It is always a pleasure to greeta sea of alumni on Commencement afternoon—even thoughmy role is that of thewarm-up act for the feature to come. Today I am especially aware of thetreatwe have in store as I look out on not a sea, but a veritable ocean ofanticipation.
But it is my customary assignmentand privilege to offer each spring a report to thealumni on the year that isending. And this was a year that for a number of reasons demandsspecial note.
“The world is too much with us”—the lines of Wordsworth’s well-known poem echoed in mymind as I thoughtabout my remarks today, for the world has intruded on us this year in wayswenever would have imagined. The University had not officially closed for a daysince 1978. Thisyear it closed three times. Twice it was for cases of extremeweather—first for superstorm Sandyand then for Nemo, the record-breakingFebruary blizzard. The third was of course the day ofBoston’s lockdown in theaftermath of the tragic Marathon bombings. This was a year thatchallengedfundamental assumptions about life’s security, stability and predictability.
Yet as I reflected on theseintrusions from a world so very much with us, I was struck by howwe at Harvardare so actively engaged in shaping that world and indeed in addressing somanyof the most important and trying questions that these recent events have posed.
Just two weeks ago, climatescientists and disaster relief workers gathered here for a two-day conferenceco-sponsored by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and the HarvardUniversityCenter for the Environment. They came to explore the very issues presentedbySandy and Nemo and to consider how academic researchers and workers on theground cancollaborate more effectively.
This gathering represents justone example of the wide range of activities across theUniversity dedicated toaddressing the challenges of climate change. How can we advance thesciencethat helps us understand climate change—and perhaps avert it? How can wedevisesolutions—from new technologies to principles of urban design—that mightmitigate it?How can we envision the public policies to manage and respond toit? Harvard is deeplyengaged with the broad issues of energy andenvironment—offering more than 250 courses inthis area, gathering 225 facultythrough our environment center and its programs, enrolling100 doctoralstudents from 7 Schools and many different disciplines in a graduateconsortiumdesigned to broaden their understanding of environmental issues. Our facultyarestudying atmospheric composition and working to develop renewable energysources; theyare seeking to manage rising oceans and to reimagine cities foran era of increasinglythreatening weather; they are helping to fashionenvironmental regulations and internationalclimate agreements.
So the weather isn’t somethingthat simply happens at Harvard, even though it may haveseemed that way when wehad to close twice this year. It is a focus of study and of research, aswework to confront the implications of climate change and help shape nationalandinternational responses to its extremes.
When Boston experienced thetragedy of the Marathon bombings last month, the city andsurroundingmunicipalities went into lockdown on April 19 to help ensure the capture oftheescaped suspect, and Harvard responded in extraordinary ways. Within ourowncommunity, students, faculty and staff went well beyond their ordinaryresponsibilities tosupport one another and keep the University operatingsmoothly and safely underunprecedented circumstances. But we also witnessedour colleagues’ magnificent efforts tomeet the needs of Boston and our other neighborsin the crisis. The Harvard Police worked withother law enforcement agencies,and several of our officers played a critical role in saving thelife of thetransit officer wounded in Watertown. Doctors, nurses and other staff, manyfrom ouraffiliated hospitals, performed a near-miracle in ensuring that everyinjured person who arrivedat a hospital survived. Years of disaster planningand emergency readiness enabled theseinstitutions to act in a stunninglycoordinated and effective manner. I am deeply proud of thecontributions madeby members of the Harvard community in the immediate aftermath of thebombings.
But our broader and ongoingresponsibility as a university is to ask and address the largerquestions anysuch tragedy poses: to prepare for the next crisis and the one after that, evenaswe work to prevent them; to help us all understand the origins and themeaning of suchterrible events in human lives and societies. We do this workin the teaching and research towhich we devote ourselves every day.
Investigators at the Harvardhospitals are exploring improved techniques for managinginjury. Researchers atBrigham and Women’s, for instance, are pursuing the prospect of legtransplantsfor amputees. A faculty member in our School of Engineering and AppliedSciences isstudying traumatic brain injury. Faculty in the Business andKennedy Schools are teaching andlearning about leadership in times ofcrisis—analyzing historic and contemporary examples,from Shackleton inAntarctica to Katrina in New Orleans—in order to search for lessons forthefuture. The very day of the lockdown, the Mahindra Humanities Center and theHarvard LawSchool Program on Negotiation had scheduled a conference on“Confronting Evil,” examiningthe cognitive, behavioral and social implicationsof both what it called “everyday evils” and“extraordinary crimes.” A few dayslater, the Harvard Divinity School assembled a panel ofexperts to discuss“Religion and Terror,” exploring sources of violence in Bosnia, in theMiddleEast, and during the Troubles in Ireland, which served as a formativeexperience for ourDivinity School dean in his youth. At the Institute ofPolitics at the Kennedy School, lawenforcement, emergency management and otherexperts gathered to consider lessons learnedfrom the bombings. As we struggledto understand the events that shook our city and ourregion, members of ourcommunity were already engaged in interpreting the world that hadproduced suchtragedy and in seeking ways to prevent its recurrence.
Three unusual days, making for anunusual year. Yet these three unusual daysunderscore and illuminate the usualwork of this University: calling on knowledge andresearch to addressfundamental challenges and dilemmas with resources drawn from the widestscopeof human inquiry—from the insights of the natural and social sciences to thereflectionson meaning and values at the heart of the humanities. Universitiesurge us towards a betterfuture and equip us as individuals and societies toget there.
Yet other events this past yearremind us we cannot take what universities do for granted.This year hasbrought home not just the threats of extreme weather and of terror andviolence.It has also been a year that has challenged fundamental assumptions undergirdingAmericanhigher education and the foundations of our nation’s researchenterprise. I have just offeredexamples of how our research and teaching cancontribute to addressing urgent problems facingour world. We live in an era inwhich knowledge is more vital than ever to nations, economiesand societies.Knowledge is, I often say, the most important currency of the twenty-firstcentury.And universities are the places that, more than any other, generateand disseminate thatknowledge.
In the United States, thepartnership between universities and the federal governmentestablished afterWorld War II has been a powerful engine of scientific discovery andprosperity.Yet that partnership, now more than half a century old, is threatened by theerosionof federal support for research—a situation made acute by the sequester. Anestimatedalmost $10 billion will be cut from the federal government’s researchbudget in 2019. TheNational Institutes of Health calculates that cuts to itsresources could mean the loss of morethan 20,000 jobs in the life sciencessector. Here at Harvard, we receive approximately 16% ofour operating budgetfrom federal research funding. We anticipate we may see declines of asmuch as$40 million annually in federal support for research.
What does all this mean? Facultyare finding that even grant applications with perfect scoresin peerevaluations are not getting funded. They see existing awards being reduced.Aspiringyounger scientists are fearful they will not receive career-launchinggrants on which their futuredepends. Some are entertaining overtures fromcountries outside the United States wherescience investment is robust andexpanding. Students contemplating graduate training arewondering if theyshould pursue other options. Great ideas that could lead to improvedhumanlives and opportunities, and improved understanding, are left without supportor themeans for further development.
The world and the nation need thekind of research that Harvard and other Americanresearch universitiesundertake. We need the knowledge and understanding thatresearchgenerates—knowledge about climate change, or crisis management, or melanoma,oreffective mental health interventions in schools, or hormones that might treatdiabetes, orany of a host of other worthy projects our faculty are currentlypursuing. We need the supportand encouragement for the students who willcreate our scientific future. We need theeconomic vitality—the jobs andcompanies—that these ideas and discoveries produce. We needthe nation toresist imposing a self-inflicted wound on its intellectual and human capital.Weneed a nation that believes in, and invests in, its universities because werepresent aninvestment in the ideas and the people that will build and will bethe future.
So as I report to you on the yearwe now bring to a close, I want to underscore the threatto universities and toour national infrastructure of knowledge and discovery that thesequesterrepresents. Even in a year when sometimes the world felt too much with us, wehavenever lost sight of how much what we do here has to do with the world. Andfor the world. Tosequester the search for knowledge, to sequester discovery,to sequester the unrelentingdrive of our students and faculty to envision andpursue this endless frontier—such a strategydoes more than threatenuniversities. It puts at risk the capacity and promise of universitiestofulfill our commitment to the public good, our commitment to our childrenandgrandchildren and to the future we will leave them. The challenges facing theworld are tooconsequential, the need for knowledge, imagination andunderstanding is too great, theopportunity for improving the human conditiontoo precious for us to do anything less thanrise to the occasion. With thedevotion of our alumni, with the inspiration of our new graduatesand—Ihope—with the support of our nation’s leaders, we must and we will.