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Debra Haaland Touts Biden Climate Agenda, Celebrates HLS Grads in Class Day Speech

Secretary of the Interior Debra A. Haaland addresses Harvard Law School graduates on Wednesday.
Secretary of the Interior Debra A. Haaland addresses Harvard Law School graduates on Wednesday. By Jina H. Choe
By S. Mac Healey, Crimson Staff Writer

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Debra A. Haaland addressed Harvard Law School’s Class of 2024 during the school’s Class Day ceremony on Holmes Field Wednesday afternoon. Haaland’s speech on the Biden administration’s climate agenda and the power of the legal field to affect change survived the disruptions found at other Commencement ceremonies.

Haaland has served in U.S. President Joe Biden’s cabinet since 2021, when she was sworn in as the 54th Secretary of the Interior. A member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, Haaland is the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary.

The celebratory event bore only cursory mention to the war in Israel and Gaza, the months of protest on Harvard’s campusincluding at Harvard Law — and the controversy over 13 undergraduates barred from receiving degrees due to their involvement in the pro-Palestine Harvard Yard encampment.

On Thursday, HLS’ Class of 2024 participated in the University-wide ceremony, when interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76 and Nobel-prize winning journalist Maria Ressa addressed graduates. The Law School then conferred a total of 804 Juris Doctor, Master of Laws, and Doctor of Juridical Science degrees in a ceremony on Holmes Field.

In her keynote address, Haaland began with a quip about the heat in Cambridge and empathized with graduates on how her “law school experience was difficult, but also fulfilling, and I was so happy when it was over.”

Haaland emphasized that the graduates’ educations “are meant for one thing and one thing alone: to help move our communities and our world forward, because that is what this era of our country requires of all of us.”

Haaland said that after a career in public service, she “learned that while uncertainty may be the only thing that can be guaranteed, your commitment to helping others and leaving the ladder down for future generations is what creates your path ahead.”

In the speech, Haaland also detailed how her experience as a single mother and law school student shaped her career in public service, including her involvement in a law providing in-state tuition for Native New Mexicans.

She said that she does not see her position as the first Native woman in the president’s cabinet as a “personal accomplishment” but rather “one that many Indigenous people from countless generations worked and sacrificed for.”

“Your lived experience matters,” she said.

Haaland also recounted her 2018 election for the House of Representatives and the doubts that swirled around whether a Native American woman could win a seat in Congress.

“But anything worth having is worth working hard for,” Haaland said.

This preceded a presentation of the Biden administration’s “mission to tackle the greatest challenges of our lifetimes, including the climate crisis,” she said.

She credited the Interior Department’s success to “dedicated lawyers who have committed themselves to public service.”

“At the very top of our priority list is the transition toward a clean energy future. We’ve pursued this since day one of this administration, and I am deeply proud that the Department is playing a leading role,” she said.

“We’re doing this through approval of dozens of new renewable energy projects on our nation’s public lands that are bringing affordable clean energy to millions of households,” Haaland said.

Haaland described efforts to tap the energy potential of the oceans, restore the ecosystems of the American West, reckon the “boarding school era” in which Native American children were separated from their families and culture, and other “sweeping and expansive” initiatives.

“At the heart of the framework is collaboration, because we aren’t going to get anywhere meaningful if we don’t bring every partner to the table,” she said.

Speaking to the role the graduates can play, Haaland said, “I know for a fact that you’re all powerful because Harvard Law graduates and former faculty have helped lead our momentous efforts at the Department since day one.”

Haaland highlighted three Harvard Law school affiliates who aided her efforts concerning conservation and Native American child adoption.

“Let these individuals inspire you to seize your newfound power, your influence, your hearts, and your expertise, and put it to good use,” she said.

—Staff writer S. Mac Healey can be reached at Follow him on X @MacHealey.

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CommencementHarvard Law SchoolSustainabilityBidenCommencement 2024