May 25, 2023
Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to this celebration of the Harvard Kennedy School Class of 2023. It is wonderful to be together with you all on this joyous occasion.
With the conferring of degrees by Harvard President Larry Bacow this morning, the members of the Kennedy School Class of 2023 are officially Harvard graduates. Congratulations! You have achieved so much during your time here, in both your academic pursuits and your other activities, and I hope you are proud of what you have done. Your dedication and talents and energy have inspired your peers and have 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 have supported today’s graduates and helped make this moment possible. Your guidance and encouragement have mattered so much in helping these graduates find their way to the Kennedy School and thrive here. I hope you are proud of your contributions to this special occasion, and I am delighted that you are with us today. Will the members of the class of 2023 please rise and join me in thanking your families and friends?
We also should give a shout-out to the amazing Vic Hogg. Vic, thank you for your brave, moving, and inspiring speech in Harvard Yard this morning.
Now let us pause to recognize two members of the class of 2023 who are not with us. Rodrigo Ventocilla passed away last August. He was a beloved member of the MPA-ID program and the LGBTQ and BIPOC communities at the Kennedy School, and he had a passion for bringing people together. Mateo Gomez passed away last December. He was a mid-career MPA student known for his kindness and warmth, and he once described his interests as international affairs, inclusion and equality, and coffee. Rodrigo and Mateo are missed terribly today and will continue to be missed by all who knew them and loved them and by those whom they would have served after graduating. Let us share a moment of silence in their honor.
This year at the Kennedy School we also lost unexpectedly a treasured member of our faculty—Professor Ash Carter. We miss him terribly as well. Ash spent his career at the Kennedy School and in the U.S. government, where he ultimately became secretary of defense. In his words, Ash dedicated his life to public purpose.
A commitment to public purpose means a commitment to serving others—to advancing interests beyond our own and beyond those of our families and friends. It means advancing the interests of many people: people who live near us and people who do not; people who are like us and people who are different; people who agree with us and people who do not.
So, how should one behave when one is committed to public purpose? What can you graduates do—what can your families and friends do, what can I do, what can everyone in the Kennedy School community do, to advance public purpose? Let me suggest four aspects of behavior that I think are most important.
First, we need to care. We need to care about other people. We need to care about them even when they are distant from us in location or ideology or spirit. We need to care especially about those who have not had the opportunities and good fortune in life that we have received ourselves.
In his speech at the Kennedy School’s graduation four years ago, former Colombian president and Kennedy School alumnus Juan Manuel Santos said that the most important trait for a public leader is empathy—the ability to share the feelings of others. When we have empathy, we treat others with respect and kindness. We feel good when they thrive and are distressed when they do not. We are forgiving of their mistakes and are compassionate toward them when they suffer.
This generosity of spirit can inspire us to try to act with public purpose, and I trust that you have and will keep that generosity. But trying is not enough. To truly advance public purpose, we also need to understand others.
Therefore, the second aspect of behavior that is crucial is that we need to listen. We need to listen to other people and strive to understand how they see the world. Striving to understand other people’s perspectives does not mean abandoning our own or necessarily accepting any particular compromise of perspectives. But it does mean being curious and tolerant and having the humility to truly hear what others are saying.
That is not always easy. But we need to hear others for both moral and practical reasons: Moral, because hearing others is part of how we can treat them with dignity and respect their humanity. Practical, because hearing others is how we can be more effective at advancing our own causes in a diverse world. The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote something in the New York Times two years ago that has stuck with me: “Democracy falters not when we disagree about things but when we lose interest in trying to make sense of the other person’s point of view.”
So, listen to others, even though that will sometimes be difficult.
Beyond caring and listening, the third crucial aspect of behavior to advance public purpose is to learn. Good intentions for public policy and leadership are not enough; leaders also need to understand how to make a positive difference. During my years working in the U.S. government, while I saw many effective leaders, I also saw other leaders with good intentions not make the difference they sought because they had not learned enough: They did not understand the true nature of public problems; they did not recognize some likely consequences of policies they advocated; they did not know how to persuade others to work together for a common cause; they did not appreciate their own strengths and how to use them, or their own weaknesses and how to compensate for them.
Learning how to make a positive difference is, of course, why you graduates came to the Kennedy School. In the time you have been with us, you have increased your knowledge, sharpened your skills, and added to your understanding of yourselves. All that learning will make you more effective policymakers and public leaders.
Yet, your learning has just begun. Every day in your work and your lives will bring opportunities to learn more, and I urge you to seize those opportunities. In her speech at the Kennedy School’s graduation last year, Moldovan president and Kennedy School alumna Maia Sandu explained how much she had learned in her various public roles over the past decade, and how that learning was making her a better president. The more that you view learning as a lifelong pursuit, the better you will be able to serve others.
The fourth crucial aspect of behavior to advance the public purpose is to hope. Sometimes, as one learns more about a public problem, one can feel overwhelmed by the difficulty of fixing that problem. And there are some hard, hard problems in the world, so I am not suggesting ungrounded optimism that everything will be fine. But hope is different from optimism, as some faculty colleagues have explained to me recently: Hope is not confidence that everything will turn out well, but rather a belief that one can make a positive difference in how things turn out. And we have very good reasons to be hopeful.
For all the problems in the world today, many wonderful things are happening as well. They are happening not just by chance, although good luck is always nice, but because people are making them happen. People are doing the hard work to make the world better. Indeed, good public policy and public leadership are changing our societies in positive ways. Principled and effective policymakers and public leaders are moving the world toward greater peace, prosperity, fairness, democracy, and sustainability. They are working with hope in their minds and hearts, and they are fostering hope across their communities, their countries, and our shared planet.
So, act with hope in whatever you do.
To the graduates of the class of 2023, you are about to leave Harvard and take the next steps in your careers and your lives—steps that will lead in directions and to destinations you cannot fully predict today. As you travel on your life journeys, please stay committed to public purpose. Care about others with a deep generosity of spirit. Listen to others, even when you do not like what they are saying. Learn about the world and about yourselves, every day. And hope, because hope will keep you going and will empower you to spread hope to others.
You can and will make an important positive difference in the world. My confidence in the difference you will make is part of what gives me such great hope for the future.
All of us here at Harvard Kennedy School will be rooting for you. We will be eager to hear about your adventures and to see you at future Reunions. Good luck out there!