May 29, 2022

Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to this celebration of the Harvard Kennedy School Classes of 2020 and 2021. I’m Doug Elmendorf, the dean of the Kennedy School, and it is so wonderful to be together today. We are gathered on this joyous occasion with great warmth in our hearts and with a warm and beautifully sunny Cambridge day around us. 

Our ceremony today has been long-deferred. The members of these classes were awarded their degrees a year or two ago and count already among the alumni of the Kennedy School. But we all missed terribly the chance to recognize and applaud these graduates in person, and I am thrilled that so many people could be here today. 

To the members of the Class of 2020 and the Class of 2021, congratulations on becoming Harvard graduates! You achieved so much during your time as students, and I hope you are proud of all you did. Your passion and energy inspired me and all the faculty and staff of the Kennedy School. 

Congratulations as well to the families and friends of the graduates—to the mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents, spouses, partners, children, and all the loved ones who supported these graduates and helped make this moment possible. Your guidance and encouragement mattered so much in enabling these graduates to find their way to the Kennedy School and thrive at the School despite the obstacles. I hope you are proud of your contributions to this special occasion, and I am delighted that you are here with us now. Will the graduates please rise, turn to your families and friends, and join me in thanking them?

The Classes of 2020 and 2021—and the Class of 2022, whom we celebrated here on Thursday—have been students at the Kennedy School during the most unusual period in the School’s history. We had no precedent for the emptying of campus in March 2020 or the near-shutdown of campus that we imposed for the following year in order to keep everyone safe. I know that these limitations made a significant difference to your Kennedy School experience. I wish I could have insulated you from the impact of the pandemic, but such power over the world is not given to deans.

Your persistence in learning and growing and coming together despite the limitations impressed all of us at the School so much. You showed up enthusiastically to remote class sessions. You found ways to build community with each other outside of class, notwithstanding differences in geography and time zones. You were tested and shaped and tested again. No one would wish the pandemic experience on anyone, but I think you will find that your perseverance through this time has helped you to become stronger in ways that will be meaningful throughout your lives. 

I want to pause here to recognize three students from these classes whom we lost during their time at Harvard or shortly thereafter. Mark Herzog, who was also a student at Harvard Medical School, passed away in 2020. David Hicks, who was a joint student with Harvard Law School, passed away in the spring of 2021. And Erica Pincus passed away after last year’s virtual graduation. Mark, David, and Erica are and will continue to be missed so much by those who knew them and by those whom they would have served in their lives.

During the past few years, I have been asked many times what should be learned from the pandemic for the mission of the Kennedy School and the work of the Kennedy School community. I offer three answers to that question, and let me share those answers with you now. 

My first answer is that the pandemic has reinforced in the most tragic ways the importance of public policy, public management, and public leadership. Around the world, unprincipled public leaders, badly run governments, and misguided policies have cost millions of people their lives and their livelihoods. By contrast, principled leaders, well-run governments, and sensible policies have enabled many people to thrive despite this terrible disease. So, the mission of the Kennedy School—to improve public policy, management, and leadership—has never been more crucial. 

Yet, advancing our mission is not easy and never has been. Public leaders are tempted and pushed and pulled in many directions that do not serve the public well. Public institutions are often more complicated to manage than private ones because of the many contending constituencies and conflicting objectives. Public policies are difficult to get right, because they need to be technically appropriate and administratively feasible and politically sustainable—as we teach at the Kennedy School. These challenges arise in dealing with many public problems, including the pandemic.

Therefore, one lesson of the pandemic is a reminder that the Kennedy School’s mission is both crucial and difficult, so we need to work as effectively as we can every day.

A second answer I give when asked what should be learned from the pandemic is the importance of community—of fellowship with others. You probably recall the common guidance at the start of the pandemic to practice “social distancing.” That guidance shifted quickly to practicing “physical distancing,” because in fact we all needed social closeness, and especially because we could not have physical closeness.

I just re-read the messages I sent to the Kennedy School early in the pandemic, and this theme comes through again and again. For example, in mid-March 2020, I wrote “I hope that you are washing your hands carefully, watching your health, and staying an appropriate distance from others in person—but reaching out to your families, friends, and neighbors in every other way.”

Community and fellowship matter not only for our lives but for our mission and work. In her graduation speech to the Kennedy School in 2020, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala—now director-general of the World Trade Organization—told us that the pandemic had “underscore[ed] the world’s interconnectedness and ... shown that regardless of nationality, gender, race, color, religion, income level, or sexual orientation, we are all susceptible because we are all human.” Similarly, in his graduation speech to the Kennedy School in 2021, Pete Buttigieg—the U.S. Secretary of Transportation—praised the graduates for their continuing public service despite the pandemic. He said: “At a time when it would have been easier than ever to turn inward, you built community.”

Therefore, the second lesson of the pandemic for the Kennedy School’s mission and work is that we should always cultivate our community and fellowship with others—with people we know and people we don’t.

A third answer I give when asked what should be learned from the pandemic for the mission and work of the Kennedy School is the importance of resilience. Resilience is a valuable characteristic for individuals in their own lives, because misfortune can befall any of us too easily. Resilience is especially valuable for leaders, because other people rely on those leaders to keep going, keep inspiring, and keep leading even when conditions become very difficult.

But the resilience that matters most for our mission and work is the resilience of societies. Different countries and states and cities have experienced very different degrees of death and suffering from the pandemic. Social scientists will need to keep analyzing the determinants of these different outcomes, but I think we have all seen that places with more effective public health systems have generally protected their people better, that places with more robust social safety nets have generally protected their people better, that places with more cutting-edge medical research have generally protected their people better—and, most of all, that places in which public leaders and institutions are more trusted have generally protected their people better. The stark differences in public health systems, safety nets, medical research, and trust are not just happenstance. They are the result of choices about public policy and leadership. 

Therefore, the third learning I take from the pandemic is that we need to create more resilient societies with greater trust of public leaders and institutions.

I have referred repeatedly now to what we in the Kennedy School community need to do. That community includes our students, faculty, staff, friends, and alumni. With your graduation from Harvard—officially a year or two ago, and ceremonially today—you have joined our alumni. You have joined a group of tens of thousands of people across this country and around the world who are facing up to public challenges and making a difference.

The world has no end of public challenges. We face a terrible and continuing pandemic, in which millions of people have died or lost loved ones or suffered in other ways. We are watching a brutal invasion of Ukraine, with horrific and global consequences. We see so many words and deeds that undermine democracy, in this country and others, as Attorney General Merrick Garland discussed this morning. We are enduring alarming changes in the climate and environment. We see deadly attacks on Americans because of their race, nationality, or religion—attacks in Buffalo and elsewhere that are motivated by an abhorrent rhetoric of hate and white supremacy that is becoming more common. And we saw in Uvalde, Texas, last Tuesday, yet another heartbreaking mass shooting of schoolchildren and the teachers who tried to teach and protect them. Our hearts go out to the people of Uvalde and to all the people around the world who are suffering from violence or fear or want.

But you—the graduates—should not be daunted. Your resolve and your skills enable you to make an important positive difference in other people’s lives. You can help to bring peace in place of war, to increase prosperity in place of want, to expand freedom in place of repression, to bring fairness in place of injustice, to create democratic accountability in place of authoritarian rule, to enhance sustainability in place of degradation, to increase love in place of hate. You can make a difference, and that gives me great hope for our shared future.

As you pursue your lives and careers, we here at the Kennedy School will be rooting for you. We are proud of you. We will be eager to hear about your adventures and to see you at Reunion. Be well and do good in the world!