The following is the text of the Baccalaureate Address by President Peter Salovey to the Yale College Class of 2015 and their families and guest gathered in Woolsey Hall.
Colleagues, friends, families, graduating seniors: it is such a pleasure for me to greet you today and offer a few words on everyone’s favorite weekend of the year.
I have participated in the baccalaureate service as a member of the faculty, as a dean, and as provost. But this is only my second time around as Yale’s president. I have noted over the years a charming Yale tradition. And I would like to honor it today:
Might I ask all of the families and friends here today to rise and recognize the outstanding — and graduating — members of the Class of 2015?
And now, might I ask the Class of 2015 to consider all those who have supported your arrival at this milestone, and to please rise and recognize them?
The President urged the audience to applaud the graduating seniors, and asked the seniors to show their gratitude by applauding those who supported them through the years. (Photo by Michael Marsland)
I delight in this custom, and last year even focused my baccalaureate remarks on the topic of gratitude. This year, however, I want to try something different with you. Not because gratitude is unimportant on a day like today — far from it! And not because I am personally some kind of ingrate! But a few weeks ago, I conducted a little thought experiment: If a graduating senior asked me to capture the purpose of life after graduating from Yale in just a few words, what would I say? What would that purpose be? Could I articulate your life’s mission as you leave Yale — on Commencement weekend, no less — while “standing on one foot”?
The phrase “standing on one foot,” as some of you know, derives from a story about Hillel, the first-century B.C.E. rabbi and scholar. He was asked to summarize the meaning of the entire Torah (the Old Testament) while standing on one foot. His reply: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. … That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this — go and study it!”
Well, in trying to address the question — what is the purpose of life for a Yale graduate? — I am a bit concerned that I will be vividly defining hubris while standing on one foot! After all, what does a university president know about such matters that you have not already figured out for yourselves?
There are many perfectly fine answers to the question about your commitments after Yale. Your purpose in life might be to find work that is meaningful to you: a wonderful goal. Your purpose in life might be to find someone to love, nurture a family, and create the next generation: also wonderful goals. Your purpose in life might be a kind of long-term loyalty to those who have supported, inspired, and shaped you by making very, very certain that — as the song goes — “time and change shall not avail to break the friendships formed at Yale.” This is also a laudable desire. Your purpose in life might be to accumulate whatever amount of wealth would make you feel comfortable and secure, and — despite what you might suspect — I am not going to argue with that goal either.
What I am going to suggest to you today, however, is that your purpose in life as a graduate from Yale is simply this: to improve the world. In the Jewish tradition this is called Tikkun Olam, literally to repair the world.