President Bacow’s Baccalaureate Address
First, I’d like to thank all the participants in the Baccalaureate service today, our readers, our chaplains, our wonderful musicians, our composers, everyone who’s participated. Please join me in thanking everybody.
Well, I’ve waited a long time to say this: Welcome, members of the Class of 2022—and soon-to-be-graduates of Harvard College. It’s great to be here with all of you today.
Exactly 1,359 days ago, we met at Convocation, and we began our first year together—you as undergraduates, me as a brand new president. I spoke to you at the time about the merits of academic regalia, and I challenged you to use your waking hours as undergraduates—some 21,000 of them. Actually, I think I underestimated because I now understand that you guys get very little sleep. So, there were a lot more waking hours to explore all that this University, all that Harvard had to offer.
Little did we know back then that we would all confront a global pandemic that would test each and every one of us in ways that we could not have imagined. I find it fitting that we are gathered here today in these billowing robes that you are all wearing, a symbol not only of our membership in a community of learning but also of our experience these past four years, our experience of a Harvard—of a world—blown about by winds that, candidly, never existed before. And all of us carried along with them—into the unknown.
I must confess that it’s been a wilder ride than I think any of us could have expected. Candidly, when I made the difficult decision to send you all home on such short notice in March of 2020, I never imagined that two years later—and after one million people had succumbed to this virus in the U.S. alone—that we would still be dealing with a public health crisis. Your class has been tested in ways that few others have been. You‘ve demonstrated extraordinary resilience and patience, both skills that will serve you well as you prepare for life after Harvard. Based upon what I have seen of you and how you’ve met this moment, I have great faith that you, like those who came before you, will find your way, and will make your mark on this world. Let me take this moment, right now, right here, to thank each and every one of you for your perseverance, for your flexibility and for your understanding. I don’t think I have ever been prouder of any graduating class at any university that I’ve been affiliated with than the Harvard College Class of 2022. You are indeed very special
One day, there will be enough distance for us to contemplate the enormity of what we have been through as a community, but that day actually is not today—and that’s okay. For now, I think we can all share a quiet moment to say goodbye to whatever we imagined these last 1,359 days might have held for us. For now, we can be grateful that in fact we are all here—together—on the verge of your commencement and all that awaits you in the years ahead.
* * *
Now, it’s quite common for students at this precise moment in time—a day before your College graduation—to feel a combination of both excitement and, let’s be honest, anxiety. It’s excitement for all that awaits you as you begin the next chapter in the journey that we call life, and anxiety about where that journey is actually likely to take you. Now, some of you entered Harvard convinced of exactly where you wanted to go. You knew it on the day you sat here as first-year students—law school, medical school, a career in public service, who knows what else. Some of you, I hope, have found your passion right here over the last four years on this campus and are now going to pursue perhaps, academic careers or opportunities in journalism, the arts, or entertainment. Who knows? And some of you are still searching. You may have a job lined up, it may even pay you very well. In fact, I hope it does. But if you’re honest with yourself, you’re probably still worried if you’ve identified the right path for you, or if you will actually succeed.
Now, one of the problems in trying to plan your career is that, I believe a career is only knowable in retrospect. On the day you retire you can look back and at that point, it all makes sense. You will be able to identify the inflection points, the decisions, that brought you where you ultimately wound up. But when you’re actually confronting these decisions in real time, you guys are going to struggle. You will make lists of pros and cons, benefits and costs. You’re going to consult with your friends. You’re going to consult with your family. And I suspect if you’re like all the rest of us, you’re going to agonize over these choices long into the night. It is what we all do.
I really know what I am talking about because I have been there. I’ve actually seen this movie.
As I was completing my own Ph.D. here at Harvard, Adele and I thought we were headed to Washington, D.C. It was the start of the Carter administration, and we had decided that it would be great to get in on the ground floor. But then an unexpected opportunity came up. I got a call:
Would I be interested in returning to my alma mater, that small New England technical school at the other end of Massachusetts Avenue to fill in for somebody who was going on leave for two years? The salary was a fraction of what I would have made in D.C. and there was no guarantee of a job two years later.
A number of years after that, I was still at MIT—now on the tenure track but actually disheartened because a fabulously talented, a brilliant colleague and co-author of mine didn’t get tenure. I had concluded that if he didn’t get tenure, I was unlikely to get it either, and I had just made up my mind that I actually was going to leave MIT and leave academia altogether. And then my department chair called, and he asked me a question:
Would I consider taking on major administrative responsibility to launch a new academic program?
Flash forward 35 years. I’m still in academia. At that point, I was a member of a presidential search committee, of a University that I care a lot about, an institution that I hope you also care a lot about. At this point, I had been comfortably semi-retired for seven years—more or less—and we were really enjoying our life, Adele and I, and then the chair of the search committee approached me on behalf of the group with another question:
Would I consider becoming a candidate for the job?
Now, if I had said “no” to any one of those three questions, I wouldn’t be standing here today. And this is not to say that I am prescient or wise, or brave, none of those things—just that I was open to seeing where roads I hadn’t considered might actually take me. That way of moving through the world has taken me to some pretty interesting places—and actually being here, standing behind this podium, talking to you today, it’s just one of them.
Now, you, too, are going to have plenty of chances to consider other paths for yourself, paths that will appear to you unexpectedly—even inconveniently, just as those appeared to me. Be willing to take those chances. Believe in yourself. And please, and I know this is really hard for Harvard College graduates, don’t be too concerned about failure. My late mother was a very, very wise woman. Whenever I would worry about something, when I was struggling with a difficult decision—should I do it, or should I not—she would always say exactly the same thing to me. She’d say, “Larry, what’s the worst that can happen? Can you live with that? If so, why worry? Go for it.” I hope you are as liberated by this advice as I’ve been throughout my life.
Other discrete moments will influence you so profoundly that denying them I think, will actually be a tragedy.
Jorie Graham, the Boylston Professor of Oratory and Rhetoric here at Harvard, was once an undergraduate at NYU with her heart set on filmmaking. And then one day, walking past an open door of a poetry class, Jorie heard the professor reciting these lines from the T. S. Eliot poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think they will sing to me.” But sing they actually did—and, because of that moment, Jorie went on to become one of America’s most distinguished poets, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and one of Harvard’s most beloved faculty members.
Rubén Blades, a musical giant and this year’s Harvard Arts medalist, was once a law student in Panama. And when he was up here receiving the medal he told me this story: One weekend, while he was in law school, trying to make a little bit of money on the side, he was performing with a band at a party. It turned out the dean of the school happened to be in the audience. He recognized Rubén. He walked right up to him, stared at him, and scowled at him as he was singing. And then the next day asked him to come in to see him. The dean took him aside and told him that if he wanted to be a lawyer—if he wanted to reflect the dignity of the legal profession—he would have to quit singing. Well, you know how this story ends. Rubén ended up in Miami with a demo album—wild talent and ambition—and, eventually, seventeen Grammys.
Ray Hammond, graduated from Harvard College at the age of 19, Harvard Medical School at the age of 23, went on to become a very successful surgeon. And then he heard another voice calling him. Today he is Reverend Dr. Ray Hammond, one of Boston’s most influential spiritual leaders.
I chose these examples because I think they demonstrate the randomness in which new roads, new opportunities are going to appear to each and every one of you. Neither Jorie nor Rubén nor Ray could dream of where a single voice would take them, but they listened nonetheless, paying close attention to the world around them as they imagined how and where they wanted to focus their attention and time.
Now, I will say something that you may shrug off as nostalgia from somebody about to celebrate his fiftieth college reunion. Yes, I graduated in 1972. Do the math. Remember this when you are back here for your fiftieth reunion, it goes by in the blink of an eye. But random events of profound influence don’t just happen, and they especially don’t just happen on a screen, when you’re staring at your phone or your computer. Think of a person stopping in her tracks to listen to lines of unfamiliar poetry. Think of a person recognizing his desire in an unexpected and unwelcome ultimatum from his dean. Think of a person tuning into a voice, a calling greater than himself. Think of where and how those things happen—and where and how they can’t or won’t. Please, please as you leave here, engage and embrace the world personally with passion and enthusiasm. If you do and if you are lucky, you too will someday be inspired by the unexpected.
Members of the Class of 2022: May you consider fully the paths that reveal themselves to you in the years ahead. May you experience the sweetness of both poetry and song, and marvel at the refrains that emerge as you make your way through life. May you be spared anxiety, dread, and uncertainty—and may you always be surrounded by people that you love and people who love you. We have great expectations for all of you. And I’m confident you are going to meet every single one of them.
Best of luck—Godspeed.