Baccalaureate Address 2023

President Bacow’s valedictory Baccalaureate address to the class 0f 2023.

Welcome to the Class of 2023—and welcome to soon-to-be graduates of Harvard College. Give yourself a round of applause.

Well, many of you have noticed that this ceremony today has spiritual origins. If you’ve read your program, you know that it actually dates back, at least at Harvard, to the 17th century. And the baccalaureate address, which I’m about to give, was typically a sermon delivered by a minister. I’m not a minister. And the good news is, I’m not going to give a sermon. If you’ve also read the program, you know that students were supposed to receive this sermon, with their heads, bowed, a picture of abject humility, and utter embarrassment. I’m going to exercise presidential dispensation, and save you from all of that, although a little bit of humility will serve you well in the rest of your life. It seems like a lifetime ago since we gathered at your Convocation—not under a blue sky like this but under a tent in the Plaza—our best laid plans upended by the forces of nature. I spoke to you then about resisting the urge to have life all figured out. “Anyone,” I said, “who is thinking of the next four years as a series of stepping stones to a predetermined outcome is a person who will miss the point of this place.”

As it turned out, “anyone” actually included me. The last four years tested even my most basic assumptions about our mission and our community—how both are sustained and strengthened in the face of incredible upheaval. Every stepping stone I assumed would be there was swept away. Every predetermined outcome I took for granted was reconsidered. And, in that turmoil, I rediscovered the point of this place—and how very much it is the people who define this University—our students, our faculty, our staff. 

I hope that no other Harvard College class will ever have to experience what you did. But I also believe—and I know—that you are among the strongest classes in Harvard history because you faced so many unexpected challenges. And you held together through it all. You supported each other, and we also tried to support you. Now admittedly, we did not always get everything right, but, when we erred, we tried to correct things quickly. Through it all, we were guided by our commitment to your well-being. And just as you were there for each other, we also tried to be there for you. 

As you make your way through life, I hope the friendships that you have made here—and the connection you have made to this special place—will always be with you. Similarly, I hope your experience will mirror my own—that you will continue to be connected with Harvard in ways that may not even be apparent to you now.

I say this having walked into a small classroom, over in Littauer 205, a little over fifty years ago as a first-year graduate student. At the time, I never dreamed of the many ways in which my career would intersect with this institution a half century later. Now, as I prepare to take my leave, also as a member of the class of 2023, I find myself thinking about the lessons that Harvard taught me, and I wish to share those with you as you prepare for your graduation.

First, I learned that a career is only knowable in retrospect. As I am about to retire, it all makes sense. I came here expecting to be a lawyer. I left here a committed academic. My time as a student helped me understand that there are many ways of knowing and understanding the world beyond the study of law. And my time as president has only reinforced this view. I have spent hundreds of hours talking to faculty and reading their work over the past five years. For me, this has actually been an intellectual feast, in many ways an extension of my time as a graduate student. I hope that Harvard has also stoked your own curiosity, and like me you have learned that learning is a lifetime endeavor. In fact, there’s a reason why we call what we are going to do on Thursday, “Commencement.” It is the beginning of the rest of your education.

I hope you leave Harvard tomorrow with a sense of awe in the curiosity and capacity of people, including yourself. 

Second, I learned that regardless of one’s title—even as the president of Harvard—there is no way, no way, that you can know everything. No matter what your position, whether you are in your first job or, like me, your last, it is OK to say, “I don’t know.” And to do so is not a sign that you are weak; it is a sign that you are confident, that you have the confidence to seek out others who know more than you. 

Now, I suspect that many of you may one day end up in the hot seat, on the firing line. Now if it’s not Mass Hall, then it is one of the many “Mass Halls” that are out there. When you do, you are going to discover something interesting. The higher you go in any organization, the tougher the decisions become. Why? Because all the no-brainers will have been decided before they get to you. Which in my case is actually really unfortunate because I’m really good at the no-brainers. 

So, during the pandemic, I learned that I needed the advice and counsel of those who knew far more about the complexities of decisions that, let’s face it, were completely foreign to me. I knew nothing about infectious diseases, other than having had a few of them myself. I knew nothing about epidemiology, virology, or public health. Had I made important decisions without the benefit of counsel from those who are experts in these fields, I would have been guilty of presidential malpractice. 

I hope that you leave Harvard College tomorrow with the humility to know that you cannot know everything. I would urge you to avail yourself of all the intelligent people at your disposal. And as Ben Zoma said [and is quoted in the Talmud], the wise person learns from all people.

Third, over the course of the past five years, I learned that it’s possible never to grow old—well, at least not very old. One of the joys of spending your life on a college campus, and I’ve been on a college campus since I was 18 until now, I’m almost 72. On of the joys of living your life on a college campus is that while you may grow old, the people around you stay the same age. Being around young people actually helps to keep some of us young. I think there’s no substitute for the clarity and the passion that exists all among you in this space right now. You are open to new ideas and to one another in ways that, let’s face it, some of us who are older are not. You’re free of constraints and obligations. You’re alive with possibility and outcome. Looking out at you, I see the future as it might one day be, and it gives me hope. I’m grateful to you—to every student I have ever wished well on the eve of Commencement—for helping to ensure that my eyes, my mind, and my heart are never closed to new ideas, new ways of seeing the world, and new possibilities. 

I hope you leave Harvard College tomorrow, with an appreciation for the beauty and the bliss of your own momentum. May you be blessed as I have been with opportunities to be surrounded by youth and its unmatched vigor—and may that keep you forever young.

Finally, I have learned how important it is to get out of your own way. A little more than five years ago, I was, very happily, a semi-retired university president enjoying my freedom, my life, my privacy, the ability to do things spontaneously, it goes on. Someone suggested that perhaps I should consider this job. And I literally looked in the mirror—and what did I see? I did not see the president of Harvard. I thought my hair wasn’t gray enough (it’s gotten grayer). I thought my voice was not deep enough. I thought that my presence was not serious enough, I was a bit too casual for this job. And, if I’m really being honest, I thought I just wasn’t tall enough. In short, in my mind, I was not the image of what a Harvard president ought to be. Okay, now something important happened to me at this particular moment in time.

Enter Adele, my wife of almost 48 years. Now, some of you have heard me speak about her. And some of you have even had the pleasure of meeting her. (And here, actually, I’m going to go a little off script and offer you some unsolicited advice. When you look for a life partner, whoever that happens to be, make sure you find somebody who always brings out the best in you. I got that when I married Adele.) So, let’s go back to my moment of insecurity. What did Adele say to me? She said, “just be yourself; and if you do that, you’ll be fine.” Now it was this wisdom which she had imparted to me at many points in my career. In fact, she has given me lots of advice over the course of my career. And if you’re smart enough to do as well as I did, you’ll marry somebody whose advice is always right. Isn’t that correct, Adele? So, once she said that, I actually stopped looking in the mirror, I got out of my own way, and here I am, standing before you—giving you the last advice I will ever give to a Harvard College class again. 

I hope you leave Commencement tomorrow with the knowledge that you will do more—and be more—than you can possibly imagine right now. I guarantee you, others will see in you what you do not see in yourself. You should hold those people close. You should nurture those who you enjoy relationships with, who have the capacity to speak to you in such important and fundamental way. And if you do, I assure you that the stepping stones which I referred to in my convovation speech, those stepping stones will appear wherever you direct your steps.

So, thank you, Class of 2023, for getting the point of this place, for helping me to see it more clearly than I ever have before. Thank you for being there for one another—for all of us, including me. So, just a few last pieces of advice, and then I’ll be done.

May you always be curious.

May you never stop learning.

May you be yourselves. 

May you be more than yourselves.

And as Bob Dylan wrote, may you be forever young. 

And, if you do at least a few of these things, I have great confidence that you will make your mark on the world, that you will make your friends and your family and Harvard also proud of you. 

Best of luck to each and every one of you. Farewell—and Godspeed.

Read more articles by: Lawrence Bacow

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