I guess it’s appropriate that I begin with — good afternoon! People learn a lot at Harvard! This truly is an astonishing sight, seeing so many of you here in Harvard Yard today.
It’s a great reminder that nobody gets anywhere of consequence in this world on his or her own — and that includes becoming president of Harvard.
I have been blessed to have people ready to help me at every step of the way, beginning with my parents, who worked hard every day to ensure that I had boundless opportunities. I would not be here today without the love of my life, Adele, who has made my life so meaningful and rich, and also without my children, from whom I have learned and continue to learn so much.
I thank all of my family and my dear friends, who are also family, for traveling from far and wide to be here.
I have been blessed, also, by inspiring teachers and mentors, three of whom I am honored to have with me today — my Harvard dissertation advisors, Mark Moore, Richard Zeckhauser, and Richard Light — to mark it. Thank you for having taught me so well.
I would also like to thank my predecessors Drew Faust, Larry Summers, Neil Rudenstine, and Derek Bok for their thoughtful stewardship and leadership of Harvard over the last half century.I would also like to thank each of them for their excellent advice as I take the helm.
A special thanks also to my colleagues from Tufts and from MIT, who taught me how to be a leader in higher education. I guarantee you that there are many people assembled here who pray that you taught me very well!
Of course, the Harvard presidency seems to involve some unique hazards — and over its long history, a nearly infinite list of potential missteps.
President Langdon, for example, was forced to resign after the students found that his sermons dragged on too long — a great incentive for me to be brief today.
President Mather, on the other hand, outraged the entire Harvard community by refusing to move here from Boston, arguing that the air in Cambridge did not agree with him. Fortunately, I actually like the atmosphere here a lot!
Even President Eliot, arguably Harvard’s most successful president, provoked an uproar now and then. He wanted to abolish hockey, basketball, and football, on the grounds that they required teamwork, and, in his mind, Harvard had absolutely no use for that. He also tried over and over again to acquire MIT. Rafael, you can relax. I’ll do my best to avoid all such misadventures.
I am deeply honored to assume the leadership of this wonderful institution, and proud that as the nation’s oldest university, Harvard has helped to shape the American system of higher education, which is magnificent in its independence, sweep, and diversity.
I am also honored that so many other great institutions are represented here today, and I thank all of my colleagues from all over the country and all over the world for your good wishes — and, frankly, your support, because this is not an easy moment to assume the leadership of any college or university.
These are challenging times for higher education in America.
For the first time in my lifetime, people are actually questioning the value of sending a child to college.
For the first time in my lifetime, people are asking whether or not colleges and universities are worthy of public support.
For the first time in my lifetime, people are expressing doubts about whether colleges and universities are even good for the nation.
These questions force us to ask: What does higher education really contribute to the national life?
Even at some of the most difficult moments in our national history, our leaders understood that they could strengthen the nation by educating more of our society. Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act during the dark days of the Civil War, creating land-grant universities to spread useful knowledge across this immense raw continent.
President Franklin Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill just two weeks after D-Day, making a college education one of the prime rewards for national service, and sending vast numbers of less-privileged Americans to college for the first time.
My friend Drew Faust has often wished for Harvard that it be as good as it is great. To me, the goodness of Harvard — and of all of our universities — lies in the three essential values we represent: truth, or, as we say here, veritas; excellence; and opportunity.
As we consider truth, clearly, we’ve come a long way from the days when our colleague United States Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
Long after the technologies of today are obsolete, people will still be reading Shakespeare and Gabriel García Márquez; listening to Mozart, Bob Dylan, and the late, great Aretha Franklin from my hometown of Detroit; and contemplating the great questions that have motivated philosophers and poets for millennia. For it is our art, our literature, our music, and our architecture which are among the most enduring artifacts of human endeavor. As the nation’s oldest institution of higher learning, Harvard has a special responsibility to champion intellectual traditions that have defined educated men and women since the dawn of civilization.
Since Harvard’s founding in 1636, the people educated here have responded patriotically to the call to service. With the exception of the service academies, more Harvard alumni have received the Congressional Medal of Honor than any other school. Harvard people have always vigorously engaged in the great issues of their day, and at this very moment 68 of our alumni are running for Congress, on both sides of the aisle. And our alumni throughout the world are working to strengthen their nations.
In the broadest sense, all of us are indeed created equal: Talent is flatly distributed. But sadly, opportunity is not.
We have to ensure that higher education remains the same economic stepping-stone for those from modest backgrounds that it was for my generation and my parents’ generation. While a college education still helps to level the playing field for those who manage to graduate, the cost of entry, and of staying the course until graduation, has become daunting for many families.
This is why Harvard’s groundbreaking Financial Aid Initiative, started by Larry Summers and expanded by Drew Faust, is so important. We simply say to low- and middle-income families with earnings below a certain level, “You can send your child to Harvard and we will ask you to pay nothing.” Largely because of this, 268 members of this year’s first-year class are the first in their family to attend college.
In this global economy, financial capital moves at the speed of light, and natural resources also move swiftly. The only truly scarce capital is human and intellectual capital. That is what a nation must aggregate and nurture, if it intends to be prosperous.
Fortunately, many of the best and the brightest from around the world seek to study at America’s great colleges and universities. In engineering, mathematics, and computer sciences, over half the doctorates awarded each year are granted to foreign nationals. Many of these students will return home with their sights raised, and go on to build thriving companies and institutions of higher learning; to fight poverty, disease, and climate change throughout the world; and to lead their own nations toward goodness and greatness.
But a considerable number of these international students will do everything possible to stay right here. Rather than turn them away, we should embrace these extraordinary people. Over a third of our faculty were born someplace else. Over a third of the Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans in chemistry, medicine, and physics since 2000 have gone to men and women who were foreign-born. Over 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children.
We must defend the essential role of higher education in the life of our nation and the broader world.
I am thankful for this opportunity to lead Harvard, which made me better, and which I think makes everyone better—spurring all of us to summit mountains we never imagined we could climb.
It is a very great privilege to seize those possibilities with you, and I am delighted to begin.
October 5, 2018
President of Harvard