Commencement 2023: The Baccalaureate Address


Peter Salovey ’86PhD is the president of Yale University. This speech was delivered on Old Campus to graduating Yale College seniors on Sunday, May 21.

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

Peter Salovey ’86PhD is the president of Yale University. This speech was delivered on Old Campus to graduating Yale College seniors on Sunday, May 21. View full image

Graduates of the Class of 2023, family members, and friends, it gives me great pleasure to welcome you and to offer a few words this morning.

First, though, there is a wonderful Yale tradition that I would like to honor right now.

May I ask all the families and friends here today to rise and recognize the outstanding—and graduating—members of the Class of 2023?

And now, may I ask the Class of 2023 to consider all those who have supported your arrival at this milestone, and to please rise and recognize them?

Thank you!

Today, as we assemble at an inflection point in your lives—between “the shortest, gladdest years of life” and exciting new chapters that lie beyond them—I want to discuss the importance of community engagement here in New Haven and in your future.

Raise your hand if you participated in a service organization on campus or in the local community.

We see a lot of hands. It’s not surprising, because I know that nearly all of you have immersed yourselves in the work of civic betterment in one form or another over the past four years.

Despite the rigors of your studies, you have promoted literacy with New Haven Reads; brought the basics of computer science to public school classrooms through Code Haven; and tutored immigrants, for whom English is not a first language, as Bridges ESL volunteers. You have likewise helped to alleviate housing and food insecurity through the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, supported your student neighbors as Walden peer counselors, and engaged in remedial climate action with the Urban Resources Initiative. Even on the heels of final exams last week, many of you volunteered in Yale Day of Service activities.

You have, collectively, pursued unfinished work in our society—and affirmed what Coretta Scott King observed on this campus in 1969: that “students want to start today on the world of tomorrow.”1 Although not necessarily learned in the classroom, this spirit of service is every bit part of what makes a Yale education distinctive. And in all, we estimate that you and your classmates contributed a remarkable 150,000 hours each year you were here to community-based causes.

Rather than reflect on how your work in this community will reverberate long after you exit Phelps Gate, though, I want to implore you to replicate it no matter where you go next. For several years now, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, this country has seen a decline in social capital and the value we derive from positive connections among people.

Political scientist Robert Putnam diagnosed this decay through something that used to be pretty common in my time as a teenager in Buffalo, New York: bowling leagues. Putnam—an eminent Yale alumnus [’70PhD]—observed that more Americans are bowling, but fewer in organized leagues. So, he used the vivid metaphor of “bowling alone” to represent the breakdown of traditional social networks in contemporary society. As a touchstone of his thesis, Putnam pointed to a reduction in membership among organizations like PTAs, the Red Cross, and Lions Clubs from mid-twentieth-century peaks. He found, in short, that we are “dropping out in droves . . . from organized community life.”2

In the two decades since Bowling Alone’s publication, US Census data have similarly depicted a sharp decrease in community involvement. The hours donated annually by volunteers, for example, halved between the start of the century and your first year at Yale.3 And the national volunteering rate dropped an additional seven percentage points by the time you were a junior.4

So, what happens when social ties weaken? Certainly, something is lost in our communities. We also retreat into ourselves. We become isolated. And we feel lonely. Surveys indicate the alarming prevalence, indeed near ubiquity, of these feelings. Sixty percent of Americans, including a full 75 percent of younger people like yourselves, now struggle with loneliness.5

Some weeks ago, this frayed social fabric compelled US surgeon general Vivek Murthy, also a Yale alumnus [’02MD, ’03MBA], to declare a loneliness epidemic in America. The ramifications for our health and well-being are wide-ranging, he says, but an antidote is within reach. As Dr. Murthy remarked last semester at Yale, community service activities “connect [us] with somebody deeply on something that matters . . . but also reaffirm to us that we have value to bring to the world. And they help [to] rebuild that esteem which gets shredded when we are lonely.”6

Of course, service activities are as salutary for society as they are for ourselves. Social capital can contribute to positive outcomes in education, children’s welfare, the safety of our neighborhoods, economic prosperity, and even democracy itself.
Our civic and social lives form the mortar of American society—and a pillar of public health.

We must, therefore, redouble our resolve to rescue them.

In doing so, we should be mindful of a distinction articulated by philosopher John Dewey, on whom Yale bestowed an honorary degree in 1951. Many social reformers, he lamented—however noble their intentions—have failed to meet their ambitions “because they were committed to doing good for rather than with others.”7

So, for our part, we aspire to make Yale the most civically engaged university by strengthening the ties that bind us to our home city.

Like most of you, I arrived in New Haven as a visitor. I remember my first days at Yale as an entering graduate student in 1981—blown away by the beauty of the stone buildings and by the tastiness of the local pizza. Over the next four decades, I discovered that New Haven is a fascinating and vibrant community in which to live. The Elm City quickly became my and Marta’s home—and an integral part of our identities.

Your time here may well be shorter than ours, although I urge you to consider adding your talents to the rich mix of what makes this a great place to work and live. But whether you remain in New Haven or not after graduation, we all experience a distinct bond between Yale and our home city. And the depth of that relationship was reflected most recently by the historic pledge to extend our lead as the institution that makes the largest annual voluntary financial contribution of any US college or university to its home city.

But a university’s responsibility to its home city goes beyond financial contributions—what Dewey might have deemed “worthwhile ends.” It should be intellectual; it should be innovative; and it should be human. It should be with as well as for.

The metaphor of the ivory tower walled off from its surroundings (and, at Yale, protected by moats and gates) is no longer apt. What is real, instead, is a social contract in which we willingly and readily obligate ourselves to the welfare of one another.

So, our task—even as we increase our voluntary payments—is to reinforce our culture of engagement.

Alumni such as Patricia Melton [’83] exemplify this ideal. A native of Cleveland, Ohio; 1983 graduate of Yale College; and, as with about 20 percent of you, the first in her family to attend college, Patricia has dedicated her career to helping young people in our community.

For over a decade, she has led New Haven Promise, a Yale-funded scholarship and career development program that is one of our most treasured collaborations. Patricia’s inspired work delivers the dream of college for scores of young people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it. Importantly, the Promise program encourages college students to return to New Haven following graduation just as she did.

The results have been superb. By the end of this decade, we expect to have welcomed back thousands of Promise alumni who will accelerate the renaissance well underway in our city alongside many other Yale initiatives, such as the recently established Pennington Fellowship and the Center for Inclusive Growth. And soon we also look forward to joining the mayor’s recently announced tutoring program for New Haven school children.

It is heartening to consider these extraordinary community partnerships that alumni like Patricia unleash—and that, as Yale’s newest graduates, you can soon enrich.

Before we say farewell, though, I wish to hearken back to when we first met. You may recall that four years ago, I penned an open letter to welcome the Class of 2023. In it, I asked you to consider a series of questions, among them: Why are we here? Why is Yale here? What is our purpose?

Of course, improving the world through research and education is Yale’s mission. The crises that surround us—pressing in nature and often planetary in scale—compel the Class of 2023 to mobilize its unique gifts for a world in need. And the liberal education you have acquired at Yale has prepared you well to do so.

Look closely, though, and you will see that in a pithy mission statement dedicated to articulating our university’s entire purpose, Yale puts equal emphasis on where we hope to achieve it. Indeed, as we devote ourselves to improving the world, we retain our focus on the “interdependent community” in which this work is advanced, ever attuned to our immediate surroundings.

As Justice Sonya Sotomayor [’79JD] said to Yale Day of Service participants some years ago, our tradition of civic work “is expressed in many ways, including . . . in city halls, in state houses, in Congress, in the cabinet—and yes, even on the Supreme Court.”

“But this tradition of service,” she continued, “is also powerfully expressed daily by countless Yale graduates fired by a spirit of generosity. . . . By relief workers amidst disasters. Mentors in urban schools. Volunteers in parks, libraries, and museums. . . . And in so many other roles.”

I think, for instance, of a former student of mine, Caroline Tanbee Smith [’14], whose love for this city was catalyzed by her President’s Public Service Fellowship. Caroline stayed in New Haven after graduating from Yale College. And in 2017, she cofounded a nonprofit community accelerator dedicated to making entrepreneurship more accessible, particularly for low-income community members, women, and people of color, helping them to create new jobs and generate millions of dollars in revenue for this region.8

“Those efforts—your efforts,” Justice Sotomayor said, “may not make headlines, but they most surely make a difference.”9 Indeed, your efforts, as students engaged in service, showcase why the “where” of Yale’s mission statement matters. Your efforts show that the transformative is within reach. That there is marvelous grandeur in the constellation of seemingly small acts of service with and for each other that together constitute a thriving civic life on this campus.

The sum of your contributions has brought immense pride to Yale—and an equal measure of progress to our community. Here you have heeded Bob Dylan and “strap[ped] yourself to a tree with roots”—and nourished them.

Of course, we hope some of you will consider his next refrain, too—“you ain’t going nowhere”—and join us right here in New Haven.10

But for those of you who will soon disperse around the globe—also a fine outcome—we hope, too, that you will reprise what you have done here.

We hope that you will be known as much for your curiosity of mind as your generosity of spirit.

We hope that wherever it is upon life’s sea you sail, you will arrive there not only as proud alumni of this university but as emissaries of its ethos, ready, once again, to raise your hand and engage.

Congratulations, Class of 2023!  


[1] “Mrs. King Says Campus Unrest Brines [sic] Progress.” Yale Daily News, February 26, 1969. https://ydnhistorical.library.yale.edu/?a=d&d=YDN19690226-01.2.5&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——-.

[2] Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.)

[3] Leslie Lenkowsky, “Americans Are Volunteering Less. What Can Nonprofits Do to Bring Them Back?” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, February 14, 2023. https://www.philanthropy.com/article/americans-are-volunteering-less-what-can-nonprofits-do-to-bring-them-back.

[4] Thalia Beaty and Glenn Gamboa, “Nonprofits Scramble for Help Amid Dearth of Volunteers.” Associated Press, April 17, 2023. https://apnews.com/article/volunteers-needed-nonprofits-data-000c119a4223f91f0fe24c066f2d3960.

[5] Karen Guzman, “U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy ’03 Discusses the Loneliness Epidemic,” Yale School of Management, September 13, 2022. https://som.yale.edu/story/2022/us-surgeon-general-vivek-h-murthy-03-discusses-loneliness-epidemic.

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ST0VRO_gkhM&t=1896s.

[7] Robert B. Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.)

[8] For more about Collab, see https://collabnewhaven.org.

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Btc3XlX17g.

[10] Bob Dylan, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” 1967, https://www.bobdylan.com/songs/you-aint-goin-nowhere/.

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