Convocation 2023: The New Crew
Welcoming the class of 2027—and several first-year Harvard leaders
This year’s Convocation, conducted on Monday, a summery, humid Labor Day afternoon, of course welcomed new students: the 1,650 or so members of the College class of 2027 (a return to a normal, pre-pandemic-sized first-year Crimson cohort). But they were also joined—and in some cases addressed—by new faces under the familiar tent alongside Memorial Church: Claudine Gay, the University’s thirtieth president, who took office July 1; Hopi Hoekstra, her appointed successor as Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean (August 1); and Thomas Dunne, the College’s dean of students (newly arrived from service at Princeton, June 1).
The familiar figures—Rakesh Khurana, dean of the College, and Amanda Claybaugh, dean of undergraduate education—had new things on their minds: concern about the external environment for higher education, and the ways members of the community conduct themselves within it, honoring academic discourse and diverse perspectives. (Among other priorities, they must also prepare undergraduates and their professors for learning and teaching enhanced by artificial intelligence—a major focus of Claybaugh’s communications with faculty members in recent weeks—rather than cheapened by it, the subject of “GPT-4 Can Already Pass Freshman Year at Harvard,” as The Chronicle of Higher Education headlined a recent undergraduate essay. Khurana touched on the subject, but Claybaugh expressed even weightier worries.)
Even the turf was in part new: the bits of Tercentenary Theatre closest to Widener and Pusey libraries were sodded a week earlier, after yet another summer of excavation and heavy reconstruction of underlying utility lines.
But tradition had its say, as the formal talks touched on familiar higher-education and Crimson verities. An important theme, always, is encouraging the new matriculants to open themselves to the intellectual opportunities now before them, rather than foreclosing their options. Gay’s trajectory within the academy is a pretty good guide to the rewards of doing so: transferring colleges, changing disciplines, and ultimately moving beyond her parents’ and her own expectations about appropriate courses of study and career choices. As the Harvard Gazette reported, she made the point succinctly last Wednesday, while helping an arriving student and her family move in during a morning downpour: when the new president asked Lucy Berkman about her academic plans, she replied, “I’m undecided”—to which Gay responded, “Excellent. Let’s hold on to that.”
“Make a name for yourself”
Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Plummer professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, gave the invocation, encouraging all present to “Take a moment simply to be thankful” for arriving at this place and moment, and for those who enabled them to do so. When he invoked the Native peoples and unnamed enslaved people who had, respectively, owned the land on which the University was built, and helped to build it, a voice cried out, “Rename Winthrop House”—a reference to a current campus discussion about renaming a House associated with a slave owner, and the first of several, subsequent organized cheers during the afternoon focusing on Palestinian rights.
Potts concluded, “All of us here give thanks for you, too,” and urged the class of 2027, “May you always remember the gifts you have been given and from whom they came.”
In her remarks to the class, titled “Your Name,” Gay opened the Convocation addresses by perhaps nodding to some of the current undercurrents surrounding higher education (like the controversies over admissions practices), encouraging the new students to “Take in every aspect of this experience. Let your joy and your pride win out. Each of you deserves it. Each of you has earned it. Each of you belongs here.”
She drew upon an early life experience to empower and encourage the newest Harvardians to take charge of their life trajectories, using a personal anecdote to bring home some of the broader exhortations characteristic of convocation rhetoric. Without focusing explicitly on either personal resiliency or intellectual derring-do, she helped set the conditions, within the College context, for the youngsters to achieve both.
As a faculty member, Gay said, “I witnessed extraordinary transformations in students, profound shifts in understanding and awareness across every dimension of being.” She then began to “share with you something I learned long ago that made transformation possible for me, something I hope each of you will remember as you set out on your Harvard journey.”
When she was a sixth grader, Gay recalled, her friend Stacey showed up at school with a new backpack monogrammed with the letters SEK: “I asked her what they meant. They were, of course, the first letters of her first name, her middle name, and her last name. And she explained, proudly, that when she got older, instead of ‘Stacey,’ she might use her middle name and become ‘Elizabeth,’ or ‘Liz,’ or ‘Betsy.’ We thrilled at the possibilities; each name seemed like a gateway to a different world.”
But then, another perspective intruded:
For the first time, I thought about my own name: Claudine Gay. I thought about it for the rest of the day, and my confusion and resentment grew as I contemplated the space between Claudine and Gay—the space where my parents had failed to give me a middle name. And I imagined all of the futures that were now out of reach as a consequence.
I was 11 years old, and I felt—suddenly and acutely—that I was insufficient. I was not happy with my parents.
When I confronted them that evening, demanding to know why I did not have a middle name, they explained that each of them had given me half of my name. My mother, Claudette, gave me Claudine. My father, Sony, gave me Gay. They were matter-of-fact in a way that parents can sometimes be, a way that anticipates and forestalls argument. But argue, I did. And when I complained that they had denied me the possibility of reinvention, their response was, “you are Claudine Gay.”
Then they offered this coda: “Your name is enough.”
I turned those four words over in my mind, and they have stayed with me all these years, a powerful statement about my inheritance, my identity, and my capacity. Sometimes, even now, even as president, when I am pushing a pen across paper and signing my name, those four words surface in my mind.
Your name is enough.
At some point between now and your Commencement—probably at several points between now and your Commencement—you will feel insufficient. Despite knowing better, you will feel as if everyone around you knows exactly what is going on, as if everyone around you understands something you do not, sees something you do not.
When that happens, I hope you remember this story—and my parents’ wisdom.
You have been given a name, and it is all that you need to make a name for yourself. And we are here to help.
Who can you be? Who will you be? These are questions that you will consider alongside your classmates; in conversation with faculty, proctors, tutors, and deans; and in connection to your own learning and scholarship. Take notice of work and ideas that energize and fulfill you. Take notice of your joy and your satisfaction. Take nothing for granted. Be willing to reconsider assumptions for the sake of your present happiness but also for your future contentment.
I am excited to learn your names, to understand your aspirations, and to see how you make the College—and really the rest of the University—stronger and better. Welcome to our community. We are so glad you are here.
“To foster qualities that cultivate our humanity”
Dean Khurana told his new charges, “You should be proud of your hard work and your many achievements. Your past, though, doesn’t define you—it prepares you. Harvard is where you are but not who you are. And now that you are here, it’s time to stop looking backwards and start looking ahead.”
As they prepare for their “four-year journey through a liberal arts and sciences education,” he said, it was worth considering the nation’s wavering confidence in higher education. He cited “attacks on academic freedom on campuses…deep cuts to core liberal arts and sciences programs, most recently at West Virginia University where world language programs, among others, were…eliminated…debates about admission policies, and…a narrowing focus on the vocational elements of higher education.” Citing evidence about higher education and socioeconomic mobility, he acknowledged “uncomfortable truths about the current state of higher education, especially the ways in which the commodification of the college degree—as a credential that leads to Wall Street, to Silicon Valley, to a lifetime of high-income rewards and economic power—both perpetuates the wealth gap in our society and also diminishes the value—and the experience —of the education itself.”
In order to do better, Khurana continued, “requires us to think clearly about the purpose of a Harvard education and to commit to that purpose.” Harvard’s mission, he said, is educating citizens and citizen leaders for society—not simply “award[ing] students a credential for their personal use or to train them for the job market.” In his formulation, that mission is
to foster qualities that cultivate our humanity and allow all of us to contribute to a free and democratic society. These qualities include critical thinking skills—the ability to challenge authority, to deliberate, to compromise, to change your mind. And they include the ability to think beyond ourselves—to think about the good of others, the lives of others, and the life of our planet. A liberal education centers the cultivation of a free mind while also recognizing that we live in a society. A liberal education is not about showing the world what you can do and receiving a credential, but about discovering what needs to be done—and how you can use your talents to create the world you envision.
Rather than approaching college as a way to jump through hoops to the next level of achievement—replicating high school—Khurana urged the class members (as he has each predecessor class since becoming dean) to envision undergraduate education as a transformational experience, rather than a merely transactional one. A transactional experience, he said, involves picking classes based on what others are doing—with an eye always on the grade-point average.
A transformational education instead is “rooted in the ideal of intellectual exploration, in the pursuit of connecting with people who are different from you and learning from them, and in the process of reflecting on what you have learned and deciding what kind of person you are going to be. You grow in wisdom.” Following that path involves taking courses that are difficult and interesting (rather than those that are tied to a specific career goal), joining organizations “that spark in you a sense of meaning and purpose,” and actively seeking “connections with people who are different from you”—in values, outlook, and life stories. Ultimately, such an education will prompt reflection about “[W]ho am I? And, who do I want to be? What can I learn from others? What can they learn from me? What are my gifts and talents? And, how can I best use them to serve the world? Beginning to know ourselves will help us live our way to answering these questions.”
All that is, obviously, a far cry from the experience on campuses where the content of the curriculum is now being legislated, administrators are abandoning the humanities, and the overriding, or sole, focus is on career preparation.
At Harvard, in other words, if they embrace “the best that a liberal arts education has to offer,” students will find themselves prepared to embrace roles that are rewarding personally and for the wider society:
College is not a stop on the way to the rest of your life. This is your life. And these four years of college are where the patterns for your lives will be set. If you spend these years taking no chances, reinforcing your beliefs, deferring any reflection on who you are and what you want, you will be doing the same thing in 20 years. You will be speeding through life with no direction. But if you open yourself to what this community has to offer, if you question, if you ask yourself what you believe and who you want to be, then you will begin to see and value yourself in new ways as you evolve into the person you will become.
Khurana closed by wishing the students “an uneasy, bumpy, challenging, joyful, and fulfilling journey”—and urging them to “Live boldly.”
Dean Claybaugh focused on the meaning of Harvard’s two core values: diversity and academic freedom. The former she associated with President Abbott Lawrence Lowell’s commitment to the House system, as a way to “ensure that education continues outside the classroom,” within diverse communities of students. (She noted that Lowell had fallen well short of his own ideals, imposing a quota on admission of Jewish students and using the Administrative Board to dismiss students suspected of homosexuality—issues that have prompted discussion of renaming Lowell House.) Harvard had come closer to the promise of truly diverse communities, she said, a commitment that has become “even more precious” as it has become “ever more rare” on campuses and in nations around the world. As compared to the demographic sorting that is taking place in other venues, she said, “Harvard’s House system enacts the opposite vision”—of learning profoundly deepened and strengthened by diversity.
She then turned to academic freedom: the distinct grant of protection to faculty members “to pursue the truth” in their research and teaching without interference by politicians, governments, and even academic administrators. She noted the techniques professors used to pursue truth, such as peer review and replication of their research findings, and methods students would learn, such as formulating null hypotheses to separate the signal from the noise when they conduct experiments. All are designed to encourage, indeed to force, scholars and students to “notice what they would otherwise prefer to overlook” or ignore. Although universities have fallen short in their promise to secure academic freedom (for example, during the Cold War and the War on Terror), Claybaugh said they were stalwart in doing so today in face of attacks on tenure, what teachers can teach, and more.
She cited with pride Harvard students’ response last year to their own perceptions that campus and classroom discussions risked becoming too narrow, and cited their formulation of the “value of intellectual vitality” as a valuable way of describing, and defending, academic freedom and diversity of perspectives: a way, even, of rescuing fundamental academic values at risk of being hijacked, or degraded, by proponents of partisan political views. (Read more about this student initiative in “Is Harvard Campus Conversation Constrained?” )
After all these somber remarks, the Kuumba Singers woke up the throng with rousing versions of the spiritual “Guide My Feet” and the hymn, popularized in the Civil Rights movement, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round.”
After brief addresses by the Undergraduate Association copresidents and Ty Moore, president of the Harvard Alumni Association, who jointly unfurled the class of 2027 banner, and a first-time chorus of “Fair Harvard,” Dean Dunne riffed on his brief Freshman Outdoor Program and day of service experiences with class members during orientation. He encouraged them to sustain informally the conversations begun there in the days and weeks ahead. He also pointed out that campus conversations profit from face-to-face interaction, and suffer when veiled behind the anonymity of social media.
Senior assistant dean of residential life and first-year students Nekesa C. Straker invoked Beyoncé (whose birthday it was), in the hope that the class members “woke up flawless and post up flawless”—preparation for rousing cheers for their dorms, led by the residential deans.
And then it was out of the shade and cooling breezes under the tree canopy of Tercentenary Theatre and on to the sunnier Widener steps for the class picture.
A note to the newest class: the next time you gather like this, at your Baccalaureate on May 25, 2027, expect joking references from the president about embarking on your College experiences together.