“I will always think of you as the intrepid Class of 2020,” Dean John F. Manning ’85 told the 758 graduates of Harvard Law School Thursday.
Addressing graduating S.J.D.s, LL.M.s, and the first class of J.D.s he welcomed as dean three years ago, Manning saluted them for showing “resilience, strength, adaptability, and purpose” in the face of the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and urged them to build “career[s] of meaning and purpose,” including through work on the many critical questions arising out of the public health crisis.
The dean’s remarks came during a commencement celebration made virtual by the need to maintain social distancing amid the pandemic. Earlier in the day, graduates had been awarded their degrees from the University in an online ceremony. An in-person event to celebrate the Class of 2020 will be scheduled after the global health crisis recedes.
“I’ve seen sixteen classes graduate from Harvard Law School since I joined the faculty in 2004 …” Manning recalled. “But I’ve never felt more deeply moved by a Harvard graduation than I do today … because of the strength and the dedication to learning and to service that you, the Class of 2020, demonstrated in the face of this terrible disruption” wrought by COVID-19.
“This spring has shown you to be people of resiliency and character,” Manning said, noting the many unprecedented challenges students experienced throughout the spring semester, from leaving campus on short notice to learning online to caring for loved ones to dealing with illness or loss. “It’s been a really hard time, which we’ve shared together but also experienced individually.”
“And yet you persevered,” he said, recounting reports from fellow faculty praising the students’ continued engagement in their courses and clinical work. “Despite the headwinds you faced, you kept learning. You learned because you came here to learn—to learn to be great lawyers, to be great leaders, to join the generations of Harvard Law School graduates who have made big differences in so many fields … You’ll be world-changers too. You’ve already shown that you’re strong and resourceful and up to any challenge.”
The dean urged graduates to use this experience to inspire them to reach for large goals and to make a difference in the world, particularly as it deals with the pandemic and its aftermath.
“And here is what I wish for you,” he said. “That you will take that knowledge about yourselves and use it as inspiration to take risks, to stretch yourselves, to dedicate yourselves consciously to a career of meaning and purpose, one that makes you wake up every day, even on the very hard days, feeling grateful for the work you do.”
“It’s especially important to do that now, because this public health crisis, its aftershocks, and its implications, will – I’m sad to say – be with us for a long time,” he continued, citing the many complicated questions laid bare by the crisis – from how we meet the challenges of this unprecedented crisis while still respecting the rule of law and individual freedom to how we deal with questions of inequality and the absence of shared prosperity. “The world needs you. It needs great lawyers and great leaders more than ever … On all of these questions, lawyers will contribute. And you, the members of the Class of 2020, will take your place and play your part. And it will be a crucial one.”
Manning cited the example set by his Harvard Law School classmate and this year’s graduation speaker, Bryan Stevenson J.D./M.P.P. ’85, who founded and serves as executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson, the dean said, “has worked tirelessly, at times putting himself in peril, to make our criminal justice system more humane, more equitable, and more consistent with the fundamental principles of due process that are required of any system of justice.”
Stevenson also “faced lots of disappointments and setbacks along the way,” as HLS graduates undoubtedly will if they “build careers and lives of consequence and contribution,” he said. “But part of what makes Bryan Stevenson a great lawyer and a powerful agent for change is that, somehow, somewhere, he has found the heart and sinew to carry on, to take on the next case or cause, knowing that he might not prevail, and yet willing to press ahead because his clients need him, and because he can help. That is a high calling.”
The dean concluded by urging students to hold onto a spirit of resiliency throughout their careers. “If you, the Class of 2020, take that…spirit with you, if you can persevere through the challenges and disappointments that always line the path to larger goals, you will achieve more than you can imagine,” he said. “You will, bit by bit, change the world around you.”