Marisa Peryer

When the class of 2019 first arrived at Yale in 2015, they embarked on their bright college years by congregating in Woolsey Hall for the First-Year Address. Nearly four years later, Yale seniors gathered in the same concert auditorium for the last time before their degrees are formally conferred on Monday.   

Representing five of the 14 residential colleges, roughly a third of the graduating class and their families gathered in Woolsey Hall on Saturday afternoon to hear Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun and University President Peter Salovey address the soon-to-be graduates. The remaining 10 colleges will attend two seperate baccalaureate ceremonies on Sunday. While Chun’s speech focused on the class of 2019’s growth over the past four years, Salovey spoke about open-mindedness.

Following tradition, Chun first took to the podium and offered selected readings to the graduating class that focused on identity and embarking on new journeys.

Among the excerpts was a speech that former Dean of Yale College Jonathan Holloway gave to the class of 2019 at their First-Year Address in 2015. The mention of Holloway — an administrator beloved by the student body — elicited cheers and whoops from the crowd.

The excerpts Chun read from Holloway’s speech described how Yale is ever-evolving and that the University had entered a unique moment when it began to question its own identity. In his 2015 speech, Holloway called on the class to build their own Yale.

“Throughout this period of change you have shown resilience, patience, confidence and love,” Chun told the class. “Your commitment in positive change was rooted in not just your friends and mentors but also in your own selves.”

Salovey’s speech, which followed Chun’s address and a performance from the Yale Glee Club, centered around the inclination to voice opposition to certain ideas rather than to articulate what one is for. Salovey repeated the refrain “What are you for?” several times throughout the speech.

Salovey began his speech by hearkening back to then-president of Yale Kingman Brewster Jr.’s September 1974 speech to the class of 1978. In his first-year address, Brewster spoke about the decade-long period of “moral outrage” that had preceded the class.

“Anti-Wallace, Anti-War, Anti-Watergate. We have been so sure about what we were against that we have almost forgotten how difficult it is to know what we are for and how to achieve it,” Salovey quoted Brewster.

“Does this sound familiar?” Salovey asked the audience. “Today, perhaps more than ever, it is easy to know what you are against. And far more difficult to say what you are for.”

He said that what people are against varies — some are against capitalism or guns, while others are against trade wars or abortion.

Salovey made a reference to the 1932 Marx Brothers comedy film, Horse Feathers, which features actor Groucho Marx in the role of president of a university — “one of Groucho’s best performances,” Salovey added.

“In the opening scene of the movie … Groucho, the new president of Huxley College, is told that the trustees have a few suggestions for him. With that, he breaks into this soliloquy:

“I don’t know what they have to say. It makes no difference anyway. Whatever it is, I’m against it. No matter what it is or who commenced it, I’m against it. Your proposition may be good, but let’s have one thing understood. Whatever it is, I’m against it.”

Salovey said that the scene is funny because it is ridiculous, but also because it contains a “kernel of truth” that applies not only to college presidents but to everyone.  

“How many times have we decided that we are against an idea before we have even heard it?” Salovey asked. “How guilty are we of deciding ‘I’m against it’, without even knowing what it is?”

According to Salovey, “many times we know what we are against based on who’s saying it.” He said that this is partly due to how public discourse has become so predictable, and how we have lost our “capacity for surprise.” He said it is easy for people to express that they are against something in “fewer than 280 characters” and far more difficult to articulate what they are for.  

Salovey acknowledged that there are plenty of reasons to be outraged — at both moral challenges and existential threats such as rising water levels, rising inequality and violence throughout the world and in our own backyards. He said that he understands the “impulse for negativity,” and that he is also often overwhelmed by challenges and injustices. But Salovey emphasized that “point[ing] out what is wrong is the beginning, not the end of our work”

Quoting Czech author Ivan Klima, Salovey said “To destroy is easier than to create, and that is why so many people are ready to demonstrate against what they reject. But what would they say if one asked them what they wanted instead?”

Salovey urged graduates to use whatever they are against to find something that they are for.

“You may well turn that question back to me ‘What are you for, ‘President Salovey?’” Salovey said. “Well, I am for the transformative power of a liberal education … I am for the American Dream and all its rich promise. The idea that opportunity is shared widely, and that access to education is within reach for the many, not the few. I am for the robust and free exchange of ideas … I am for a world where we welcome the immigrant, the poor and the forgotten, and do not shut them out or silence them.”

He emphasized Yale’s mission to improve the world today and for future generations, listing beliefs that Yale holds, including the necessity of diversity of thought and the boundless potential of human ingenuity that can “bring light and truth to a world in great need of it.”

He said that the University trusts that its graduates are leaving Yale with a sense of responsibility to one another, to the planet and to their shared future. He stressed that they should live a life of meaning and purpose — a life that is for something.

To close his address, Salovey asked the members of the class of 2019 to rise and saluted their accomplishments.

”Go forth from this place with grateful hearts, pay back the gifts that you have received here by using your minds, voices and hands to imagine and create a new world that you wish to see,” Salovey said at the end of his speech. “What are you for?”

The remaining two-thirds of the class of 2019 will attend two baccalaureate ceremonies tomorrow morning. Class Day also takes place Sunday at 2 p.m., when writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie GRD ’08 will address the graduating class.

Sammy Westfall | sammy.westfall@yale.edu

Marisa Peryer | marisa.peryer@yale.edu