Commencement 2013: Dean Julio Frenk’s address

Dean Julio Frenk

May 30, 2013

Welcome remarks

Dear graduating students, family members, and friends; dear members of the faculty and of the entire Harvard School of Public Health community:

I am here to give you a very warm welcome—truly.

It is my great pleasure to be among the first to congratulate you as you move from being Harvard School of Public Health students to becoming Harvard School of Public Health alumni.

Congratulations also to the new graduates’ families, friends, teachers, and mentors—to all of you who made this day possible.

This is indeed a joyous occasion. At the same time, we cannot forget the fact that it takes place in the shadow of tragedy. The terrible events around the Boston Marathon revealed both the best and worst of human nature, but let’s focus on the best. Let’s focus on the first responders and bystanders who rushed into harm’s way to help victims. And we saw the life-saving impact of leadership and crisis preparation, both central to our work and mission here at Harvard School of Public Health. Even as we grieve with the victims and their families, we are proud of—and grateful to—HSPH faculty, alumni, and students who contributed to what is now recognized as an extraordinary example of crisis response.

What made the Boston response so effective was that it brought together the desire to help with impeccable preparation. “The training kicks in,” is how one first responder explained his behavior after the bombs exploded.

The training kicks in. Whether your goal is to combat infectious diseases, reform health systems, or respond to emergencies, preparation is essential to success—and as you embark on this new chapter of your public health careers, my greatest hope is that Harvard School of Public Health has prepared you well for the challenges you will face.

The Class of 2013 is outstanding in many ways—some clearly evident now, others that will only come to light in the course of time.

Altogether, 558 of you are receiving degrees today. You come from all over the world—from 74 countries and from 30 states in the U.S. All of you are joining the ranks of remarkable individuals who have made history. Let me tell you about one of them.

In 1917, this School—then known as the Harvard-MIT School for Health Officers—awarded a certificate to a young woman named Linda James, making her the first female to receive a Harvard University credential on the same terms as her male classmates, one of many historic firsts for what is now Harvard School for Public Health. Today, more than 56% of you receiving your degrees are women—a testament to how far we have come over the past century.

Today’s graduates are receiving a wide range of degrees, reflecting your wide-ranging goals and interests—31 Doctors of Philosophy, 2 Doctors of Public Health, 69 Doctors of Science, 280 Masters of Public Health, 167 Masters of Science, and 9 Masters of Arts. Seventeen of you will be continuing on with us to earn another degree.

Already, you have made substantial contributions to public health. You have worked to decrease maternal mortality in Tanzania, provided mental health services in Haiti, explored the roots of childhood obesity and the impact of neighborhoods on health, conducted basic research relating to malaria and cancer, and engaged in countless other projects as wide ranging as they are important.

Many of you have also made profound contributions to the Boston community. I recently learned that nearly two dozen HSPH students provided tutoring to local area public school students during this past year, also raising money through grants to support these efforts, and I suspect this is just the tip of the iceberg. I am so proud of—and grateful for—all you do to make the world a better place, whether you are thousands of miles away, or just around the corner. In public health, as you well know, everything is connected, and every effort counts.

There is also another distinction, one that all of you share: You are graduating in 2013, on the cusp of our Centennial year.

What is now Harvard School of Public Health opened its doors in September 1913, collaborating with MIT to launch the School for Health Officers. It was a time of exciting transformation in public health, with new discoveries relating to sanitation, bacteriology, and the emergence of the new field of scientific epidemiology, and the young school of public health was at the center of it all.

A century later we find ourselves in another time of rapid transformation.

Global travel, technology, and globalized markets have all contributed to creating a world with unprecedented levels of interconnection and interdependence. A disease that starts in Asia or Europe can travel to Africa or the U.S. in a matter of hours.

With the globalization of fast food, smoking, and urban pollution, we are seeing soaring rates of chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and certain cancers.

Health care is increasingly costly—and unevenly distributed. While the wealthiest among us are living longer and better than ever before, the poorest lack the most basic care—and often die as a result.

Health care systems are also more complex than ever before, and the need for outstanding public health leaders to run them effectively has never been so great.

At an alumni event last fall, Harvard University President Drew Faust spoke of this being “a public health moment.” For the reasons I just described, this is absolutely true. There has never been a time when the field of public health was so filled with both dangers and possibilities—a fact reflected in the world-changing work of so many of our alumni.

One of most notable is Donald Hopkins, currently vice president for health programs at the Carter Center and one of the world’s foremost experts in disease eradication. After receiving his master’s in public health here at HSPH in 1970, Don went on to play a key role in the global elimination of smallpox and is now focused on the eradication of Guinea worm—a parasitic disease so intensely painful that it’s been dubbed “the fiery serpent.” The goal is within reach. When Don began his work in 1986, there were 3.5 million guinea worm cases. Today, there are fewer than 600. Donald Hopkins’ contributions were recognized earlier today, when he received an honorary degree, the highest recognition accorded by Harvard University.

But if we live in a world of great opportunities—where it’s possible to triumph over diseases that have plagued humankind for centuries—we also live in a world where the risks have never been greater.

During the years I served as Secretary of Health in Mexico, I kept a quote from Winston Churchill on my desk. While the language is a bit dated—a little bit sexist—the sentiment is still valid. Let me quote:

“To every man there comes in his lifetime that special moment when he is figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered a chance to do a very special thing unique to him and fitted to his talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds him unprepared or unqualified for work which would be his finest hour.”

What a tragedy if that moment finds him—or her, we’ll say today—unprepared or unqualified for work which would be his or her finest hour.

This idea haunted me. I was so afraid that I would fail to rise to the many challenges of my position. I knew that I had been entrusted with a unique opportunity to effect change, and I was determined to do everything I could to assure this didn’t go to waste.

I still have this quote on my desk here at Harvard School of Public Health. The paper is yellowed, but I still read it every single day.

As Secretary of Health, my central commitment was to the people of my country. As Dean of Harvard School of Public Health, that commitment is to students, and every day, when I read that Winston Churchill quote, I think of you. I think of how we’ve been entrusted with preparing you for work uniquely suited to your special talents—for what will be your finest hours. Nothing is more important to me—or to the future of public health.

Being prepared doesn’t mean you won’t feel uncertain. I’ve never gotten beyond that myself. You likely won’t either. What it does mean is striving every moment to develop the skills and knowledge that will allow you to give the very best of yourselves. Progress isn’t created by programs and policies. Progress is created by people. That is why public health leadership has been a central focus of my deanship.

On the surface, leaders look very different—they are women and men, old and young, of all races, nationalities, and religions. They have diverse goals, diverse styles, diverse strategies.

That said, all leaders share certain attributes. Some of the most important are versatility, knowledge that is both broad and deep, the ability to articulate a personal vision, and interpersonal skills such as collaboration and persuasion.

The advantage of versatility is reflected in the remarkable career of today’s remarkable commencement speaker, Larry Brilliant, about whom I’ll have more to say shortly. What we need are T-shaped leaders—leaders with knowledge that is not only deep in a few areas but also extends to many.

Still, it’s important to remember that, while leaders share certain attributes, no two are alike. Every one of you has a path that is yours and yours alone.

Today marks the end of one chapter of your connection to this School, but it is the beginning of another. As graduates of Harvard School of Public Health, you join our vibrant community of more than 12,000 alumni. In this way, you will continue to belong to us even as you leave our campus.

This has always been true—but never to the extent that it is today.

One reason for this is the birth and rapid growth of online learning platforms, and the virtually limitless opportunities they present. Last fall, our School offered one of the first inaugural courses on the edX online learning platform jointly launched by Harvard and MIT. The class—in biostatistics and epidemiology—drew more than 50,000 students from all over the world and our second course, Human Health and Global Environmental Change, is meeting a similarly enthusiastic welcome.

It’s been said that the current innovations around online learning signal the greatest revolution in higher education since the invention of the printing press. Never before have we been able to spread knowledge to so many so quickly. Online learning will never replicate the experience of learning in a living, breathing community of people committed to a shared mission. It will, however, vastly expand the universe of what we are able to do and how and when we are able to do it.

Looking ahead, I urge you to take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity once you graduate. This might mean participating in broadcast quality webcasts from our state-of-the-art Leadership Studio, whose programs have been viewed more than a quarter of a million times in more than 190 countries and territories around the world—and which many of you attended in person during your time as students. Or it might involve taking a class through one of our continuing education programs or through edX—or even serving as a sort of virtual tutor as we envision alumni eventually doing, helping students around the world get the support they need.

Another factor that will support your ongoing connection to this School—to your School—is a growing awareness of the importance of lifelong education. It used to be that education was seen as a sort of tunnel—you entered on one end and emerged—finished!—on the other. Today, the model is different. We have come to see that education must be a never-ending process—and that there will be multiple entry points throughout one’s career.

Our programs for Ministers of Health and Finance are excellent examples of this. The women and men who attend these courses have already reached high positions in their respective countries. And yet, they are eager to return to the university, pursuing the path of lifelong leadership development. Regardless of where your careers take you, I hope you will feel the same.

In a speech that he had planned to give on November 22, 1963, the day of his assassination, President John F. Kennedy wrote that “leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” I could not agree more. While today marks the conclusion of one stage of your education, you will continue to find new ways to learn throughout your lives. Yes, this is an ending, but it’s also a beginning.

You, the Class of 2013, will always occupy a special place in Harvard School of Public Health history. You are graduating on the cusp of our Centennial year, and as we begin our campus celebration next fall, you will be our newest representatives in the larger world. We also hope to see you back—this time, as alumni—at some of these festivities.

You will be finding your own ways to shape the future of public health. We have done our best to prepare you. Now we offer our heartfelt congratulations and send you on your way.

The British writer George Bernard Shaw wrote that the “true joy in life” comes from “being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.” That is what I have found—and what I wish for all of you. Looking out into this remarkable gathering, I am filled with admiration—and hope. I have no doubt that the world will be a far better place for what you will bring to it.

Closing remarks

And now, I would like to ask all graduates to rise.

As a sign of your entry into the company of learned women and men, you may now move your mortarboard tassels from right to left.

I am delighted to be the first to welcome you to the community of Harvard School of Public Health alumni.

A commencement is a beginning. You are now on your way. I wish you the very best on all the adventures that lie before you.


— Office of Communications