Bernanke's Class Day Speech Leaves Many Unimpressed, Wet

Fed Chair compares present and past states of U.S. economy

Unnamed photo
Sarah M Roberts

Bernanke, a 1975 graduate of Harvard, peppered his remarks to the departing undergraduate class with a few jokes and anecdotes, but most stuck with what he knows well—economic theory.

Unlike past Class Day addresses from funnymen Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen, Federal Reserve Chair Ben S. Bernanke’s speech came with an unexpected bonus—academic citations.

Bernanke, a 1975 graduate of the College, peppered his remarks to the departing undergraduate class with a few jokes and anecdotes, but mostly stuck to what he knows well—economic theory. Hence, the 12 footnotes and list of 10 references.

The speech, delivered to a crowd in Tercentenary Theatre thinned by the day’s rain, focused on the similarities and differences between the U.S. economy in the mid-1970s and today, specifically with regard to energy and productivity.

“These, obviously, are not the kind of topics chosen by many recent Class Day speakers,” Bernanke said. “But, then, the class marshals presumably knew what they were getting when they invited an economist.”

While the class marshals may have known what they were getting, it seemed many of the seniors present did not.

“I’m annoyed, I’m irritated. I just think that a person who speaks for the class should be able to impart words from experience, especially someone who has risen so much and has come so far, from right where we are,” said Jennifer C. Arcila ’08, who was among the steady trickle heading out before the speech finished.

“It’s unfortunate, I think, because it’s for the students and for the class and he’s talking about economic policies and efficiency, and we’re just graduating from college,” she added. “We could have gotten that from Ec 10.”

Bernanke anticipated the tepid reception to his remarks, saying he was striving to be “kind of interesting.” In the middle of the speech, he even paused to speculate that the marshals may have been asking themselves, “Is it too late to book Ali G?”

The chairman opened the speech with some reminiscences of his time at Harvard, relating a tale of skipping class for a Red Sox World Series game.

But he soon turned to a broad economic discussion, drawing parallels between the spikes in inflation and energy prices of today and of his time at Harvard in the 1970s. He emphasized that the increased adaptability and flexibility of the U.S. economy is dampening the effects of these shocks this time around.

“It was a little technical for my mother,” Bharat P. Das ’08 said, gesturing to the woman beside him. “I might go and read it myself later, but I’m not going to stand in the rain and listen to it.”

Though the words of the Fed chair can often move markets—and media outlets nationwide paid close attention to Bernanke’s remarks—graduating seniors were far less interested in hearing what he had to say.

Benny E. Chen ’08 was unimpressed by the larger significance of the speech.

“I’m just upset because I feel like this event was used as a pulpit to speak to the masses, rather than to my class,” he said.

Bernanke wrapped up the speech by segueing from economic inequality to educational differences and then tying this to the senior class’ “excellent education” and their uncertain futures.

“For people, as for economies, adaptability and flexibility count for a great deal,” he said.

The audience responded with light applause, and Amy B. Diaz ’08 and Class Marshal Joshua C. H. Sharp ’08 presented the Fed chair with a gift of rock glasses for his home or office. Sharp cautioned against on-the-job use, saying, “We’re counting on you.”

Bernanke left quickly after receiving his gift and was offstage before the seniors could offer him his second gift: an honorary membership in the Class of 2008.

Sharp looked around confusedly for a moment before deciding what to do with the framed degree.

“It’s in the mail,” he said.

—Christian B. Flow contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Maxwell L. Child can be reached at mchild@fas.harvard.edu.