President Bacow‘s Alumni Day Speech
(Speech published as prepared for delivery)
Thank you, Vanessa [Liu], for that generous introduction—and for your steadfast leadership of the Harvard Alumni Association. We appreciate all you have done this year to keep our community as strong as it has ever been.
And what a sight this is! As much as I have learned to love Zoom over these past two years, nothing comes close to being here—at the heart of our campus—and seeing all of you in person. It is so wonderful to have the opportunity to gather together once again. Thank you for making the effort to be with us today.
I was recently interviewed at the Economic Club of Washington, DC and asked a simple but profound question: What accounts for Harvard’s extraordinary reputation? The United States is blessed with many great colleges and universities—I know this because I have spent time at a few others—24 years at MIT and ten years at Tufts. I have also lectured at and collaborated with colleagues at other wonderful institutions across the country over the course of my career.
Yet this place stands apart. Harvard enjoys worldwide recognition—almost universal recognition, virtually anywhere in the world. Why? My interviewer wanted to know.
I responded by first noting our faculty. They are among the most talented, accomplished scholars of their generation, and they make important, often path breaking contributions in almost every field and discipline imaginable. During my time as your President, I have become aware of more awards, fellowships, medals, memberships in honorary societies, and prizes than I ever knew existed. In fact, I am constantly sending congratulatory notes to our faculty. I am not sure a week has passed when I haven’t sent at least one such note for some major prize. Blavatnik, Carnegie, Guggenheim, Holberg, MacArthur, Nobel, membership in the major national academies—I could go on. It would take me the rest of our time together to get through the entire list.
And that long list is just one way of illustrating how amazing our faculty are—how important and valuable their work is. Consider the pandemic alone. Harvard was on the frontlines and at the lab bench, saving lives and driving medical and scientific progress. Harvard was out in the world, understanding how communities responded to and coped with the disease at every stage of life. Harvard was in the trenches, connecting people and resources to find a way forward despite confusion and uncertainty.
I am a data junkie, so let me illustrate my point by collecting some data in real time. How many of you received either the Johnson and Johnson or the Moderna vaccine? Very good. The shots that went into your arms originated in labs at Harvard Medical School—the J&J vaccine came out of Dan Barouch’s lab and the Moderna originated in Derek Rossi’s. And Kizzmekia Corbett, one of TIME magazine’s “heroes of the year” in 2021—and now a faculty member at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health—helped to develop the mRNA-based vaccine platform that accelerated humanity’s response during her time on staff at the National Institutes of Health.
Here is another example: Before she became director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky was on our faculty and served on my University Coronavirus Advisory Group. She was one of its original members. Another one of our longtime faculty members, Ashish Jha, became Dean of the School of Public Health at Brown during the pandemic before being called to the White House to coordinate our ongoing national response to the disease.
These five individuals represent the excellence that is ever-present among our faculty, ever-present in their research and scholarship, research and scholarship that deepens understanding, expands knowledge, and changes the world. This University truly is home to some of the greatest minds of our time.
Yet our faculty—and their many accomplishments—are just part of the story. Our students are among the very best in the world. Each of them, in addition to being terrific academically, also excels in something else—they may be a concert pianist, a poet like Amanda Gorman, a phenomenal athlete, or a world class chess player. Every year, just like the faculty, they receive countless awards – Rhodes, Marshalls, Trumans, Fulbrights to name just a few. And after four years they become you—our alumni!
And you are the deserving heirs to a legacy of achievement. You are making contributions to communities in almost every country on the planet—and every continent except for Antarctica. And, even there, we often have Harvard-trained scientists working on the frozen continent.
In just about every field and discipline, just about every profession, you are making your mark. When I travel to the Capitol, I marvel at the number of Harvard alums serving in Congress on both sides of the aisle – over ten percent of the Congress at last count. We have alumni in the White House regardless of which party is in office, and on the Supreme Court, too, across the ideological spectrum. And in state houses, and city halls, on school committees and countless other public offices, Harvard alumni carry on a tradition of public service that is as old as Harvard itself. Never forget, eight of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were our alumni.
Each time we commission a new crop of officers from our ROTC unit— and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Miley, stood here on this stage with me last week as we did so—I beam with pride at the devotion to country shown by our newest alums. Never forget, Harvard has more recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor than any other school outside of the nation’s service academies.
When I travel to Silicon Valley, I meet countless Harvard alums whose ambitions and ideas are launching new ways of thinking about the future. Creative, imaginative people who are inventing new technologies and new businesses that create jobs and opportunity for others. No matter where I find myself—be it in Harvard Square, Trafalgar Square, or elsewhere—I have endless opportunities to meet extraordinary people who are doing well—and doing good—in the name of your alma mater.
And, frankly, I don’t even have to leave my house. I can stream movies and series written, directed, produced, and inspired—you name it—by Harvard alums. I can go online and download music written and performed by our alumni, music of literally any genre. Every Sunday when I read the NYT book review, I count how many of the authors are Harvard alums. I can even watch professional sports and see former Crimson athletes in action. (Who would have guessed our football team would produce so many tight ends for the NFL?)
What accounts for Harvard’s outsized reputation? I think the answer is the outsized hope and aspirations of the people who call Harvard home, their willingness—their drive—to make the world better in some way.
During these past four years, I have been inspired by witnessing firsthand how generously and routinely members of our community give of their talent and their time, to understand how they advance and support our mission, and to see what makes this place truly special.
Just one example: During the darkest days of the pandemic when personal protective equipment was in short supply, when our hospitals did not have enough masks to go around, our alumni in Asia organized on their own to find and secure literally tons of PPE and send it to us on a plane provided by yet another alum. To all of you who helped us get through this pandemic, who supported us in countless ways, I cannot thank you enough.
My hope for us in the years to come is that we continue to engage—as individuals and as a community—in the big issues of the day; that we work together to mend the divisions that threaten our democracy, that we try to address the inequalities and injustices that were laid bare by the pandemic, that we work collectively to address the challenge posed by climate change, and that we find ways to ensure that gun violence is understood—and addressed—as a public health crisis.
I am optimistic that we can address these difficult, vexing problems because we are Harvard through calm and through storm. The world expects much of us because this institution stands for Veritas, for truth—and for the progress and possibility that truth enables. I am confident that we will meet the challenges of our moment just as those who preceded us did. I am confident that we will pass on to our successors a Harvard worthy of the trust humanity has placed in it, worthy of the reputation that we enjoy.
I am honored to be here today to mark the passing of an extraordinary year with all of you. My thanks to President Vanessa Liu for her leadership of this august body. Also thanks to Alice Hill and John West each of whom led the HAA during the pandemic years and never had the opportunity to preside over this meeting in person. And my thanks, as well, to Tracy K. Smith for joining us today and for delivering this year’s address.
I also want to take a moment to recognize Philip Lovejoy, who has given so much to the University since his arrival in 1998—and so much more to the Harvard Alumni Association, which he has carefully and thoughtfully strengthened since being name executive director in 2014. Thank you, Philip.
And many thanks, again, to all of you for being here, for believing in the idea of Harvard, for helping to ensure that future generations enjoy the same kind of opportunity to study and to learn here just as each of us has enjoyed. Best of luck to each of you, and Godspeed.