Good afternoon, everyone. Let me offer my own warm welcome to Harvard Kennedy School! Being Dean of the Kennedy School offers me many wonderful privileges, but none more rewarding than leading our graduates to Harvard Yard for this morning’s University ceremony or speaking at this ceremony within the Kennedy School family. I am so honored and delighted to be sharing this joyful celebration with you.
Let me begin by saying to the graduates, congratulations! The members of our faculty and staff who have taught you and guided you and cared for you during your time with us are incredibly proud of what you have accomplished to reach this point in your lives. And your parents, spouses, other family members, and friends who have cared for you for much longer in many cases are very proud of your accomplishments as well. I hope you are proud of yourselves. I also want to say to the parents, spouses, other family members, and friends who are here today, congratulations to you too! The accomplishments of the graduates are accomplishments in which you have played important roles, and you should be proud of yourselves as well. I say that with some feeling, because my wife and I have twin daughters who are currently students at other institutions of higher learning, and we are still taking partial credit for their achievements; you should do the same for your graduates.
This morning President Faust conferred on the graduates here the degrees of master in public policy, master in public administration, master in public administration in international development, and doctor of philosophy—as well as degrees from other Harvard schools for those of you in certain joint or concurrent programs. In the President’s words, the graduates who are receiving masters’ degrees from the Kennedy School “are well prepared to offer leadership in the quest for enlightened public policy and effective public service throughout the world.” Those of you receiving PhDs from the Kennedy School are also well prepared to offer leadership in that quest, in addition to being, in the President’s words, “entrust[ed with …] the free inquiry of future generations.”
The quest for enlightened public policy and effective public service is the mission of the Kennedy School, it is the mission of my professional life and the lives of my colleagues, and it is your mission. It is a mission that has been incredibly rewarding for me and, I hope and trust, will be as rewarding for all of you. It is a mission of wonderful opportunities and important responsibilities, and I want to say a few words about both.
One opportunity presented by the quest to strengthen public policy and public service is that the work is intellectually fascinating. In your classes, your projects with fellow students, and your internships near and far, you have used all of the analytic skills and insights you can bring to bear—in subjects ranging from politics to economics to national security to history to the media to international relations to human rights and more. And in the jobs and volunteer roles you will have through the rest of your lives, you will continue to draw on all of your intellectual capacity and you will constantly be learning new things. I accepted the chance to become Dean of the Kennedy School in part because I could not imagine another job where I would learn more and be more stretched intellectually than I am here.
A second opportunity presented by the quest to make better public policy and provide public service is the opportunity to work with amazing people: People with a stunning diversity of specific interests and perspectives, but with a common commitment to improve other people’s lives. People who care so deeply about the world that they devote all or part of their lives to helping make the world a better place. People who are so passionate about helping others that they are not deterred by the inevitable challenges they face. Throughout my own career—at Harvard, then in many different parts of the government in Washington, DC, and now back at Harvard—I have loved spending my days with such amazing people. Look around you at your fellow graduates, and think of the people with whom you have worked. You know what I mean. One former student at the Kennedy School said that she loved being here because it was the one place she had been in her life where people were not embarrassed to say they were passionate about making the world better. Not only should you not be embarrassed; you should revel in the fact that the graduates surrounding you today have wholeheartedly embraced that goal.
And that leads to a third opportunity presented by the quest to advance the public purpose—the opportunity to make an important difference in the lives of our fellow citizens. Better public policy and greater public service can make people’s lives safer, healthier, more prosperous, and more fulfilling. I saw those effects up close during my work at the Federal Reserve Board, the Treasury Department, the Congressional Budget Office, and other agencies. We can all see those effects every day in large and small victories for the public purpose, in our hometowns and across the world. But worse policy and a diminishment of service can have the opposite effects, and unfortunately we can all see that as well. So, the quest for enlightened public policy and effective public service matters profoundly. What you do in that quest will matter profoundly for your communities and your countries, for people you know well and people you will never meet. What greater reward could there be than to have one’s work matter so much?
But that opportunity also underscores the critical responsibility we all have. We have a responsibility to do our very best to advance the public interest. It is a responsibility to make the fullest possible use of our skills, our energy, and our position in the world. It is a responsibility not to live in an ivory tower but to engage deeply with the current problems in the world. It is a responsibility to meet challenges head-on and not to turn away. It is a responsibility shared by all of us in the Kennedy School community: the faculty, the staff, the students—a group you are leaving—and the alumni—a group you are joining. The world desperately needs more of what the Kennedy School has to offer—it needs you—and there is no time to waste.
Shortly we will ask the graduates to come to the stage to receive diplomas one at a time. Under normal circumstances, I and a few of my colleagues would shake each of your hands. Unfortunately, there have been a number of cases of mumps at Harvard in the past several months, and even though we have had only a few cases at the Kennedy School, out of an abundance of caution, we will be skipping handshakes this year. A number of other Harvard schools are also skipping handshakes, and the consensus among the deans I consulted—and you can see that we deans deal with only the most important issues in higher education—was that a respectful nod was an appropriate substitute for a handshake. That is what we intend to do instead.
One of the supporters of the Kennedy School gave me a handwritten note at the end of a meeting a few weeks ago. On the note, he had scribbled the final phrase from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” As you go forth to do the work of advancing the public interest, all of us at the 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!