--Remarks as prepared--
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, addressed Princeton University’s Class of 2022 as its Class Day speaker. He was selected by the class in March to speak at the May 23 ceremony. Full Class Day coverage will be available at princeton.edu later today.
Thank you, President Eisgruber, for that kind introduction. Members of the faculty; distinguished guests; family members and friends of the graduates; and you, the 2022 graduating class of Princeton University. It is a pleasure and an honor to be your Class Day speaker, and it is exciting for me to share this fun and celebratory day with you.
I have had the privilege of delivering remarks at a number of graduation exercises over the years. More often than not, I have referred to my own graduation from college many years ago and drawn certain analogies between myself and the students. to illustrate that in the common landmark of college graduation, we likely had shared feelings and common experiences. Clearly, in one respect that does not readily apply to your Class.
The profound ways COVID-19 has disrupted your student years are unprecedented. Viewing the situation from my vantage point at the National Institutes of Health and as a member of the White House COVID Response Team, I have a sincere and heartfelt message to each of you. Years from now, as you recall your experience here at Princeton over the past 2- and one-half years, it will be clear that COVID left an indelible mark on you and your entire generation. Having said that, I am in awe of you all since each of you deserves enormous credit and respect for your extraordinary adaptability, resilience, and dedication to learning, completing your studies, and graduating despite immense difficulties and uncertainties.
Now truth be told, when I think back on my own graduation from college, I cannot remember a word of what the commencement speaker said. And so, years from now I do not expect you to remember what I say. But in the next few minutes, I hope to kindle in you some thoughts.
Expect the unexpected. This is an enduring issue that continues to confront me to this day. Planning one’s path in life is something we all do to a greater or lesser degree. You already have done that to some extent by having chosen Princeton for your undergraduate education. However, in my own experience, some of the most impactful events and directions in my life have been completely unanticipated and unplanned. You are at a period in your lives of virtually unlimited potential and so please keep a completely open mind and do not shy away from dreaming impossible dreams and seizing unanticipated opportunities.
Let me describe an example of such a completely unanticipated challenge and opportunity that profoundly impacted the direction of my career and my entire life.
After graduating from medical school and following years of residency and fellowship training, I began a journey in 1972 as a young clinical investigator at the National Institutes of Health. Over the next nine years, I progressed to what many considered a very successful, safe, and comfortable career in investigative medicine. My future seemed settled. Then, in June 1981 — 41 years ago next month — my life took a turn. I remember quite clearly sitting in my NIH office reading in a CDC report about a handful of cases of an unusual pneumonia among gay men in Los Angeles. A month later, 26 additional cases among gay men from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City, not only with this unusual pneumonia but also other rare infections and cancer, were described in a second CDC report. We did not realize it at the time, but we were witnessing the evolution of one of the worse public health scourges in recent memory – the HIV/AIDS pandemic. I became totally engrossed in and fascinated by this mysterious new disease that did not yet have a name or an etiologic agent. I am still not sure what drove me to do this, but I decided right then and there to make an abrupt turn in the direction of my career, abandon my other research pursuits and investigate the pathogenesis of this mysterious disease. My mentors were horrified and insisted that I was making a career-ending mistake and that this disease would amount to nothing. However, the subsequent emergence of the AIDS pandemic, and my decision to pivot and devote my efforts to this unexpected public health challenge transformed my professional career, if not my entire life, and put me on the path that I am on to this very day.
Now, obviously, not every opportunity or challenge you encounter will influence your careers or your lives or be as dramatic as a mysterious infectious disease outbreak. However, please believe me that you will confront the same types of unpredictable events that I have experienced, regardless of what directions your careers or lives take. And so, expect the unexpected, and stay heads up for an unanticipated opportunity should it present itself. Of course, listen to advice of others who care about you, but at the end of the day, go with your own gut. It can be rewarding, exciting and potentially career- and life-altering.
The Failings in Our Society.
Our country’s experience with COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on one of the great failings in our society: the lack of health equity. As a physician, I feel that I must highlight this for you today. COVID-19 has exposed longstanding inequities that have undermined the physical, social, economic, and emotional health of racial and ethnic minorities. Many members of minority groups are at increased risk of COVID-19 simply because the jobs they have as essential workers do not allow them to isolate from social activity. More importantly, when people in minority groups are infected with the coronavirus, they have a much greater likelihood of developing a severe consequence due to elevated rates of underlying conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and chronic lung disease, among others, that lead to an increased risk of hospitalization and death.
Very few of these conditions are racially determined. Almost all relate to social determinants of health experienced since birth, including the limited availability of a healthful diet, substandard housing, the lack of access to health care, and tragically, the restrictions and pressures experienced to this day because of the undeniable racism that persists in our society.
Let us promise ourselves that our “corporate memory” of the tragic reality of the inequities experienced with COVID-19 does not fade after we return to our new normal. It will take a decades-long commitment for society to address these disparities. I strongly urge you to be part of that commitment. Together we must find the strength, wisdom, ingenuity, and 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.
Which brings me to my next point of discussion:
Public service and social responsibility. I sincerely believe that regardless of our career paths, we cannot look the other way from pressing societal issues. There are many communities in our own country and globally that are challenged by poverty, drug abuse, violence, inadequate education, discrimination, and despair. Some of you may devote your future careers and lives to directly addressing these societal issues. Understandably, most of you will not. In this regard, public service does not necessarily mean a profession or avocation devoted entirely to public service. One can incorporate elements of public service into your lives regardless of your career choice. This might require your exercising a quality which is my next point of discussion.
Leadership. You are graduating from an extraordinary institution. The very fact that you were chosen to be part of this outstanding Princeton class in my mind puts something of a burden of responsibility upon at least some of you to assume leadership roles in our society. It does not necessarily have to be designated leadership. Leadership can take many forms, including the quiet and subtle leadership of example.
Which brings me to my next issue.
Our Divided Nation. I have spent my entire professional career in Washington, D.C., as a scientist, a physician, and a public health official. Although that career path is fundamentally devoid of politics in the classic sense, being in Washington has allowed me to experience first-hand the intensity of the divisiveness in our nation.
What troubles me is that differences of opinion or ideology have in certain situations been reflected by egregious distortions of reality. Sadly, elements of our society have grown increasingly inured to a cacophony of falsehoods and lies that often stand largely unchallenged, ominously leading to an insidious acceptance of what I call the “normalization of untruths.”
We see this happen daily, with falsehoods propagated through a range of information platforms by a spectrum of people, including, sad to say, certain elected officials in positions of power. Yet, the outrage and dissent against this alarming trend has been muted and mild.
If you take away nothing else from what I say today, I appeal to you, please remember this: It is our collective responsibility not to shrug our shoulders and sink to a tacit acceptance of the normalization of untruths. Because if we do, lies become dominant and reality is distorted. And then truth means nothing, integrity means nothing, facts mean nothing.
This is how a society deteriorates into a way of life where veracity becomes subservient to propaganda rather than being upheld as our guiding principle.
Seek and listen to opinions that differ from your own. But apply your abilities to critically analyze and examine, which you have honed here at Princeton, to discern and challenge weak assertions built on untruths. As future leaders in our society, we are counting on you for that.
In closing, I have been speaking to you over the past few minutes about the serious issues that we are facing in our current world. And so, putting this serious business aside for a moment, I want to close with a reminder about the joyousness of life and what a bright future you all have. Allow yourselves to cultivate this joy as much as you do your professional accomplishments. Find your source of joy and happiness and fully embrace it. And think upon your future as that stated by 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”
Congratulations to you, to your families, and to your loved ones. Good luck and God bless you.