Good morning! To all Eli Whitney students, transfer students, visiting international students, and first-year Yale College students: Welcome to Yale!
Let me begin by saying it is good to see you here today.
Many families and loved ones are watching today’s ceremonies online. On behalf of my colleagues here on stage and the entire Yale community, I want to extend a warm greeting to everyone joining us, wherever you are right now.
This is a big moment—for you, our newest students, and for Yale.
I am so glad you are here.
Fifty-one years ago, university president Kingman Brewster Jr. delivered an address to the entering class of new undergraduates, welcoming them to Yale, as I am doing now. At the time, the university was coming out of a very unusual year. (We can relate!) Just a few months earlier, in May 1970, tens of thousands of people from across the country had come to New Haven—and to Yale—to protest the trials of Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins, leaders of the Black Panther Party, who were being tried for murder. Thousands of National Guard troops had been deployed to the city as some expected the protests to turn violent. The situation was extremely tense. Fortunately, reason prevailed, the protests remained largely peaceful, and no one was seriously injured, let alone killed.
Still, these events rocked Yale’s campus. War was raging in Southeast Asia. Movements for civil rights and women’s rights were heading in new directions, and across society it seemed like a younger generation was rising up to challenge the old guard. Against this backdrop, many people were wondering about Yale’s future. They were uncertain about the university’s role—its purpose—in a rapidly changing and unpredictable society.
Standing here today, I am feeling many of the same emotions that President Brewster must have felt in 1970. Looking out over that gathering of new students, he knew many of them were anxious; he knew they had questions about what they would do at Yale and many more about the kind of society they would encounter when they graduated. Yet, in his speech, he was asking them to study, go to the library, write papers, and conduct experiments. He was asking them to be students.
And so he gave voice to a question that was probably on the minds of many, a question I also pose to you today. He asked, “Where then is the purpose which makes patient learning supportable when the world is on fire?”[i]
Today, again, it seems like the world is on fire, literally and metaphorically. The United States is in the midst of its greatest crisis since 9/11. We are fighting a global pandemic, which will be, for many of us, the most significant geopolitical, and perhaps personal, event of our lives.
But that is not all. This summer we have witnessed terrible wildfires, drought, and flooding in many corners of the globe. Some of you have experienced these climate disasters firsthand. Not only climate change but also racism, extremism, the widening gulf between rich and poor—these are complex challenges that call out for urgent and concerted action.
The world is on fire, and again we ask, what is our purpose here? And how do we learn—patiently, seriously, and rigorously, as I sincerely hope you will—in times such as these?
In thinking about the answer to this question, I was reminded of Musar, a nineteenth-century Jewish movement that came out of Lithuania, very close to where my ancestors were rabbis. The central idea of the Musar movement—and of similar religious and ethical practices beyond Judaism—is that we must improve ourselves before looking outward at society seeking to change it. We must examine our values, expand our knowledge, and develop empathy and imagination.
One of the rabbis of the time is said to have told this story: “I set out to try to change the world, but I failed. So I decided to scale back my efforts and only try to influence the Jewish community of Poland, but I failed there, too. So I targeted the community in my hometown of Radin [now in Belarus], but achieved no greater success. Then I gave all my effort to changing my own family and failed at that as well. Finally, I decided to change myself, and that’s how I had such an impact on the…world.”[ii]
Much like this sage, we are here to make an impact on our communities and our world. But first we must start by improving ourselves. Your college years are a time to develop your strengths and talents; to challenge yourself in ways you did not think possible; to gain knowledge and understanding; and to explore. Here at Yale, you will encounter new ideas and engage with people from different backgrounds and walks of life. You will take intellectual risks, and ask questions about everything from the structure of the cosmos to the structure of a novel.
Improving yourself means leaving your comfort zone. Sign up for a class that sounds interesting but unfamiliar. Go to office hours with slightly intimidating professors; you may be surprised by the conversation that unfolds. Attend talks by speakers whose views are different than yours—and really listen to their arguments. Regardless of what you study or the clubs you join, I promise that you will not leave Yale the same person you are today. You will be changed, transformed, by Yale.
We know that you are ready for these challenges, and we are excited to see what contributions you will make to Yale; how you will write new chapters in our shared history in the coming days, weeks, and years.
Thinking back to that spring of 1970, I am reminded of four Yale College students who, with others, played a pivotal role in the May Day events: Kurt Schmoke, Ralph Dawson, Bill Farley, and Glenn de Chabert. They were serious students and active in founding and leading the Black Student Alliance at Yale. Two would be named Rhodes Scholars. That spring, along with Kingman Brewster, his special assistant Sam Chauncey, and other administrators, these students showed exemplary leadership during a time of crisis and were instrumental in helping keep the peace on campus, most likely saving lives.[iii]
The world was on fire, but their time at Yale prepared them to tackle important challenges after graduation: one as a big-city mayor and university president, others as distinguished attorneys; all as engaged community members. Like generations of alumni, these Yalies were deeply committed to making themselves better, making the university better, and making the world better.
You, too, are joining the Yale community at a historic moment. We are surrounded on all sides by fires small and large. And yet I can think of no better moment to be at Yale. We begin this academic year with a renewed commitment to nurture this community and the people in it. Yalies, you will soon discover, love to learn. They seek out new experiences, and they immerse themselves fully in everything they do. At Yale, you can study with top public health experts who are advising governments on the pandemic response. You can take a seminar with a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of Frederick Douglass or a leading authority on John Milton. You can conduct research alongside faculty members in over 1,200 laboratories on campus.
Yale’s great strength—now, as always—is that we learn from and are inspired by one another. Although we come from different places, we share a common purpose: to improve ourselves, so that we can improve the world. Yale’s mission statement expresses our highest ambitions. It says, in part, “Yale is committed to improving the world today and for future generations,” and “Yale educates aspiring leaders worldwide who serve all sectors of society.”[iv]
You are those aspiring leaders, and this mission is our answer to the question my predecessor asked over fifty years ago. I believe the “patient learning” President Brewster spoke of means deep engagement in your studies; it means challenging your thoughts and beliefs; it means expanding the frontiers of knowledge—your own, and the world’s. It means using your time at Yale to prepare for the trials ahead. In this sense, patient learning is not only supportable but essential if we are to fulfill Yale’s mission and, indeed, improve the world.
I will end with lyrics written by one of my favorite folk singers, Woody Guthrie, in his song, “World’s on Fire.” His words are only too applicable: “While the skies they’re clearing / We’ll rise up dreaming; / Build our city from the ashes.”[v]
Yes, the world is on fire, but right in front of me, I see many reasons for optimism. Together, as part of this community, you will dream, you will build, and you will prepare for lives of leadership and service.
Welcome to Yale!
[i] Kingman Brewster Jr., Freshman Assembly speech, Yale University, September 14, 1970. Emphasis my own.
[ii] This story is attributed to the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan. Quoted in Alan Morinis, Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar (Boulder: Shambhala Publications, 2008), 16.
[iii] See Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Introduction,” in May Day at Yale, 1970: Recollections (Westport, CT: Prospecta Press, 2015), 7-9.
[iv] Yale’s mission statement can be found here: https://www.yale.edu/about-yale/mission-statement
[v] Woody Guthrie, et al., Every 100 Years: The Woody Guthrie Songbook, 100 Years, 100 Songs (New York: TRO Essex Music Group, 2012), 111.