer’s self-effacing nature and focus on the good of the institution to imagine that he himself wanted to help set a new precedent by altering the quasi-automatic conferral of honorary degrees on past Corporation members, now that their ranks will grow with the expanded membership. Whatever the private reasoning, Reischauer posed for a photograph with Faust, Houghton, and Stone’s predecessor, Charles P. Slichter ’45, Ph.D. ’49 (who picked up his honorary degree in 1996), during the chief marshal’s luncheon spread, in Widener Library’s main reading room, in the interval between the morning exercises and the afternoon program.

“Pathways for People to Learn to Look Up Rather Than Down”

The main attraction for the afternoon crowds is talk: on this afternoon, addresses by Faust and honorand Deval L. Patrick ’78, J.D. ’82, newly minted LL.D. and the former governor of Massachusetts. Heading into the rhetoric, the speakers and guests knew that Harvard’s luck had held: the heat peaked at 86 degrees as the proceedings began just after 2:30 p.m., but forecast thunderstorms had the good grace to hold off until later in the day.

Even before the formal rhetoric, Patrick—a gifted speaker—set the stage in his toast at the Widener luncheon. Recalling the presence of his mother and grandparents at his own College graduation, Patrick said he had been reflecting on the very different life circumstances of his younger daughter—who had grown up traveling the world, shaking hands with the president of the United States, and enjoying the benefits of a much more comfortable childhood than he had himself. Those were the huge gains made in a single generation, he said. “That’s the story of so many people in this room.”

As the room fell silent, he continued, “It’s an American story. And although it doesn’t get told enough, it gets told more often in this country than any other place.” For those worried about sustaining this kind of progress, Patrick urged supporting Harvard and “other pathways for people to learn to look up rather than down.”

“We Are Larger Than Ourselves and Our Selfies”

Ever since her installation address in 2007, nearly eight years ago, during an era of rapid technological change and educational innovation, Faust has sought to place the University in the context of higher-education institutions’ obligations: to sustain and uphold human culture and history, to teach, and to prepare the leaders and discover the ideas of the future. Of late, research universities, like this one, have seemed to put great emphasis on innovation—witness the Harvard Innovation Lab, the significant resources being sought to expand the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in the capital campaign, and the prominence of technology entrepreneurs on campus and in governance.

In her remarks this year, lasting 18 minutes (read her text here), Faust recalibrated the balance a bit, focusing more on the importance of enduring institutions than on their disruption; on the responsibilities that members of a community owe one another; and on the support that such institutions provide for everyone, entrepreneurs included, to pursue their innovative work. After an introduction, she launched her theme this way:

Let me start by noticing what is both obvious, and curious: We are here today together. We are here in association. It is an association of many people, and many generations. We celebrate a connection across time in these festival rites, singing our alma mater, adorning ourselves in medieval robes to mark the deep-rooted traditions of Harvard, and of universities more generally. Even in the age of the online and the virtual, an institution has brought us together, and brings us back.   

We have also sung—or rather the magnificent Renée Fleming has sung—“America the Beautiful,” to honor another institution, our democratic republic, which the men and women whose names are carved in stone in Memorial Church right behind me—and Memorial Hall just behind that—gave their lives to protect and uphold.

When the founders of the Massachusetts Bay colony arrived on these shores in 1630, they came as dissenters—rejecting institutions of their English homeland. But I have always found it striking that here in the wilderness, where mere survival was the foremost challenge, they so rapidly felt compelled to found this seat of learning so that New England, in the words of William Hubbard of the Class of 1642, “might be supplied with persons fit to manage the affairs of both church and state.” Church, state, and College.  Three institutions they deemed essential to this Massachusetts experiment…

Dozens of generations have come and gone since then, and the University’s footprint has expanded considerably beyond a small cluster of wooden buildings. But we have never lost faith in the capacity of each generation to build a better society than the one it was born into. We have never lost faith in the capacity of this college to help make that possible. As an early founder, Thomas Shepard, put it, we hope to graduate into the world people who are “enlarged toward the country and the good of it.”

Today, she wondered,

Are we succeeding in educating students oriented toward the betterment of others? Or have we all become so caught up in individual and personal achievements, opportunities, and appearances that we risk forgetting our interdependence, our responsibilities to one another and to the institutions meant to promote the common good?

This is the era of the selfie—and now the selfie stick. Don’t get me wrong: There is much to love about selfies….But think for a moment about the larger implications of a society that goes through life taking its own picture. That seems to me a quite literal embodiment of “self-regarding”—a term not often used as a compliment.…We direct endless attention to ourselves, our image, our “Likes,” just as we are encouraged—and in fact encourage our students—to burnish résumés and fill first college and then job or graduate school applications with endless lists of achievements—with examples, to borrow Shepard’s language, of constant enlargements of self. As one social commentator has observed, we are ceaselessly at work building our own brands. We spend time looking at screens instead of one another. Large portions of our lives are hardly experienced: they are curated, shared, snapchatted and instagrammed—rendered as a kind of composite Selfie.

Such self-absorption, she worried, “undermines our sense of responsibility to others—the ethos of service at the heart of Thomas Shepard’s phrase describing Harvard’s enduring commitment to graduate citizens who are ‘enlarged’ to be about more than themselves.” In a passage that echoed the peroration of her “At Harvard” address at the launch of the capital campaign, Faust asserted that self-absorption may also

obscure not only our responsibilities to others but our dependence upon them. And this is troubling for Harvard, for higher education, and for fundamental social institutions whose purposes and necessity we forget at our peril.

Why do we even need college, critics demand? Can’t we do it all on our own? Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley entrepreneur, has urged students to drop out and has even subsidized them—including several of our undergraduates—to leave college and pursue their individual entrepreneurial dreams. After all, the logic goes, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates dropped out and they seem to have done OK. Well, yes. But we should remember: Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg had Harvard to drop out of. Harvard to serve as the place where their world-changing discoveries were born. Harvard and institutions like it to train the physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, business analysts, lawyers, and thousands of other skilled individuals upon whom Facebook and Microsoft depend. Harvard to enlighten public servants to lead a country in which Facebook, Microsoft, and companies like them can thrive. Harvard to nurture the writers and filmmakers and journalists who create the storied “content” that gives the Internet its substance. And we must recognize as well that universities have served as sources of discoveries essential to the work of the companies advancing the revolutions in technology that have changed our lives—from early successes in creating and programming computers to development of prototypes that laid the groundwork for the now ubiquitous touchscreen.

In an era of mistrust of institutions generally, she said,

There are few countervailing voices to remind us how institutions serve and support us. We tend to take what they do for granted. Your food was safe; your blood test was reliable; your polling place was open; electricity was available when you flipped the switch. Your flight to Boston took off and landed according to rules and systems and organizations responsible for safe air travel. Just imagine a week or a month without this “civic infrastructure”—without the institutions that undergird our society and without the commitment to our interdependence that created these structures of commonality in the first place. Think of the countries in West Africa that lacked the public health systems to contain Ebola and the devastation that resulted. Contrast that with the network of institutions that so rapidly saved lives and contained any spread of the disease when it appeared in the United States. Think about the other elements of our civic infrastructure—the libraries, the museums, the school committees, the religious organizations that are as vital to moving us forward as are our roads and railways and bridges.

Touching directly on the themes that have recurred throughout her administration, she said:

Institutions embody our present and enduring connections to one other. They bring our disparate talents and capacities to the pursuit of common purpose. At the same time, they link us to both what has come before and what will follow. They are repositories of values—values that precede, transcend, and outlast the self. They challenge us to look beyond the immediate, the instantly gratifying, to think about the bigger picture, the longer run, the larger whole. They remind us that the world is only temporarily ours, that we are stewards entrusted with the past and responsible to the future. We are larger than ourselves and our selfies.

In closing, she focused on the quintessential work of universities—“calling upon our shared human heritage to invent a new future”—and cited her predecessor, Charles William Eliot, on the growth of “joy, strength, and energy ever fresh” from the seeds of learning and discovery planted, in the University’s case, initially by John Harvard.

“Be A Little Uneasy”

In an address that combined elements of a Class Day pep talk, a fiery campaign rally, and the traditional talk to graduates, Governor Patrick segued from his own feelings of inadequacy as a freshman in Holworthy, 41 years ago—a kid who grew up on welfare on the South Side of Chicago (the traditional “admissions mistake” story)—to the 2015 celebrants in Tercentenary Theatre (read his text as prepared for delivery here).

Acknowledging their gifts and their preparations, he continued, “I want to urge you to be a little uneasy”—but not about quotidian graduate concerns like careers or money or romance. Rather, he focused on “the kind of unease that comes from being unsure that you already know all you need to know.” Recognizing that “your education is incomplete” could be a spur to “look beyond yourselves” for answers and meaning. He encouraged “listening with unease” so one might “hear the yearnings of a restless world.”

Compared to the protests of his Harvard College days (over the indignity of having to walk a block for a hot breakfast: “We took to the streets over pancakes!”), Patrick hailed as a great improvement more recent protests over “issues of real consequence.” He cited economic inequality and the Occupy Movement; “the killings of unarmed black men by unaccountable police officers” and the Black Lives Matter campaign [in evidence on many mortarboards during the Morning Exercises]; and policymaking gridlock over climate change, igniting a “new divestment movement. (President Faust, seated just beside him, has of course been on the receiving end of many of those protests of late.)

Each protest movement has been criticized, Patrick said—for its limited agenda, its lack of solutions to the problem it identified, and so on. He agreed with some of these criticisms, Patrick said, but “I welcome the engagement of today’s generation of activists” and the claims they place on public consciousness—“And I am hopeful that those in power will make more of the profound ends they seek than of the imperfect means of their protest.”

To be sure, he continued, “I hate mob behavior. I hate violence.…I don’t want unrest in the streets. But I do want unrest in our hearts and minds”—uneasiness about poverty, about dehumanization of fellow beings, about “carelessness” toward the planet. With sufficient uneasiness, he said, citizens might begin to search more urgently for solutions to the causes of that discomfort.

The United States, he said, “is the only nation in human history organized around a set of civic aspirations,” rather than by religion or language or geography. Those values are freedom, equality, opportunity, and fair play. “As one great Israeli statesman put it,” he continued, “‘America is the only superpower whose power comes from giving, not from taking.’”

Those civic values compel thinking about and acting on what Patrick called “big things,” at a time when the country appears to be forgetting how to do so. He cited the gains in insurance coverage for 16 million Americans under the Affordable Care Act, as compared to the criticisms of the passing malfunction of the website created to enroll people. At a time when American infrastructure is crumbling, he cited two-month funding bills emanating from Congress—and wondered what kind of response would today greet General George Marshall’s plan for reconstructing Europe after World War II, unveiled at Harvard’s Commencement in 1947.

Patrick then challenged the graduates to think big: to challenge poverty by creating opportunity that “comes from an economy that grows out to the marginalized, not just up” to the well-to-do; to spur massive investment in schooling and infrastructure; to pursue “innovation industries” that fuel the future. He assailed the pervasiveness of racism, and inaction on climate change. Effective action on global warming, he said, required a plan with all players, including energy companies, involved. On all fronts, he said, the graduates needed to be leaders, and to be “uneasy leaders” who look beyond themselves in pursuit of a larger agenda for the common good.

As an illustration, he talked about his work to close the achievement gap plaguing Massachusetts public schools. Making progress required overcoming objections from charter-school advocates, teacher unions, business leaders, suburban parents, and urban ones. The solution to this big problem lay in putting children first. The reform was fueled by idealism, Patrick said, but not by idealism alone. It involved “hard-headed problem solving,” deploying power, teasing out policy details, making actions plans, and accountability. “But ideals let us imagine big ideas,” he said. “And you can’t organize what you can’t imagine.”

Concluding his remarks, which were frequently interrupted by applause, the new Doctor of Laws said:

I welcome you to a world where great beauty and extraordinary kindness live side by side with unspeakable cruelty, suffering, and neglect. And I challenge you to be so uneasy about that that you are compelled to ask who but you should act.

Finishing just three minutes before the target time of 4 p.m., Patrick left time for accolades, the traditional singing of “Fair Harvard,” and the immediate satisfaction that a humid, celebratory Commencement day had ended with the promise of summer, minus the forecast thunderstorm.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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