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Remarks at 2017 HKS Commencement Diploma Ceremony

Dean Douglas Elmendorf
May 26, 2017

Good afternoon, everyone. On this wet, cold, and blustery day in Cambridge, I want to offer my warmest welcome to all of you. Despite the weather, this is truly a joyful celebration.

To the graduates, congratulations! I hope you are very proud of what you have accomplished here at Harvard Kennedy School. As I finish my first full academic year as dean, I realize how much I have learned and how much I have enjoyed my time here. If you have learned as much and had as much fun as I have, this has indeed been a momentous time in your lives. To the parents, spouses, partners, siblings, grandparents, and friends who are here today, congratulations to you too! The accomplishments of the graduates are accomplishments in which you have played important roles. I say that with particular feeling because my wife and I have two daughters who will be graduating from college this year, and as we sit in seats like yours on the next two weekends, we will be thinking about all that our daughters have done and the ways in which we were lucky enough to be able to join them on their journeys. Thank you for joining your graduates on their journeys.

Harvard Kennedy School is a community of people who are committed to improving public policy and leadership around the world so that people can lead lives that are safer, freer, and more prosperous. We are officially the John F Kennedy School of Government, but we have broadened our perspective over time because public problems can be solved not only through government action but also through action by nonprofit and for-profit private organizations. And our students, alumni, faculty, and staff pursue our mission in a stunning variety of ways.

Still, governments are often the most powerful actors in addressing public problems, and it is profoundly worrying to me that so many people in so many countries do not trust their governments to address the public problems they see. These people are frustrated about their lives, disappointed in their countries, and angry at their leaders. They reject the political establishment and criticize those they view as elite for being out of touch and self-serving. In my view, these criticisms are right in important ways. Too many people, both in and out of governments, who have the power and privilege to make decisions that affect the lives of others have failed their countrymen and women, by denying basic rights, reducing economic opportunity, and undermining effective governance.

As concerned citizens and public leaders, we can and must do better. I could offer a list of specific proposals for economic and political change, but Commencement is not the place for such a list. Instead, I want to dig more deeply and talk about the values that public leaders should hold—that all of us who want to advance the public interest should hold. If we can live up to these values consistently, we will be much more effective at making the specific changes needed to solve public problems. The values I will describe are not positions on particular policy issues or particular public leaders; rather, they are principles we should follow even when doing so conflicts with particular policies or leaders we favor. These principles are my personal choices, not official principles of the Kennedy School, and you will have your own perspectives. But I hope and believe that many of you will share the values I offer.

The first value that I think should guide us is the importance of truth and knowledge. Harvard’s motto is Veritas, or “truth” in Latin, and the indispensable role of all universities is the generation and dissemination of knowledge. Believing in the importance of truth and knowledge has implications for both personal behavior and public policy. On the personal side, we should be honest when we speak and write. We should be people of integrity who face the truth even when it is difficult. We should always seek to understand the world better. On the policy side, we should support inquiry and analysis, and we should respect the resulting evidence in making decisions. I do not think that facts are always straightforward or that experts should run the world. Indeed, facts can be reasonably disputed, and experts can be wrong because of analytic errors, group-think, and conscious or unconscious bias. But the solution to these challenges is not to abandon facts and expertise; it is to collect more facts and examine evidence more carefully. At Harvard’s Commencement in 1956, John Kennedy talked about the role of expertise in policymaking, concluding: “I do not say that our political and public life should be turned over to experts who ignore opinion. But I would urge that our political parties and our universities recognize the need for greater cooperation and understanding between politicians and intellectuals.”

The second value that should guide us is belief in the worth of each person regardless of their gender, race, political views, religion, socioeconomic status, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and certain other characteristics. This value implies both freedom and inclusion. If we believe in the worth of each person, we must believe in their right to live their life as they choose—free of attack by foreign powers, free of oppression by domestic rulers, free of predatory behavior by other individuals, and free of interference in personal choices to the extent possible while respecting other values. If we believe in the worth of each person, we must believe in their freedom of self-determination and in their basic human rights. Inclusion also follows directly from believing in the worth of each person. Including people with a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives in the Kennedy School community is crucial to our ability to advance our mission because it strengthens our analytic and leadership capabilities. Similarly, building better bridges between people, communities, and nations is crucial to the ability of societies to make better lives for their people. I do not mean that we should all try to be alike or think alike. We cannot wish away our differences or expect them to disappear. But we can work together more effectively.

That takes me directly to the third value, which is the importance of civil discourse and compromise among people with different views. Rather than dismiss or ignore those with whom we disagree, we should listen to them, try to understand their perspectives, vigorously advocate our own views—and then look for ways to work across differences that do not require us to abandon our principles but do allow us to move forward. Professor Samantha Power, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, wrote this spring: “Security [in the world] depends on our ability to reach across ideological divides—to understand one another, but also to try to solve problems together.” For example, the Kennedy School’s longstanding approach to visiting speakers is to invite people who have significantly influenced events in the world even if their actions or words are abhorrent to some members of our community. We do that not to endorse those actions or legitimize those words, but because engaging with people with fundamentally different worldviews can help to improve public policy and leadership over time.

The fourth value that should guide us is making governments and civic institutions act effectively in the public interest. Fulfilling that value requires several things. We need political processes that reflect the will of the people. Electoral democracies with a universal adult franchise, free and fair voting, robust participation, mechanisms to limit the role of money in politics, and other features generally meet that standard. Many other political systems do not. We also need excellent public administration—that is, delivery of government services and benefits that works well for citizens. Thomas Edison said “Vision without execution is hallucination,” and the execution of government functions is weak or corrupted in too many cases. Addressing such nuts-and-bolts issues of governance is less glamorous than developing grand policy strategies, but no less important. And we need robust civic institutions, including a free and vigorous media that informs citizens, an independent and respected judiciary, a strong nonprofit sector, and social movements and associations through which active citizens articulate their interests and work collectively. Supporting these vital institutions of civil society is not always easy, but it is crucial.

The fifth value that I believe should guide people who want to advance the public interest is focusing attention on those who are disadvantaged in economic or social terms so that they have a fair chance to succeed. Compassion and concern for those who are being treated unfairly and left behind is both a moral imperative for those of us who are more fortunate and a practical necessity for building cohesive societies. That means acting on behalf of people whose communities have been damaged by technological progress and changes in international trade. It means helping those people act for themselves. It means speaking up against persecution of members of minority groups. It means finding ways to reduce poverty and empower people to gain economic opportunity. It means providing aid and comfort for refugees. And it means enhancing the sustainability of our activities and limiting climate change so our planet can continue to support us all. Last year’s Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Juan Manuel Santos, the president of Colombia and an alumnus of the Kennedy School, for his efforts to end his country’s long civil war. In his Nobel Lecture, President Santos said that Kennedy School Professor Ron Heifetz had advised him: “Whenever you feel discouraged, tired, pessimistic, talk with the victims. They will give you the push and strength to keep you going.” Let us all talk with the victims in our worlds and use their stories to keep going.

The five values I have offered today are a starting point, not an ending point, for good public policy and leadership. Adhering consistently to any one of these principles is difficult enough, in part because the best ways to accomplish particular goals and the effects of particular actions are often unclear. Moreover, these principles can easily conflict with each other, and resolving such conflicts can be difficult. But if more people—in governments and out, in prominent and not-so-prominent positions—offer principled leadership of the sort I have described, we can solve the public problems we face. We can restore people’s confidence in their governments, their leaders, and their countries. That is why I am so optimistic about the future.

As you pursue your lives and careers, choose your values carefully—and stand up for them, and act on them. How you do that will matter tremendously to the people close to you and, in many cases, to people you will never know. Jackie Kennedy once said of John Kennedy that “he believed that one person can make a difference, and everyone should try.” Go make your difference!

And as you do that, all of us here at the Kennedy School will be with you in spirit—wishing you well, cheering you on, and being inspired by your accomplishments. Please come back often and tell us what you are doing. Thank you and congratulations!