Somethings Old, Somethings New
Beyond doubt, Harvard knows how to stage awesome graduations—not just the spectacle of the Commencement exercises in Tercentenary Theatre, but the class days, House and school celebrations, and more. The 371st Commencement, by the University tally, attests to the expertise an institution nearing its four-hundredth anniversary has accumulated in mastering ways to send its students off with a bang.
Venerable Traditions, Changed
But pulling off this morning’s iteration involved much more than dusting off a familiar playbook. Following the brief 2020 online version, cobbled together quickly after COVID-19 closed the campus and stalked society at large, and the more expansive—but still virtual—2021 edition, Commencement organizers could be forgiven if their muscle memory needed a little oiling. Had the pandemic bankrupted suppliers—from whom Harvard rents tens of thousands of chairs, hundreds of tables, and dozens of tents for all the festivities—or left them short-staffed? Would logistics snafus and crimped supply chains interrupt the best-laid plans? With a nod to the coronavirus’s lingering effect, the seniors’ Baccalaureate service moved outside from Memorial Church (as did their Thursday morning “chapel” service—hence, no longer in a chapel): a reflection of the swollen size of the class of 2022, as undergraduates who took leave during the virtual-learning semesters returned to campus. The size of the class apart, that was a sensible precaution as the umpteenth coronavirus variant surged across the Commonwealth in May.
And there were longer-lasting changes, too. In the segue from virtual back to real, the Commencement schedule has been significantly remade on the online template:
•The morning ceremony now is Commencement day, with a program that includes an actual speaking part for the president (beyond the ritual texts by which he or she confers degrees on each cohort of learners), and the guest speaker’s address.
•There being no other University business on the docket, Commencement winds up with “Fair Harvard,” the alma mater: no more stumbling to find the Latin text of the “Harvard Hymn” printed in the program. (Note to traditionalists: the hymn is now sung at the Baccalaureate.)
•The former “afternoon exercises,” when the Harvard Alumni Association conducted its annual meeting, and those who cared to reconvene in Tercentenary Theatre heard from the president and guest speaker, have been recast as a reunion-focused Harvard Alumni Day, this year on June 3, with its own guest speaker. Thus, separate student-centric graduations and alumni-centric reunions are Harvard’s new normal. In future years, this will simplify year-end planning considerably.
But this year, thanks to the pandemic, a full-dress, deferred celebration of the classes of 2020 and 2021 falls between the two, on Sunday, May 29. This is a unique Tercentenary Theatre occasion for formally confirming the degrees already conferred on those graduates virtually; for emotional closure for them, their families, and friends able to gather again after an isolating 26 months; and for yet another distinguished guest speaker. It will also be a way of giving last year’s honorands and the 2020 guest speaker the full experience of 30,000-plus applauding guests hailing their life achievements.
This year, the oldest dog among American institutions of higher learning is proving that it can learn lots of new tricks.
A stroll through Harvard Yard on Saturday morning, May 21, was rewarded with the remembered scene of Commencement preparations past. The huge tent had been erected over the platform in front of Memorial Church. Crimson school banners hung down from Tercentenary Theatre’s canopy of trees, still in spring green. Work crews in cherry pickers were rigging the electronics. And the distinctively uncomfortable chairs used to seat the anticipated throng were stacked by the thousands on dollies on the asphalt walkways, waiting to be deployed. This thing was really happening, by God.
The formal proceedings got under way Tuesday morning with the Phi Beta Kappa Literary Exercises in Sanders Theatre—appropriately, the most purely academic and intellectual of the week’s events, featuring the brainiest of the candidates for their first degree. Thomas professor of government and sociology Theda Skocpol, the orator (and herself the recipient of an honorary degree this season, from Oxford University), spoke about the “erosion of the very bedrocks that have supported inclusive civil society and democratic institutions” in the United States and around the world. She counseled that “doing matters more than being”: credentials are no substitute for the persistent work of effecting social progress. The poet was Forrest Gander, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Be With (2019); he read from works about the convergence of the natural and human realms. Yet another minor tweak in the traditional order: with alumni not yet on campus, the Phi Beta Kappa chapter altered its program, and no longer confers honorary membership on a cohort of distinguished members from the College’s fiftieth-reunion class. But the students’ nominees for teaching excellence were again singled out: an especially gratifying honor for those selected, given the electorate.
The Baccalaureate service, of course, has always had undergraduates at its core. This year’s al fresco edition, on Tuesday afternoon, enabled parents for the first time to actually see what was transpiring in person. Drawing on his own life experiences, and those of eminent others, President Lawrence S. Bacow advised the graduates-to-be not to be overly planful about their nascent careers. “I was open to seeing where roads I hadn’t considered might actually take me,” he related. “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.” Bacow, who has spent his student and professional life immersed in MIT, Tufts, and Harvard, told his audience that after all they had been thorough during the pandemic, he didn’t think he had “ever been prouder of any graduating class at any university I have been affiliated with than I am of the Harvard College Class of 2022.”
The Baccalaureate program also subtly underscored the ascendancy of students in creating the week’s program, as well as being its beneficiaries. Among the musical works performed was the anthem, “Gates of Harvard Yard,” composed by Jenny J. Yao ’22, based on her study and adaptation of the inscriptions on the iconic gates. Andrew G. Clark, director of choral activities and senior lecturer on music, said that Yao had throughout her undergraduate years participated in the Harvard Choruses New Music Initiative, an extracurricular mentorship program under Robert Kyr, JF ’81, Ph.D. ’89, a composer and professor of composition and theory at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance. The results, Clark continued, frequently reflect “students writing music they really believe in,” often influenced by their Harvard lives. He called Yao’s new work “a very sweet piece, an homage to her school and her experiences.”
The tonal, melodious piece was a bit of a departure for a composer—and an incoming M.D.-Ph.D. student through the Harvard-MIT program in health sciences and technology—who normally writes more experimental, modern works. “I have not written something so tonal in a long time,” Yao joked in an interview.
Recent graduate Carson Cooman ’04, composer in residence at Memorial Church, whose work was featured at President Lawrence S. Bacow’s installation, was also represented, with the anthem “Finding You” (2011). Amid all the budding and recently graduated computer scientists, consultants, and investment bankers, it is good to remember that there is plenty of artistic talent among today’s undergraduates, too—with more on display as the week progressed.
…ROTC Commissioning, Class Days, and More
Amid the understandable joy of students, families, and friends being together, the week brought reminders of the state of the world. Wednesday morning’s ROTC commissioning ceremony , at which eight students were commissioned, took place against the backdrop of a brutal war in Europe. The guest speaker, the nation’s highest-ranking military officer and principal military adviser to the President, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark A. Milley, said, “It’s our job, your job, my job, the job of all of us in uniform, to maintain a very high level of readiness—to maintain the strength of our military in order to prevent a great power war.” Putting their oaths in context, he told the new officers, “You will never, ever turn your back on the U.S. Constitution.”
The Harvard Kennedy School Class Day speaker, Maia Sandu, M.C./M.P.A. ’10, is president of Moldova, the small, impoverished, and existentially threatened former Soviet Socialist Republic—itself at risk of a brutal invasion should Russia’s war on Ukraine metastasize. “There can be no justification for Russia’s war against Ukraine, another sovereign nation, for capturing territories or carving out spheres of influence in the 21st century,” she said. In March, Moldova officially applied to become a member of European Union, and recently it was granted candidate status, an important step in the process toward membership and, Sandu said, “an anchor for our independence, peaceful development, economic and political reforms.” It is possible that her presence, and that of the Commencement guest speaker, New Zealand’s prime minister, marked the first time in Harvard history that two women heads of government were featured at the same graduation exercises.
The College Class Day speaker, recently elected Boston Mayor Michelle Wu ’07, J.D. ’12, was a suitable representative of a new generation of political leadership for an increasingly diverse, successful metropolis—but one in which the pandemic laid bare yawning inequalities in income, wealth, and access to adequate healthcare, housing, and education: daunting challenges that face almost anyone responsible for governing an American city today. She reflected on her own undergraduate experience in humorous terms, but also spoke seriously, from her responsibilities caring for her mentally ill mother to her current position, urging the students before her to remember that “your own deep truth sets the foundation for your happiness, health, and impact.”
Law School Class Day guest Loretta Lynch ’81, J.D. ’84, former U.S. Attorney General—speaking on the second anniversary of George Floyd’s death—remembered that “shocking crime, a senseless tragedy. It did not have to happen. And for those of us who have worked on police reform over the years it stood as a literal rebuke to all of our efforts.” A former federal prosecutor who became the first black woman to lead the Department of Justice, from 2015 to 2017, Lynch described the “equally shocking and unnecessary deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery” as “a choice…not to deal with the original sin: the systemic racism woven into the fabric of our society.”
And Conant University Professor Danielle S. Allen (profiled here), a political philosopher and the guest speaker at the Graduate School of Design’s Class Day, asked her audience, “Why is it exactly that things are so crazy, so complicated, so messy in this country right now?” Her short answer: “Facebook broke democracy. They didn’t mean to, it was definitely an accident, but they definitely did.” The Constitutional Convention, she explained, “was a design solution to the problems of a community of people who could not actually get anything done together…and they had all kinds of problems of tribalism, factionalism, and division, just as we do now.” James Madison, in arguing for the Constitution, for a representational government, was clear that in a growing country, where people would increasingly spread out across the land, that “people with extreme views would not be able to find each other,” she said. “The idea was that because of geographic dispersal, in order to get your views in the public sphere you would have to go through a representative. Geography was a forcing factor to make a system of representative government work.” Today, she said, the United States again faces “a crisis of representation.”
On a celebratory note, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences conferred its Centennial Medal on four distinguished alumni: Neil Harris, Ph.D. ’65, Preston & Sterling Morton professor, emeritus, of U.S. history, art history, and the college at the University of Chicago; John Kamm, A.M. ’75, a human-rights activist long involved in advocating for detainees in China; Vicki Sato ’69, Ph.D. ’72, a former Harvard professor, president of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, and then professor of management practice at the Business School, where she led life-sciences entrepreneurship; and Robert Zimmer, Ph.D. ’75, mathematician and president emeritus of the University of Chicago.
Those preliminaries dispatched, it was on to the 371st proper.
The Main Event
The familiar queueing to gain entry into Tercentenary Theatre was once again under way from dawn’s early light, on a clement morning (52 degrees and overcast as the Yard gates opened: ideal for wearing at least a little something under a gown)—a welcome relief from unseasonable tropical heat and humidity during the prior weekend. Although the crowds attested to just how much progress had been made in containing or ameliorating the effects of the pandemic, it was in no sense defeated: the University advised throughout the week that local rates of coronavirus transmission were “high”; that participants in events should test for the virus daily; that anyone who tested positive or exhibited symptoms should stay away; and that participants should resume masking indoors.
The excessively numerous undergraduates got their dose of early-morning religion at a senior chapel service relocated from Memorial Church to the gigantic tent anchored on the Science Center Plaza. They then proceeded into the Old Yard to join the rest of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences cohort. The weather gods cooperated—the sky cleared, the temperature gradually rose into the low 70s, and the day became about as beautiful as possible for Cambridge in late spring: wonderful!
Everyone having assembled somewhat tardily, Provost Alan M. Garber, as emcee, got the proceedings under way at 10:05 a.m. Peter J. Koutoujian, M.P.A. ’03, the sheriff of Middlesex County, once again and with customary loudness called the “meeting” to order—essentially, the only function of note known to attach to his office.
Photograph by Jim Harrison
President Lawrence S. Bacow then asked, on this “day of joy and celebration” for graduates and families, for a moment of silence during “a time of tragedy—a time of pain beyond words” for families around the United States and the world “for whom these are days of heartbreak and loss—and to lives that have ended far too soon,” under bombardment and in battle in Ukraine, and in the horrific mass shootings in this country.
Jazz musician Veronica Leahy ’23 then took up the first of the augmented student “parts” in the proceedings, as a soprano saxophone soloist performing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Despite experimenting with different styles in rehearsals, the Charlotte native decided on a more traditional take. “It’s sort of striking that perfect balance between putting my flair on it and giving people what they want to hear,” she said in an interview. “I always just kept coming back to the melody that we all know and love.” The effect was haunting.
The chaplain of the day, Judith Hanlon, gave the opening prayer. The “Pastor Judy” of Hadwen Park Congregational Church, in Worcester, where she co-founded the LGBT Asylum Task Force to support asylum-seekers and those escaping persecution, Hanlon is an Indiana native who grew up as the second child of seven born to a Pentecostal minister; she had a business career before beginning her seminary training in 2000. Her sweeping remarks included an indigenous-land acknowledgment to the Massachusett tribe; thanks to supportive family members (including those “who even sent money when the credit card was maxed out”); a nod to gay and straight people, immigrants, and “all whose bodies belong to them”; an invocation of humility; a nod to the recent report on Harvard’s historic ties to slavery; and a rousing, concluding “Let’s celebrate good times, come on! And amen.”
Then, following the familiar Presidential Fanfare by the Commencement Choir and University Band, President Bacow welcomed everyone, reprising the role as showrunner that he premiered online in 2020 and repeated last year (when he promised, “We shall overcome together”—queue today and this coming Sunday). He asked the graduates-to-be to applaud their supportive families and friends, and then riffed on the difficulties of mounting a massive Commencement with global supply-chain issues, to make a more serious point:
There are not enough folding chairs to go around.
I am not kidding—half of you almost had to sit on blankets today.…
Fortunately…our amazing staff…are creative, resilient, and resourceful. So now you know about the Great Seat Scramble of 2022.
I am telling you this because it is likely the last time you almost didn’t get a seat. Soon you will have a degree in hand from an institution whose name is known no matter where you go in the world, whose name is synonymous with excellence, ambition, and achievement—and maybe some other modifiers on which we needn’t dwell today.
With your degree in hand, you may often find yourself invited to sit and stay awhile, invited to share your thoughts and ideas, invited to participate, to contribute, to lead.…
And what are you to make of that—of the fact that people will make room for you, find a seat for you?
You could take it for granted. You could assume that you deserved it all along.
But what a waste that would be.
Today, I want to challenge you—members of the Harvard Class of 2022—to save a seat for others, to make room for others, to ensure that the opportunities afforded by your education do not enrich your life alone. You will have more chances than most to make a difference in the world, more opportunities to give others a chance at a better life. Take advantage of these opportunities when they arise. Whatever you do with your Harvard education, please be known as much for your humility, kindness, and concern for others as for your professional accomplishments. Recognize the role that good fortune and circumstance have played in your life, and please work to extend opportunity to others just as it has been extended to you.
That is how you will sustain the pride and joy you feel today. And that’s the truth.
Next up were the traditional student speaking parts (read more about each speaker here).
Photograph by Jim Harrison
• Latin Salutatory. Benjamin Porteous ’22, “In Honorem Johannis Martini Annenbergensis” (“A Salute to John Martin of Annenberg”)
Unlike many children who dream of becoming professional athletes, Benjamin Porteous ’22 dreamed of becoming a history scholar. “That was the only career I could envision myself being good at,” he says, “and the only career I could ever envision really wanting to do.”
Homeschooled throughout high school, he focused less on math and science and more on the languages he wanted to learn (and did): Latin, Greek, classical and modern Chinese, biblical Hebrew, Old English. He spent hours each week conversing with elderly Mandarin speakers, listening to their stories about the Cultural Revolution and other historical events.
By the time he arrived at the College, he had decided to concentrate in East Asian studies. He was particularly interested in pre-modern China—and ecstatic to have access to the Harvard-Yenching Library. It was two professors of Chinese who suggested that the ebullient senior audition to give the Latin Salutatory. He was some choice: wildly expressive, stylin’ in a red-and-white gingham shirt under his gown, and with a green bowtie.
Inspiration soon struck—at the beginning of his senior year, the Leverett House resident had visited Annenberg Hall to check in on John S. Martin, a beloved Harvard University Dining Services worker who swiped students’ IDs when they entered the dining hall. Aside from his formal job, Martin was a remarkable builder of community: he took it upon himself to remember the names of thousands of students, their hometowns, and, Porteous said in his address, “the names of our favorite sports teams, of our parents and siblings, and even of our cats and dogs.” When Porteous checked in on him for the first time since his freshman year, he was amazed that Martin still remembered his name and knew he was a homeschooled student from Arlington, Massachusetts—despite meeting thousands of freshmen in the intervening years. “Everyone I have spoken to remembers this man, and remembers him with just incredible fondness,” Porteous shared in an interview. “Really, I want to be able to thank John.”
And thank him Porteous did. “I have climbed these steps today, classmates,” he began his speech, “to tell you how wonderful John Martin of Annenberg is.” At its end, Porteous pointed out Martin, in the crowd, who rose and acknowledged his friend—really, his hundreds of student friends.
Porteous will pursue a master’s degree in East Asian studies at Harvard next year—on his way to an eventual Ph.D.—and serve as a first-year proctor. “You’re responsible for enforcing discipline, making sure that roommates don’t sort of go at each other’s throats,” he said, “but you’re also responsible for really helping create a community, and John has done that.”
Photograph by Jim Harrison
• Senior English Address. Noah Harris ’22, “The Caged Bird Sings”
Born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Noah Harris ’22 arrived at Harvard looking to serve others. As a freshman, he joined the Undergraduate Council (UC) and became its finance committee chair. He also wrote a children’s book—Successville—for his community back home. The story encourages kids to take their education seriously and take concrete steps to achieve their goals. “I just wanted to try and figure out how I could give back,” he said. “So many different people had given me so much and seen so much potential in me.”
A resident of Dunster House, Harris took steps to achieve his own long-time goal of becoming an attorney, joining the Black Pre-Law Association and declaring a concentration in government. His work on the UC also expanded in scope. He served as the organization’s treasurer as a sophomore and became the first black man elected UC president as a junior. Outside of the College gates, he mentored middle-school students of color through the Phillips Brooks House Association’s David Walker Scholars program, a collaboration with the Harvard Black Men’s Forum.
In his address, Harris—who will attend the Law School after two years of nonprofit or government work—contemplated Maya Angelou’s famous poem “Caged Bird.” “Growing up, I always wondered why would a caged bird sing? What does it really mean to be caged?” he opened his speech. “Simply, being caged is about confinement: whether literally or figuratively.” He reflected on his own shyness as a child—and his parents’ determination to get him out of his self-imposed cage. “My dad even had me in the car repeating every sentence I heard on the news,” he said, “so my voice would never feel caged again.” And then he delved deeper, reflecting on the enslavement of his ancestors in Mississippi. “They were caged,” he says, “and yet they sang.”
Bringing the theme to the modern day, he said, the pandemic has caged all of society:
Quarantine, masking, vaccines, and contact tracing have defined the last two years of our lives. We were caged, and yet, we sang. We sang through our vigilance to COVID-19 protocols. We sang through a year of virtual learning with our classmates scattered across the globe.
He encouraged his fellow Harvard graduates to see themselves in those who are caged and work to help them.:
[W]e must be willing to be proximate enough to hear the tune of their song. And when we question why anyone would have enough joy to sing while caged, they will tell us that they sing so those who fly freely will hear their story. I, too, know why the caged bird sings. “The caged bird sings of freedom.”
Photograph by Jim Harrison
• Graduate English Address. Lindsay Sanwald, M.Div ’22, “In Exile, We Become Prophets”
Lindsay Sanwald, M.Div ’22, has always been one to follow a hunch. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 2007 with a degree in comparative literature, she decided to pursue a career as a musical artist. Under the moniker Idgy Dean, she performs a style self-described as “psycho spiritual surf rock.”
Another hunch was yoga. Sanwald learned while studying abroad in Italy and went on to begin a serious personal practice, earning a 500-hour certification in tantric yoga. Divinity School was another happy accident; she was inspired to attend after watching a series of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, L ’59, LL.D. ’11, documentaries in 2018. “Everything at that point in my life felt very blocked,” she says. “Everything about the Divinity School was just green lights—which is always a sign to me.…When there’s very little resistance, that’s this clue to keep going.”
In her address (another hunch followed), Sanwald reflected on the “Great Pause” caused by the pandemic. “I’ve been a student at Harvard for three years,” she began, “yet this is strangely both my first and final spring on campus.” But while she was forced away from campus, she sees these last couple of years as an immense opportunity for growth:
These years, I think we were all made into ministers. We were all called to sit with great grief as we studied the Self. We were all asked to make meaning of our lives when everything seemed lost. And it is my sincere belief that to have been a student during these pandemic times was an immense blessing. It taught us something about…stillness. About how to listen…How to recognize what is most precious and far too often taken for granted: this privilege of being alive. It showed us just how vulnerable we are. But here’s the gift: to be made vulnerable is to become visionary.
As society returns to some semblance of normalcy, Sanwald said, “We are all tasked now with mending ourselves together, so that we can stitch a world for future generations.”
After all that’s been sacrificed, I refuse to waste my vision endlessly thumbing a scroll of screen. We are Renaissance artists reborn after a plague! I want us to make more than memes…I want us to make masterpieces! A friend in a dream tells me, “Now is the time we’re supposed to become the people we’ll be remembered as.”
“May this great vulnerability turn us into great visionaries,” she concluded. “In exile, we become prophets…We part seas…We leap!”
The choir then sang the next anthem, a socko call-and-response rendition of “Lead with Love,” by Melanie DeMore, featuring soloist Theodore (Teddy) Hickman-Maynard ’00, an undergraduate member of the Kuumba singers who recently became associate dean for ministry studies and lecturer on ministry—a title that hardly gets at his qualities as “an absolutely phenomenal singer,” in Andrew Clark’s admiring appraisal. And how: singing from the choir tent, he nearly blew it down.
•Conferring of degrees. Provost Garber thus had a hard act to follow to introduce the formal conferring of degrees. They proceeded in the usual order: the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and University Extension, followed by the anthem of Psalm 78 (St. Martin’s), a feature of Harvard Commencements for centuries now.
With that elevated tone still echoing, one hoped, the graduate and professional school candidates’ degrees were then on tap, featuring, in order, the Dental School, Medical School (including various master’s degrees in bioethics, biomedical informatics, healthcare quality and safety, and clinical service operations), Divinity School (including the first cohort of master’s in religion and public life graduates), Law School, Business School, Graduate School of Design, School of Public Health, Graduate School of Education, and Kennedy School. Most of the recipients were vocal, but not overly so, as Commencements go, and the deans were disciplined about following their scripts.
The next anthem, “Veritas: A Celebration of the Centuries,” by the multitalented engineering sciences/physics/law student and composer Chung Hon Michael Cheng A.B.-S.M.’19, J.D ’24, based on texts from Harvard’s five centuries (the seventeenth through the twenty-first), had a special resonance for some members of the Commencement choir. Composed and performed in 2019, for the Baccalaureate, it was sung then by first-year students who have not had an opportunity for a live rerun since. Including it in the program now enabled some of those same students—on the cusp of graduating—to round out their interrupted undergraduate years in a special way. They advocated for performing it, Clark said, “eager to reclaim their traditions” from the pandemic that so harshly intervened. “It’s very humbling to know that I was able to write something that really resonated with a lot of people who were singing it last time,” Cheng said in an interview. “I was very, very excited to get the text from Andy again—this year in the middle of my finals period—telling me the good news.” The piece ends with an upbeat charge appropriate to the occasion: “So wake up—/Wake up!/Lift off.”
Who better to lift off than the undergraduates, and they were properly primed for their moment, issuing the obligatory throaty roar of pride, relief, and sheer energetic youthfulness.
The next musical interlude, “Dive,” is a song from a musical in progress, “Shimcheong: A Folktale,” by composer and lyricist Julia Riew ’22, who was accompanied by singers Natalie Choo ’22 and Sydney Penny ’22, cellist Ethan Cobb ’22, and violinists Anna Gong ’23 and William Yao ’22. Her musical, based on a Korean folktale, tells the story of a young woman caught in the underworld who reclaims her identity and her life. “Dive,” about taking a leap from safety into some new, seemed an uncannily appropriate send-off for her College classmates: “[A]ll of the fish in the sea can’t stop me / All of the waves in the world can’t rock me / I’m on a mission and gee, just watch me go,” Riew sang. The lyrics resonate for graduation and Riew personally. She’ll soon be moving to New York City where she’s planning to pursue several writing projects, including the musical. Recently signed by Creative Artists Agency, she’s ready to “dive” into the professional world.
If the cohort of graduates was swollen, the class of 2022 honorands (described in detail here) was unusually compact. The provost introduced each honorand (six in person, and one, engaged in humanitarian service in Ukraine, honored in absentia), and the president read the citation and conferred the degrees, in this order:
Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum, microbiologist, general director of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Institut National pour la Recherche Biomédicale and president of the newly formed Congolese Academy of Science, now recognized as discoverer of the Ebola virus and of pioneering therapies to treat it (and who was, uniquely and instructively, masked), Doctor of Science:
Formidable in fighting a fearsome virus,
resolute in pursuit of treatments and cures;
from rainforests to research labs, in clinics and councils,
his mind, heart, and voice have saved precious lives.
Vicki L. Ruiz, Distinguished Professor emerita of history and Chicano/Latino studies at the University of California, Irvine, widely recognized as the preeminent historian of Latina Americans, Doctor of Laws:
Fabled founding mother of Latina studies,
weaving spirit threads of memory into tapestries of tenacity;
she draws stories of food workers, field hands, and flappers
from out of the shadows and into the light.
Martha C. Nussbaum, JF ’74, Ph.D. ’75, RI ’81, a polymathic philosopher and widely known public intellectual, the University of Chicago’s Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of law and ethics, Doctor of Laws:
Ethicist, classicist, humanist;
prolific, polymathic, profound;
a worldly-wise scholar of capacious capabilities
who illuminates our thinking on how one should live.
William Julius Wilson, Geyser University Professor emeritus, a sociologist who has explored the intersection of race and poverty, transforming public policy in the wake of such powerful books as The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions (1978), The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (1987), and When Work Disappears: The World of The New Urban Poor (1996), about whom Garber said, “He has championed the power of education to create opportunity—and the power of jobs to invigorate communities.” Doctor of Laws:
Casting light on the plight of the truly disadvantaged,
discerning what happens when work disappears,
a deep and dauntless scholar whose ideas enlighten policy,
envisaging a bridge over the racial divide.
Gloria Steinem, feminist writer and political activist, cofounder of Ms. magazine, and of the National Women’s Political Caucus, the Women’s Action Alliance, Take Our Daughters to Work Day, the Women’s Media Center, and Voters for Choice, and whose nomination elicited plenty of applause from the crowd, Doctor of Humane Letters:
Iconic champion of women’s rights,
serial entrepreneur of social change,
whose ardent organizing and potent prose
have engendered historic strides toward equality for all.
José Andrés, chef, restaurateur, food entrepreneur, and founder of World Central Kitchen, which provides humanitarian relief during natural and manmade disasters, including the current invasion of Ukraine, Doctor of Humane Letters:
A Michelin man who never tires;
a Picasso of paella whose tapas are tops;
with plates of hope for people in need
he taps food’s power to serve the world.
The Right Honourable Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand and the guest speaker, who appeared animated and excited on stage, and made a splendid sartorial statement with a Māori wrap around her gown. Ardern led her island nation ably through the pandemic, and was widely praised for her embrace of the country’s Muslim community following the attack on a mosque in Christchurch in March 2019. She devised a program of financial assistance for the victims’ families, and effected a ban on military-style semi-automatic guns and assault rifles in New Zealand (a course of action that the United States, in the wake of the mass shootings in Buffalo and, this week, a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school, has thus far not been willing to emulate). Doctor of Laws:
Her leadership style sends a powerful message:
it’s key we be both strong and kind;
inclusive and empathic, hopeful and pragmatic,
she guides a proud nation with new zeal and vision.
Photograph by Jim Harrison
The Commencement Address, by The Right Honourable Jacinda Ardern:
“We are the richer for our difference, and poorer for our division.”
It was noon, and time for the formal address. A day after Danielle Allen raised the issue of social media and modern democracy, Ardern drew on her own experience to probe that subject in depth. Coming five years after the University conferred an honorary degree on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg ’06, LL.D ’17, her remarks in effect set up an important conversation about how the world has changed, technologically and politically, and the implications for democracy today.
After a greeting in Te Reo Māori, an official language of Aotearoa New Zealand, Ardern said:
It is a privilege to be here, and I thank you for the honour.
There are some moments in life that make the world feel small and connected.
This is not one of them.
I am used to walking into a room in New Zealand and knowing at least someone. It is one of the beautiful and comforting aspects of living in a small country.
And while this moment feels incredibly daunting to me right now, I do take comfort knowing there are approximately 30 New Zealanders studying here, and statistically at least one of them will be my cousin.
She then made a powerful connection to Harvard, to another leader, and to her theme of the day, the frailty of democracy:
In June 1989 the Prime Minister of Pakistan stood on this spot and delivered the commencement address titled, “Democratic nations must unite.”
She spoke about her journey, the importance of citizenry, representative government, human rights, and democracy.
I met Benazir Bhutto [’73] in Geneva in June of 2007. We both attended a conference that drew together progressive parties from around the world. Just seven months later she was assassinated.
There will be opinions and differing perspectives written about all of us as political leaders. Two things that history will not contest about Benazir Bhutto. She was the first Muslim female Prime Minister elected in an Islamic country, when a woman in power was a rare thing. She was also the first to give birth in office.
The second and only other leader to have given birth in office almost 30 years later, was me.
My daughter, Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford, was born on the 21st of June 2018.
Benazir Bhutto’s birthday.
The path she carved as a woman feels as relevant today as it was decades ago, and so too is the message she shared here. In this place.
Ardern recalled Bhutto’s warning, “We must realise that democracy… can be fragile.” She said that “while the reasons that gave rise for her words then were vastly different, they still ring true.” She explained:
This imperfect but precious way that we organise ourselves, that has been created to give equal voice to the weak and to the strong, that is designed to help drive consensus – it is fragile.
For years it feels as though we have assumed that the fragility of democracy was determined by duration. That somehow the strength of your democracy was like a marriage—the longer you’d been in it, the more likely it was to stick.
But that takes so much for granted.
It ignores the fact that the foundation of a strong democracy includes trust in institutions, experts and government— and that this can be built up over decades but torn down in mere years.
It ignores that a strong democracy relies on debate and dialogue, and that even the oldest regimes can seek to control these forums, and the youngest can seek to liberate them.
It ignores what happens, when regardless of how long your democracy has been tried and tested—when facts are turned into fiction, and fiction turned into fact, you stop debating ideas and you start debating conspiracy.
It ignores the reality of what we are now being confronted by every single day.
New Zealand’s parliamentary representative democracy, she said, has during the past decade “passed laws that include everything from the introduction of gay marriage and the banning of conversion therapy, right through to embedding a 1.5 degree climate change target into law, banning military style semi-automatics and assault rifles, and the decriminalisation of abortion.” They have been addressed, she noted,
not…without debate and difference. But they are all examples of where we have navigated times of deep change, without, for the most part, leaving deep rifts.
But we have also seen the opposite. Whether it’s democratic elections that erupt into violence, or the COVID crisis exposing mistrust of experts, institutions and governments—western democracies are seeing it and experiencing examples and New Zealand is no different.
Admitting to “some trepidation entering a discussion on how we strengthen our democracies when this issue is so easily and wrongly distorted into being opposed to free speech,” Ardern nonetheless proceeded, because “that fear is overshadowed by a greater fear of what will happen to our democracies, if we don’t act to firm up their foundations”—if, in a word, democracies lose the ability to “argue our corners, yes with the passion and fire that conviction brings, but without the vitriol, hate and violence.”
Without attempting to determine the causes of division today, Ardern said, she wished to proceed to solutions. She grew up in a rural town of 5,000, she related, where “I lived in that important space that sits between difference and division.” She was “raised a Mormon in a town where the dominant religions were Catholic, Anglican and Rugby. I was a woman interested in politics, left wing politics, in a region that had never in its entire democratic history, elected anyone other than a conservative candidate.” Yet those differences were “a part of my identity, but never a source of isolation.”
Today, she said, social media interactions have made those differences far sharper and harder to bridge:
[A]s the opportunities to connect expanded, humans did what we have always done. We organised ourselves.…
We logged on in our billions, forming tribes and sub tribes. We published our thoughts, feelings and ideas freely. We found a place to share information, facts, fiction dressed up as facts, memes, and more cat videos than you ever thought possible.
We found a place to experience new ways of thinking and to celebrate our difference.
But increasingly, we use it to do neither of those things.
I doubt anyone has ever created a group titled “political views I disagree with, but choose to enter into respectful dialogue with to better understand alternative perspectives.”
As humans, we are naturally predisposed to reinforce our own views, to gather with people like us and avoid the dreaded sense of cognitive dissonance. We seek validation, confirmation, reinforcement. And increasingly with the help of algorithms, what we seek, we are served, sometimes before we even know we’re looking.
Recalling the March 15, 2019, assault on mosques in Christchurch, when 51 people were killed in a terrorist attack, she said, “The entire brutal act was live-streamed on social media. The royal commission that followed found that the terrorist responsible was radicalised online.” In response, New Zealand changed its gun laws, but also attempted to redefine the interactions among government, civil society, and social media. Given the difficulty of effecting change, she continued:
The time has come for social media companies and other online providers to recognise their power and to act on it.
That means upholding their own basic terms of service.
That means recognising the role they play in constantly curating and shaping the online environments that we’re in. That algorithmic processes make choices and decisions for us—what we see and where we are directed —and that at best this means the user experience is personalised and at worst it means it can be radicalised.
It means, that there is a pressing and urgent need for responsible algorithm development and deployment.
We have the forums for online providers and social media companies to work on these issues alongside civil society and governments. And we have every reason to do it.
Let’s start with transparency in how algorithmic processes work and the outcomes they deliver. But let’s finish with a shared approach to responsible algorithms—because the time has come.
She also reminded individuals of their responsibilities: “Our willingness to recognise our own preconceived ideas. The level of critique we apply to what we engage with. And how we uphold our basic sense of humanity when interacting with others.”
Given the changes in media, writ large, Ardern cautioned, “[W]e’re not even talking about where or how we access information to inform debate, but whether you can call it information at all.
Addressing the graduates, she said, “You are, and will always be, surrounded by bias. You will continue to be exposed to disinformation. And over time, the ‘noise’ you are surrounded by will probably only get worse.” She summoned Benjamin Franklin’s warning about Americans having “A republic, if you can keep it.”
In that light, an individual could determine “How you choose to engage with information, deal with conflict, or confront debate, how you choose to address being baited, or hated—it all matters.” Amid overwhelming challenges, she urged:
[D]on’t overlook the impact of simple steps that are right in front of us.
The impact that we each have as individuals.
To make a choice to treat difference with empathy and kindness
Those values that exist in the space between difference and division. The very things we teach our children, but then view as weakness in our leaders.
The issues we navigate as a society will only intensify. The disinformation will only increase. The pull into the comfort of our tribes will be magnified. But we have it within us to ensure that this doesn’t mean we fracture.
We are the richer for our difference, and poorer for our division. Through genuine debate and dialogue, through rebuilding trust in information and one another, through empathy—let us reclaim the space in between.
After all, there are some things in life that make the world feel small and connected, let kindness be one of them.
Ardern’s address was greated with frequent applause, and a sustained ovation at its conclusion. Read her complete address, as prepared for delivery, here.
Over and Out
What remained, after the prime minister’s 26-minute address, but the collective chorus of “Fair Harvard,” the new closing tune, and the benediction by Matthew I. Potts, who was appointed Pusey Minister in Memorial Church and Plummer professor of Christian morals effective July 1, 2021. Although he made a cameo appearance in the 2021 online exercises with Stephanie Paulsell, the interim minister, this was his real-deal debut.
Addressing the class of 2022, he said, “I see you. We see you. We see how good you are. Bless you for all you have given this University” throughout the pandemic. “Rarely has a set of students met tumult with such grace” in “our upturned world,” he continued. Blessing the graduates for their intellectual rigor and resolve, their resilience and bravery, he also observed that “Our world is deeply broken in manifold ways,” from the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde to “the Earth itself.” Accordingly, “We also see a world in desperate need of your gifts,” and so he charged the members of the graduating class with the duty of blessing the world.…Become for our world the blessing you have been to us.”
Thus blessed, and with ears shattered anew by the sheriff, the meeting adjourned after two and a half hours to the ringing of bells and the playing of the University Band, and the new graduates and their families headed off to their Houses and schools for refreshment and the actual receipt of their diplomas, under a blue and beautiful sky.
Fair Harvard, for sure.
Check back at harvardmagazine.com for continuing coverage of:
•the classes of 2020-2021 celebration, May 29; with guest U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland ’74, J.D. ’77; and
•Harvard Alumni Day, June 3, with guest Tracy K. Smith, former poet laureate and now professor of English and of African and African American studies.
And for your convenience, all our Commencement 2022 coverage is gathered here.