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Tom Hanks Urges Students to ‘Embrace Liberty’ in Harvard Commencement Address

Tom Hanks addressed Harvard graduates at the 2023 Commencement ceremony on Thursday.
Tom Hanks addressed Harvard graduates at the 2023 Commencement ceremony on Thursday. By Marina Qu
By Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen, Miles J. Herszenhorn, and Claire Yuan, Crimson Staff Writers

Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks urged Harvard’s Class of 2023 to “embrace liberty and freedom” during the University’s 372nd Commencement exercises on Thursday.

Hanks — an acclaimed American actor known for his performances in “Forrest Gump,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and nearly 100 other films — has garnered two Academy Awards, a Golden Globe award, seven Emmy awards, and the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

Prior to his remarks, outgoing University President Lawrence S. Bacow awarded Hanks — this year’s featured keynote speaker — an honorary Harvard degree, along with five other recipients.

But before Hanks could take center stage, University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 interrupted with another surprise for the actor: a three-minute musical tribute to Hanks put on by three students from the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, who recapped every movie he had ever acted in.

Members of Hasty Pudding Theatricals put on a three-minute musical number commemorating Hanks'  long career.
Members of Hasty Pudding Theatricals put on a three-minute musical number commemorating Hanks' long career. By Marina Qu

“Tom Hanks is like a box of chocolates,” the performers sang — referencing “Forrest Gump,” the movie that helped Hanks win his second Oscar. “You never know what you’re gonna get.”

Handing off the podium, Bacow joked by way of introduction, “Dr. Hanks, top that.”

Dressed in a crimson Harvard graduation robe, Hanks handed his cap to University Marshall Katherine O’Dair before taking his spot at the podium.

“It’s not fair, but please don’t be embittered by this fact,” Hanks began. “That without having done a lick of work, without having spent any time in class, without once walking into that library — in order to have anything to do with the graduating class of Harvard, its faculty, or its distinguished alumni — I make a damn good living playing someone who did.”

“It’s the way of the world, kids,” he said.

During his speech, Hanks also poked fun at the student speeches that preceded his Commencement address.

“I don’t know much about Latin. I have no real passion for enzymes, and public global policy is something I scan on the newspaper just before I do the Wordle,” Hanks said, as audience members chuckled.

“And yet here I am closing — closing for Josiah, Pallas, and Vic,” he added, referring to the three student speakers.

Hanks called on graduates to not remain indifferent in the face of those seeking to undermine the truth by spreading “alternative facts.”

“Propaganda and bald-faced lies will erode over time,” Hanks said. “Idolatry and imagery lose luster and effect.”

“Ignorance and intolerance can be replaced by experience in the wink of an eye, but indifference will narrow the vision of America’s people and make dim the light of Lady Liberty’s symbolic torch,” he added.

Hanks told the Class of 2023 that they, like every graduating class and every adult, are faced with the choice of being one of three types of Americans: “those who embrace liberty and freedom for all, those who won’t, or those who are indifferent.”

The difference between them, Hanks continued, lies “in how truly you believe, in how vociferously you promote, in how tightly you hold to the truth that is self-evident — that of course we are all created equally yet differently and of course we are all in this together.”

“We are all but human,” Hanks said.

—Staff writer Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen can be reached at ryan.doannguyen@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryandoannguyen.

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at miles.herszenhorn@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @mherszenhorn.

—Staff writer Claire Yuan can be reached at claire.yuan@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @claireyuan33.

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Tom Hanks Addresses Harvard Graduates at 2023 Commencement