February 8, 2023

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to this celebration of the life of Ash Carter—our colleague, teacher, mentor, and friend.

We have gathered today to mourn our loss of Ash, which was so sudden and so devastating. Whenever I see his picture in the corner of the faculty photo board at Harvard Kennedy School, I think again that “this just can’t be.” Ash’s family has suffered the worst blow, but all of us who knew him, learned from him, and worked with him will continue to grieve and feel the sorrow of his loss.

But we are gathered today also to appreciate our amazing good fortune that Ash was part of our lives. I want to say a few words about that good fortune.

I met Ash in 2016 at the Pentagon, where he was serving as Secretary of Defense. He became an important part of my life for six years, which feels far too short. Some of you knew him for less time than I did, and some of you for much longer, but I know we all feel that our time knowing him was too short.

Ash’s initial part of my life was as a challenge: He had been a long-time central figure at the Kennedy School, teaching numerous courses, mentoring many future leaders, and helping to develop our concentration in International and Global Affairs. My responsibility was to recruit him back to Harvard, and everyone made clear that they would accept nothing but full success in that effort. Fortunately, I did succeed—not because of any special touch of my own but because he wanted to come home here. He missed his faculty colleagues, he missed the staff members with whom he had worked, and he missed our students. He told me proudly about his experience at the Defense Department of visiting overseas and being greeted with the salutation “Hello, Professor Carter” from his former students serving in other countries’ governments. So, Ash returned to Harvard Kennedy School as the Belfer Professor of Technology and Global Affairs and the director of our Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. 

When Ash returned, he played a different part in my life—that of a work partner. He helped to increase funding for student financial aid. He and Eric Rosenbach, the co-director of the Belfer Center, teamed up with me and the academic deans on crucial faculty recruitment and retention efforts. And, of course, Ash partnered with so many others around Harvard and beyond: He partnered with students through his classes on technology and public policy, through Policy Analysis Exercises, and many informal interactions. He partnered with colleagues at the Belfer Center and elsewhere at the Kennedy School. He partnered with Frank Doyle, the dean of Harvard’s Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, to convene experts from across Boston who think deeply about technology and society. He partnered with people at MIT, in his role on the MIT Corporation. And with others.

Beyond being initially for me a challenge and then a work partner, Ash’s most important part of my life was as a model public servant.

It is through public service that Ash became so well-known and admired beyond our campus. The United States and the world know Ash Carter for his lifelong efforts to serve this country, to stand up for the best values of this country, and to build a safer world for all people. At a memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, last month, I and many friends of Ash’s listened to eulogies from President Biden, Defense Secretary Austin, and other leaders from government, business, and nonprofits.

But I want to emphasize the ways in which Ash was a model public servant for me—and for all of us at Harvard. Ash was a model in his commitment to service, taking breaks from the Kennedy School between 1993 and 1996 and again between 2010 and 2017. Ash was a model in his integrity as a public servant, as President Biden noted at the National Cathedral. Ash was a model in his knowledge as a public servant, as others said at the Cathedral. Ash was a model in his work ethic as a public servant. And Ash was a model in his respect for all people who were willing to serve, regardless of their gender, gender identity, or other characteristics. So: Commitment. Integrity. Knowledge. Work ethic. Respect for all. Those are the values we are all striving to cultivate in ourselves, and Ash was a model.

I am so grateful to Ash for being that model public servant. I am grateful for his insights and wisdom, his generous spirit, and his warm and gracious friendship. I feel so lucky to have known him, and I will miss him very much. Fortunately, though, Ash’s example will continue to inspire me and guide me—and to inspire and guide all of us. He will always be in our minds and hearts to remind us how much our work as public servants and scholars can matter. He had an unwavering devotion to making the world better and to teaching and mentoring students as part of that mission. He would want us to keep going; he would expect us to keep going; and so we will.