Steven Spielberg and Drew Faust Address Harvard Commencement
Seats in the shade were in high demand in Tercentenary Theatre on the afternoon of the 365th Commencement Day. Graduates, trailing well-coiffed relatives, wandered the sea of off-white folding chairs, looking hopeful, then grim, then disconsolate. The well-prepared had arrived early, reserving entire rows with handbags, hats, and, in some cases, both the shoes off their feet. Afternoon exercises are, officially, the annual meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA)—and the first attended by its newest members, the class of 2016—but it’s likely that the attendees most hotly anticipated the speech to be delivered by Steven Spielberg, whose movies gave the world such classic lines as: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
The Business Meeting
HAA president Paul L. Choi ’86, J.D. ’89, called the meeting to order with several gentle taps of the gavel. In his remarks, he reflected on his visits with alumni during the past year, which took him from the Great Wall to Dublin pubs. Choi also gave special welcome to the most senior alumna in attendance, Ruth Rabb ’38 (who turned 99 this spring), and the most senior alumnus, Leon Starr ’40—as well as to Sheryl Sandberg ’91, M.B.A. ’95, this year’s Chief Marshal, an honor voted by her fellow twenty-fifth reunioners. (Sandberg is a Commencement regular: Harvard Business School’s speaker for Class Day 2012, and the College’s Class Day speaker two years later.)
Choi announced the incoming HAA president, Marty Grasso ’78, and then the results of the elections for members of Harvard’s Board of Overseers and the HAA’s own board. As the sound system squealed, he added, “It's a responsibility that Harvard alumni worldwide take very seriously, and this year in particular, there has been a great deal of interest in the election. We are grateful to all the candidates for Overseers and board of directors for their willingness to be of service to Harvard.” (Find more on the election here.)
President Drew Faust then presented four Harvard Medals, to alumni Roger W. Ferguson Jr. ’73, A.M. ’78, J.D. ’79, Ph.D. ’81, and Betsey Bradley Urschel, Ed.M. ’63, and faculty members emeriti John H. McArthur, M.B.A. ’59, D.B.A. ’63, dean emeritus of Harvard Business School, and “our music man,” Thomas G. Everett, former director of the Harvard Bands. As cheers erupted—and were surprisingly sustained—Faust remarked, indulgently, “The band has something to say about this.”
“Through Change and Through Storm”
After that band’s rousing “Harvardiana,” the afternoon’s tone darkened. The president introduced her address—officially, “Report to the Alumni”—as a time to reflect on the University’s contemporary moment. “And what a moment it is,” said Faust:
From comments of astonished pundits on television, in print, and online to conversations with bewildered friends and colleagues, the question seems unavoidable and mesmerizing: what is going on? What is happening to the world? The tumultuous state of American politics, spotlighted in this contentious presidential contest; the political challenges around the globe, from Brazil to Brexit; the Middle East in flames; a refugee crisis in Europe; terrorists exploiting new media to perform chilling acts of brutality and murder; climate-related famine in Africa and fires in Canada. It is as if we are being visited by the horsemen of the Apocalypse, with war, famine, natural disaster, and yes, even pestilence, as Zika spreads, aided by political controversy and paralysis.
As extraordinary as these times may seem to us, Harvard reminds us we have been here before. It is in some ways reassuring at this 365th Commencement, to recall all that Harvard has endured over centuries. A number of these festival rites took place under clouds of war; others in times of financial crisis and despair; still others, in the face of epidemics, from smallpox in the seventeenth century, to the devastating flu of 1918, to the H1N1 virus just a few years ago. Harvard has not just survived these challenges, but has helped to confront them. We sing in our alma mater about “Calm rising through change and through storm.” What does that mean for today’s crises? Where do universities fit in this threatening mix? What can we do? What should we do? What must we do?
While detailing the various external forces that put “our fundamental purpose under siege,” Faust’s remarks subtly turned to the University’s internal crises over campus culture and the purpose of higher education. “We must maintain an unwavering dedication to rigorous assessment and debate within our own walls. We must be unassailable in our insistence that ideas most fully thrive and grow when they are openly challenged. Truth cannot simply be claimed; it must be established, even when that process is uncomfortable.”
The president framed the remainder of her speech using the Theatre’s landmarks: Widener Library, “a tribute to the belief that knowledge matters,” and Memorial Church, built “to honor and memorialize responsibility—not just the quality of men's and women's thoughts, but as my predecessor James Conant put it, ‘the radiance of their deeds.’”
Faust continued, “I believe that reason and knowledge must be inflected with values, and that those of us who are privileged to part of this community of learning bear consequent responsibilities…in today's world, I believe it is dangerous for universities not to fully acknowledge and embrace their responsibilities to values and to service, as well as to reason and discovery.” To a surge of applause, she added, “There is no value-free science. There is no algorithm that writes itself.” (The full text of Faust's remarks can be found here.)
“I Was In a Celluloid Bubble”
The afternoon’s featured speaker, director Steven Spielberg, Ar.D.’16, gave a sprightly, free-wheeling speech that took his own interrupted education as a starting point—“How many of you took 37 years to graduate?”—to discuss “character-defining moments,” the importance of learning history, and how to find common humanity:
…up until the 1980s, my movies were mostly, I guess, what you could call escapist. And I don’t dismiss any of these movies, not even 1941. Not even that one. And many of these early films reflected the values that I cared deeply about—and I still do.
But I was in a celluloid bubble, because I cut my education short. My worldview was limited to what I could dream up in my head, not what the world could teach me. But then I directed The Color Purple. And this one film opened my eyes to experiences I never could’ve imagined—and yet were all too real. This story was filled with deep pain and deeper truths, like when Shug Avery says, “Everything wants to be loved.” My gut, which was my intuition, told me that more people needed to meet these characters and experience these truths, and while making that film I realized that a movie could also be a mission. I hope all of you find that sense of mission. Don't turn away from what’s painful. Examine it. Challenge it.
Coincidentally, Spielberg also spoke about the honored dead of Memorial Church, and referenced Conant’s call on future generations to “reflect the radiance of their deeds.” (A separate, fuller dispatch about Spielberg’s remarks can be found here.)