May 26, 2022

Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to this celebration of the Harvard Kennedy School Class of 2022. I’m Doug Elmendorf, the dean of the Kennedy School, and it is wonderful to be together today. We are gathered with great warmth in our hearts on this joyous occasion. 

With the conferring of degrees by Harvard President Larry Bacow this morning, the members of the Kennedy School Class of 2022 are officially Harvard graduates. Congratulations! You have achieved so much during your time here—in our academic programs and your other activities—and I hope you are proud of all you have done. Your passion and energy 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 played such important roles 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 here with us today. Will the members of the class of 2022 please rise and join me in thanking your families and friends?

The Class of 2022—and the Classes of 2020 and 2021, whom we will celebrate here on Sunday—have been students at the Kennedy School during the most unusual period in the School’s history. We have no precedent for the policies about masking, testing, dining, and visitors that we followed this academic year, or for the near-shutdown of campus that we imposed the previous year, for the safety of our community. I know that these restrictions 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 obstacles has impressed all of us at the School so much. You have been tested and shaped and tested again in this time. 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 David Hicks, a student in the joint program between the Kennedy School and Harvard Law School, who passed away during his time at Harvard. Dave is and will continue to be missed so much by all who knew him and by those whom he would have served after graduation.

At the Harvard Commencement of 1837, one of the speakers was Ralph Waldo Emerson—a philosopher, essayist, and lecturer from a nearby community. His speech was titled “The American Scholar,” and it became famous for describing the duties of scholars as Emerson saw those duties. But I want to highlight a different aspect of Emerson’s remarks.

He said: “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.” Let me repeat that sentence. Emerson said: “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

The year 1837 did not seem like a very good time in the United States. The country had just fallen into a major financial crisis—known as the Panic of 1837—that led to a multi-year economic depression. Arguments about slavery and the rights of individual states and of people were intensifying and would culminate in the U.S. Civil War about two dozen years later. Yet, Emerson thought it was a good time for people who knew what to do with that time.

The year 2022 also does not seem like a very good time, in the United States or around the world. We face a terrible and continuing pandemic, in which millions of people have died or lost loved ones or suffered in other ways. The country of Ukraine has been brutally invaded, with horrific and global consequences. We see so many words and deeds that undermine democracy, in this country and others, for selfish political gain. We are enduring alarming changes in the climate and environment. We watch deadly attacks on Americans—in Buffalo and elsewhere—because they are Black or Asian or Jewish or Muslim or in some other way targeted by an abhorrent rhetoric of hate and white supremacy that is becoming more common. And we saw in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday, yet another tragic and heartbreaking mass shooting of schoolchildren and the teachers who tried to 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 need.

So, what would Emerson say if he were here? Of course, we cannot know for sure. But I presume he would offer his sympathy and condolences—and would say also that our time, like his time, can be a good one, if we but know what to do with it.

Then, the question for us becomes, what should we do with this time? How can we make this time a good one?

My answer is that we should take on society’s challenges—roll up our sleeves, face up to problems, and try to solve these problems. Identifying problems is not especially hard, and yelling about problems in real life or on social media is not that hard either. But solving problems—or at least making them smaller—is hard work and noble work. And solving public problems, like the ones I just listed, is why the Kennedy School exists and what you are ready to do. 

The challenges of our time require collective actions by our communities, our countries, and our world, and they require collective actions that are principled and effective. These challenges are calling for our attention, and we need to answer those calls. If we and other people of goodwill turn away from problems because they seem too daunting, the world will not get better. But if we roll up our sleeves and do the hard work of problem-solving, we can make the world better. 

Each of you in the Class of 2022 has an important role to play. You will need to use all you brought when you came to the Kennedy School and all you have gained during your time here. Each of you has a fundamental commitment to serving others, and that is the right starting point. Each of you has impressive energy and talents, and that is important also.

Yet, commitment and talents are not enough. In my many years working in the U.S. government, I watched up close as public leaders with will and talent did not achieve their goals because they did not understand public problems well enough, did not evaluate evidence carefully, did not learn from history, and did not know how to get things done in organizations. That is why at the Kennedy School you have built your skills and knowledge to go along with your commitment and talents.

Even still, none of you is likely to accomplish great things on your own. Communities, countries, and the world are rarely moved by one person alone, but are moved instead by groups of people—sometimes very large groups. Public action unavoidably requires people to work together. Working together unavoidably requires compromise between contending visions and tactics. Compromise unavoidably brings both opportunity and risk—the opportunity to understand and learn from others’ perspectives, and the risk of forsaking one’s principles to make a deal. The larger the coalition one needs to accomplish a goal, the more widely varying will be the visions and tactics, the greater the compromise that will be needed, and the greater the opportunity and the risk. 

Unfortunately, I cannot offer you a simple guide for handling such situations. I believe that standing up for one’s principles is crucially important, but in my long experience in government, I saw many leaders lose effectiveness by being unwilling to seek some common ground with people with whom they disagreed. And I worry that the current political environment in this country and many others values the signaling of virtue through absolutism, and I encourage you to focus on results more than appearances.

With your commitment to serving others, your energy and talents, your skills and knowledge, and your willingness to collaborate in appropriate ways, you can help to solve public problems. You can make an important positive difference in 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.

Don’t run away from the challenges of our time; run toward them. Make a difference. If you do that, you can make this time a very good one, as Ralph Waldo Emerson encouraged.

I recently came across a modern-day echo of Emerson’s words. Six years ago, the Kennedy School’s graduation speaker was Madeleine Albright, the former U.S. secretary of state who passed away this March. In a column published posthumously in The Washington Post, Albright wrote: “To me, resilience of spirit (far more than brilliance of intellect) is the essential ingredient of a full life. … There is no shortage of worthwhile work to be done and ... no surplus of seasons in which to achieve our goals. … So let us buckle our boots, grab a cane if we need one, and march.”

That is what President Maia Sandu, a compelling Kennedy School alumna who spoke to us yesterday, is doing in Moldova. It is what Kennedy School alumni are doing around the world. Members of the Harvard Kennedy School Class of 2022, you are now our alumni. As you buckle your boots and march, all of us 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. Good luck out there!