What are you for?

May 21, 2019

Yesterday, I joined thousands of graduates from Yale College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and our professional schools, along with their families and friends, faculty, and staff, for Yale’s 318th commencement. To all our graduates and their supporters, I offer my most heartfelt congratulations!

Commencement is a time of festivity and tradition as Old Campus fills with colorful banners, creative headgear, and smiling faces. These annual rites remind us of the great richness and diversity of the Yale community, as well as the sense of purpose and belonging we share as Yalies.

Over the weekend, I had the privilege of addressing members of the Yale College Class of 2019 and their loved ones at the annual baccalaureate services in Woolsey Hall. This year, I asked our graduates, “What are you for?” This question, more challenging than it first appears, is a vital one—not only for graduates but for all of us.

My remarks were inspired, in part, by a speech Kingman Brewster Jr., the seventeenth president of Yale, delivered to the Class of 1978. He told them, “Many of us have just been on a ten-year trip of moral outrage: anti-Wallace, anti-War, anti-Watergate. We have been so sure about what we were against that we have almost forgotten how difficult it is to know what we are for and how to achieve it.”

When I read these words, I was struck by their resonance with our own time. It is not difficult, in our hyper-polarized world, to find people who can tell you what they are against. It is far more difficult to say what we are for—that is, what we hope to see in the world—and then help create it. This challenging work is essential, and I urged our graduates to consider what they are for, not only what they oppose.

Just as we must know what we are for as individuals, we must also understand the purpose of our institutions. The university’s mission statement articulates exactly what we are for: “Yale is committed to improving the world today and for future generations through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice. Yale educates aspiring leaders worldwide who serve all sectors of society….”

“We believe…in the boundless potential of human ingenuity; that together, we can solve great challenges and bring light and truth to a world in great need of it,” as I told the Class of 2019.

On Monday during our commencement exercises, I conferred on our graduates all the “rights and responsibilities” of a Yale degree. I am especially proud of this language; other schools confer “rights and privileges,” but at Yale, we emphasize the responsibilities that accompany our university’s diploma. I encouraged members of the Class of 2019 to follow the example of past generations of Yale alumni and “heed the call to leadership and service and leave [their] mark on every realm of human endeavor.” I have every confidence that they will live up fully to their responsibilities as Yale graduates.

Today, our world needs imagination and dedication; it needs new ideas and the willingness to put those ideas into practice. That is our responsibility: to say what we are for, and then harness our talents and skills to create the world we wish to see.

Congratulations, Class of 2019!