Dr. Fauci to Princeton seniors on Class Day: ‘It is our collective responsibility not to shrug our shoulders’ or to accept ‘the normalization of untruths’
At Princeton’s Class Day ceremony Monday, May 23, Dr. Anthony Fauci pointed to the deep racial and ethnic inequities in healthcare that the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed and enjoined the graduating class to help solve them: “It will take a decades-long commitment for society to address these disparities,” he said. “I strongly urge you to be part of that commitment.”
He further challenged the graduating seniors to uphold the truth and seek facts, to stay attentive and intentional. “It is our collective responsibility not to shrug our shoulders and sink to a tacit acceptance of the normalization of untruths,” he said. “Because if we do, lies become dominant and reality is distorted. And the truth means nothing, integrity means nothing, facts mean nothing.”
The steadfastly calm face of COVID-19 updates at White House press briefings throughout the pandemic, Fauci serves as President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser and has been integral to the country’s response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. He has advised seven presidents on domestic and global health issues.
Fauci, who was chosen as the Class Day speaker by the graduating class, was appointed director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in 1984. He is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Science, the Mary Woodard Lasker Award for Public Service, and the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research.
He categorized healthcare disparities as “failings of our society” and asked the graduating seniors to “find the strength, the wisdom, the ingenuity, and the empathy to address these entrenched elements of injustice, manifested in so many subtle and overt ways, and work with all our might to remedy the cultural disease of racism, just as we fight the viral disease of COVID-19.”
Regarding “the normalization of untruths,” Fauci said he felt troubled “that differences of opinion or ideology have in certain situations been reflected by egregious distortions of reality. … Yet the outrage and dissent against this alarming trend has been muted and mild.”
“Seek and listen to opinions that are different from your own,” he told his audience. “But apply your abilities to critically analyze and examine, which you have honed well here at Princeton, to discern and challenge weak assertions built on untruths. As future leaders in our society, we are truly counting on you for that.”
The annual Class Day event is by tradition a more lighthearted ceremony than Commencement, organized by seniors to recognize the achievements of their class. This year was the first in-person Class Day in three years — and Fauci, a native of Brooklyn, also played to the buoyant mood of his audience, telling them in his unmistakable New York accent: “[D]o not shy away from dreaming impossible dreams and seizing unanticipated opportunities.”
Before the program began, seniors and family members filled a sun-drenched Cannon Green behind Nassau Hall, snapping selfies and waving to friends and relatives. They were serenaded by recordings of songs performed by many of Princeton’s 15 a cappella groups. The lyrics “I see skies of blue and clouds of white” from one of the selections, Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” captured the sunny day perfectly.
Fauci recalled the most significant pivot of his career, telling the seniors: “Expect the unexpected.” In 1981, having already settled into a “comfortable career” at the National Institutes of Health, he read a CDC report about a handful of cases of an unusual pneumonia among gay men in Los Angeles. One month later, the infection had spread across other major cities. Against the advice of his peers, he went on to pursue the causes of “this mysterious new disease,” and subsequently become the leading investigative physician in the fight against HIV/AIDS. That decision, he said, transformed his career and life.
“Of course, listen to the advice of others who care about you, your mentors, but at the end of the day, go with your own gut,” he said.
He encouraged them to make public service and social responsibility a part of their lives. “I sincerely believe that regardless of our career paths, we cannot look the other way from pressing societal issues,” he said.
Leadership, he noted, is the key to healing a fractured nation. “Leadership can take many forms, including the quiet and subtle leadership of example,” he said.
In keeping with the Class Day tradition of fêting the graduating class, he ended on a high note, reminding seniors to pursue joy and be the architects of their own future.
“Find your source of joy and happiness and fully embrace it,” he said, quoting the American political theorist John H. Schaar: “The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.”
Preceding Fauci’s speech, Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber opened his remarks by noting that Class Day has been celebrated at least since before the Civil War. The giant screens flanking the stage displayed a vintage photo of the crowd at Class Day in 1886, also on Cannon Green, replete with men in shiny black top hats, women holding parasols and “86” painted on the cannon in the middle of the lawn. Every graduating class still paints the cannon to make their mark each year.
Eisgruber then announced the handing over of the “metaphorical” keys to the University to the leaders of the senior class, another Class Day tradition. “As you can see from the picture up on the screen,” he said with a wide grin, indicating a comical photo of himself posing with a quartet of furry University “leaders” — the Princeton tiger, Forbes College bear, Mathey College moose and Whitman College whale — “we treat this metaphor very literally.”
He closed with his own heartfelt congratulations. “[Y]our class has proven itself capable of great things by maintaining high levels of achievement during one of the most difficult periods that our University, our nation and our world have ever faced,” he said. The audience burst into applause.
Class of 2022 president Santiago Guiran, of Garfield, New Jersey, embraced the humorous tenor of the day, playing off the number “22” from the class year. “Twenty-two cents is what is in my checking account after senior 'dead week' at Myrtle Beach,” he said. But he also lauded his classmates for their steadfast commitment to community and friendship, especially while physically separated during the semesters they were learning remotely.
Guiran said it was the strength and comfort of his classmates that got him through “the hardest year of my life.” In Oct. 2020 of his junior year, Guiran had voiced his worry that COVID-19 would prevent him from visiting family in Colombia; two months later, he lost two grandparents there to COVID-19. “There are two empty seats in the crowd right now,” he said.
He urged his classmates to remember that more than any material accomplishments or possessions, what endures are “your friends and family who choose you again and again.”
Student speakers Maddie Winter, of Brooklyn, New York, and Owen Matthews, of Madison, New Jersey, reminisced about the Class of 2022’s time at Princeton with wit and whimsy.
Calling out the true fuel that kept her and her classmates going as they navigated the very real challenges of the pandemic — WaWa hoagies and UStore snacks — Winter kept the humor volume on high with a quip about the required asymptomatic COVID-19 tests: “Conjuring up enough spit is one of the most pressing struggles of our time,” she joked, eliciting a roar of laughter from the audience.
She noted they arrived as first-year students thinking they had all the answers, but the University gave them an unexpected gift. “Princeton bestowed us with the power to ask meaningful and impactful questions that can make a difference,” she said. Though they picked up a few answers along their journey, it’s the questions they learned to ask, Winter said, that came to define their experience here and the mindset that they will take with them.
She admitted that while they may spend their whole lives “thinking it is socially acceptable, or perhaps even attractive, to wear fluorescent orange in public” — she challenged her classmates to use their voices collectively and individually as a way to stay connected and effect change.
“Ask the influential questions,” she said. “The ones that push institutions to address inequities and better the lives of the vulnerable. The ones that make a difference in the world.”
Matthews, who had wryly introduced Fauci by telling the audience “[he] will talk about his experiences serving as CDC director during the Spanish influenza of 1918,” began her remarks with her own nod to the pandemic.
She counted off the perks of remote learning — “You get to wake up two minutes before meetings start, wear your pajamas to class and scroll through Tiger Confessions during lectures” — then deadpanned: “I do all those things when class is in person too, but figured it was worth mentioning that it was a change for some.” The crowd whooped and applauded.
She said: “The greatest lesson I have learned at Princeton, and during COVID, is to be awed and inspired, not intimidated by my classmates — that it is the connections we make here that makes this place so special.” Lest they think her too sentimental, she concluded with a huge smile, “That’s why I’ve sent all of you a LinkedIn request.”
Class Day also featured the presentation of awards to seniors for community service, athletics and leadership, as well as the naming of honorary class members.
A webcast of the Class Day ceremony is available online. Graduation activities will continue with the University’s 275th Commencement, scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday, May 24.