In his first speech to undergraduates as Harvard's president, Lawrence S. Bacow told the crowd of wide-eyed freshmen he was assigning them homework.
Bacow directed the students — who were crowded into Tercentenary Theater for Harvard’s tenth-annual Freshman Convocation — to take out their phones and write down the address for an Institute of Politics website which they could use to register to vote.
“If you are eligible to vote, we expect you to register, to inform yourself of the candidates and the issues, and to cast a ballot,” Bacow said. “It is your responsibility as a citizen of this country and as a citizen of Harvard.”
“If you don’t think that the world that we live in is perfect, the only way it gets better is if good people like you work to repair it,” he added.
Bacow was chosen for the presidency in February. In his first trip to Washington a few months later, he wasted no time making his goals clear — he told lawmakers he plans to be a devoted advocate for higher education as it faces increasing skepticism and legislative challenges.
This message of civic engagement carried throughout the event, which took place Wednesday afternoon. Reverend Jonathan L. Walton, Pusey Minister in Memorial Church, began the ceremony with an invocation, praying that the new students pursue “a cause greater than [themselves].” Jenna M.E. Gray ’19 delivered the student address, encouraging freshmen to study abroad in order to gain perspective.
Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, who took to the podium after Bacow, noted that Harvard’s newest undergraduates arrived on campus “at a critical moment in our nation’s history.”
Khurana framed much of his speech around “Autumn...Nothing Personal,” a new art installation in Tercentenary Theater. The installation was inspired by a James Baldwin essay, which, according to Khurana, “describes a divided, violent, and empty America at a different historical moment: the height of the Civil Rights movement.”
“Baldwin’s view of the world in 1964 resonates in so many ways with what we can see is going on in our country and the world today,” Khurana said.
“Given the world that you’ve been handed, you’re going to be faced with some critical choices over the next four years,” he added.
Like Bacow, Khurana entreated members of the Class of 2022 to use their talents and their education to better society.
“The path you choose here has more urgency than whether it’s personally fulfilling to you,” Khurana said. “As you start classes and meet new people, I urge you to watch and listen closely to your faculty, and your peers, and the texts you read.”
“Not only does your education depend on this habit, so does our Republic’s,” he added.