The Classes of 2020 and 2021 finally got their day under the trees of Tercentenary Theatre Sunday morning, having missed out on the pageantry and rituals of Commencement after the pandemic forced graduations online over the past two years.
For the University’s second Commencement in four days, nearly 9,000 of the graduates RSVP’d their plans to return to Cambridge for the full cap-and-gown experience and to hear featured speaker U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland ’74, J.D. ’77 make a plea for more to embrace public service for at least some part of their lives at a time when the nation’s democratic institutions face historic threat.
“Don’t let your generation be defined by the pandemic,” he said in an address that was both personal and often impassioned. “Let it be defined by public service.”
A longtime public servant himself, Garland, 69, spent decades as a top Justice Department official and federal judge before President Barack Obama nominated him to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, only to see his nomination blocked by Senate Republicans. (“Life doesn’t always turn out the way you expect,” Garland joked. “Trust me on that.”) He was sworn in as President Biden’s pick for Attorney General in March 2021.
Garland touched on the three recent mass shootings, calling them “horrific attack[s]” by gunmen in Uvalde, Texas; Laguna Woods, California; and Buffalo, New York. “These tragedies only underscore how urgent the call to public service for your generation truly is,” he said.
While there are many ways to serve and many problems to resolve, the ongoing threats to democracy and democratic institutions, both in the U.S. and abroad, make the need for broad participation “especially urgent,” he said.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a clear threat that should unify Americans and their international allies. In the U.S., democracy is being imperiled by efforts to undermine the right to vote and violence and threats of violence toward people “because of who they are or how they serve the public,” whether it’s on an airplane or in a restaurant or administering local elections, serving on a school board, or working as a journalist, he said.
“In a democracy, people vote, argue, and debate — often loudly — in order to achieve the policy outcome, they desire,” he said. “But the promise of democracy is that people will not employ violence to affect that outcome.”