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‘Humanity in the Highest Regard’: Incoming BU President Speaks at HMS Class Day

Incoming Boston University President Melissa L. Gilliam addresses Harvard Medical School and School of Dental Medicine graduates at the schools' Class Day on Thursday
Incoming Boston University President Melissa L. Gilliam addresses Harvard Medical School and School of Dental Medicine graduates at the schools' Class Day on Thursday By Emily T. Schwartz
By Akshaya Ravi, Crimson Staff Writer

BOSTON — Incoming Boston University President Melissa L. Gilliam urged graduates to “love yourself, love another, and love mankind” in a keynote speech at the Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Dental Medicine Class Day on Thursday.

During the graduation ceremony, students also staged silent protests by writing pro-Palestine messages on their regalia and bringing flags and keffiyeh on stage while receiving their diplomas.

Earlier on Thursday, more than 1,000 people walked out of the University-wide Commencement ceremonies in protest of Harvard preventing 13 College seniors from graduating over their participation in the pro-Palestine encampment of Harvard Yard.

Gilliam, who was announced as Class Day speaker last month, graduated from HMS in 1993 and served as provost of Ohio State University — the first Black woman to hold the post — through 2023. She will assume her role as the 11th president of BU on July 1.

Gilliam began her speech with a story about her mother, who overcame racism to become the first Black woman reporter at the Washington Post.

“To file a story, she would stand at the bus stop and write her story in shorthand, because no taxi would pick her up, but she knew she had to have it in by the deadline,” Gilliam said. “But she endured. She knew there were stories that only she could tell.”

Gilliam went on to talk about her father, abstract painter Sam Gilliam, and his dedication to art despite barriers he had to overcome because of his race.

“The thread here — and what I want for you — is a love of self that is so strong and so passionate that you fulfill your abilities,” Gilliam said.

Gilliam then discussed the importance of listening to patients, telling the graduates that “if we are going to care for people, then you must see people and hold your humanity in the highest regard.”

Gilliam recalled her first research study as a resident, during which she realized the many hurdles preventing first-time Black mothers from attending six-week postpartum visits, such as losing electricity or getting kicked out of school.

“If I had not had the opportunities to hear from the people for whom we care — people who were having lived experiences different than my own — I would have patted myself on the back for completing my project, but never really have helped those I most wanted to,” Gilliam said.

Prior to Gilliam’s speech, HMS student Victor A. Lopez-Carmen — the only U.S. tribal member in the graduating class — delivered a land acknowledgement, concluding his speech by advocating for Palestine.

“I pray that future Palestinian children can thrive in their sacred land, nourished by the olive trees that will grow back stronger for generations,” he said.

Lopez-Carmen’s speech was met by cheers from many in the crowd. Some graduates wrote “Harvard Divest” on their graduation caps or brought Palestinian flags, keffiyehs, posters with them on stage while receiving their degrees.

During a speech by HMS Dean George Q. Daley ’82, protesters on one side of the tent held up a poster saying “Dean Daley, genocide is not a consequence of war.” The protesters remained there for the duration of the ceremony.

Daley continued on despite the protest, encouraging graduates to use their talents to carry out the Medical School’s mission to “relieve suffering and improve health and wellbeing for all.”

“I’m inspired by your intellect, by your passion, by your dedication, and by your pursuit of social justice for all people,” he said.

—Staff writer Akshaya Ravi can be reached at Follow her on X @akshayaravi22.

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