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 #31     “Why?” and “Why Not?”:  On the Inauguration Speech of Prof. Claudine Gay,  the 30th President of Harvard University

Representing Keio University on behalf of our president Professor Kohei Itoh, I participated in the inauguration ceremony of the 30th president of Harvard University (established in 1636), the Wilbur A. Cowett Professor of Government Claudine Gay (1970-) on September 29th, 2023. While this ceremony invited more than 180 institutions from all over the world, the Japanese delegates included only three: Vice President of the University of Tokyo (Professor Kaori Hayashi), Vice President of Tohoku University (Professor Masahiro Yamaguchi) and me. Despite the changeable weather, we enjoyed the Arts Prelude to the Inauguration, the academic symposiums and the academic procession. The ceremony reached its climax when the new president started her inaugural address “Courage to be Harvard” with an apology: “Thank you for soldiering through the rain, I’m sorry, but I’m not gonna shorten my speech”(

apanese delegates: (from right to left) Headmaster Takayuki Tatsumi (KANY), Prof. Yujin Yaguchi (Vice President, the University of Tokyo), Prof. Kaori Hayashi (Vice President, Trustee, the University of Tokyo), Prof. Masahiro Yamaguchi (Vice President, Tohoku University), Ms. Mari Kotani (literary critic), Ms. Akane Endo (officer, Tohoku University)

Japanese delegates: (from right to left) Headmaster Takayuki Tatsumi (KANY), Prof. Yujin Yaguchi (Vice President, the University of Tokyo), Prof. Kaori Hayashi (Vice President, Trustee, the University of Tokyo), Prof. Masahiro Yamaguchi (Vice President, Tohoku University), Ms. Mari Kotani (literary critic), Ms. Akane Endo (officer, Tohoku University)


Prof. Claudine Gay: entering the Tercentenary Theatre

Prof. Claudine Gay: entering the Tercentenary Theatre

Being the first Black female president in Harvard’s nearly 400-year history, Professor Gay gave an intelligent, rhetorical and emotional speech on the topic of “Why?” and “Why not?” in view of the future of higher education. 

On one hand, the question “Why?” needs no explanation; “Why?” refers to the function of what Immanuel Kant called “the pure reason,” which leads to the spirit of scientific research.  Therefore, Professor Gay states: ”Why? Is the question of scientific breakthroughs, archival discoveries, fresh artistic forms, new remedies for physical and social ills.”

On the other hand, the question “Why not?” reveals the function of what Kant designated “the practical reason,” a kind of ethical imperative to renovate the world we are living in. Professor Gay defines it as “the aspiration to do what might seem impossible.” “Why not fight the climate crisis on every front or keep lit the flame of exploration---in the darkest depths of the sea and the furthest reaches of space-time?”

What fascinated me most in her speech is the moment Professor Gay closely intertwined “Why not?” with the work of our courage:

 “Asking Why not? should be a Harvard refrain---the willingness to sound foolish, risk ridicule, be dismissed as a dreamer.  We’ve seen it time and again---the courage to take a chance, even when success seems beyond reach.  And the courage to collaborate, to listen, to compromise, to grow.  To bring our imaginations and talents together in a different way.”

Academic Procession: representatives of more than 180 institutions all over the world march from Boylston Hall to Tercentenary Theatre in order of the founding year of the institution they represented respectively.

Filled with allusions to major intellectual historical figures like John Adams, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes and John Rawles, her speech cannot help but conjure up the key concepts by the cultural revolutionaries she did not mention in the text: Martin Luther King, Jr.(everyone knows his “I have a dream” speech), John Lennon (sing “Imagine” famous for the line “you may say I’m a dreamer”) and Steve Jobs (recall his Stanford speech with a punch line “Stay hungry. Stay foolish”). Professor Gay dared to repress their names within the textual unconscious. Why? If you notice that she didn’t mention “affirmative action” in the speech, you will immediately understand how strategic she was.  Indeed, in June 2023 the Supreme Court declared Harvard College’s race-conscious admissions policy unconstitutional and effectively ended the use of affirmative action in colleges and universities. However, Gay’s inauguration speech only foregrounded “the inclusion of diverse viewpoints and experiences” as essential for the University’s work. As the October 3, 2023 issue of the Harvard Crimson pointed out, “Gay’s decision to avoid discussing the Supreme Court ruling and the University’s internal review of its admissions practices likely stemmed from a desire to avoid fueling news headlines that would focus more on affirmative action than her installment ceremony” (

Likewise, she did not mention King, Lennon and Jobs in her speech, for she hated to see news headlines that would focus more on the champions of the civil rights movement, the ex-Beatle’s song and Silicon Valley.  Having imbibed the best fruits of counter culture as represented by them, she only hoped to work up the courage necessary for today’s scholars: “The courage to preserve the openness and diversity we need to ask Why? And the visionary courage to ask Why not?” 

In retrospect, it is our founder Fukuzawa sensei who had the courage to form Keio Gijuku’s partnership with Harvard University in the late 19th century. In order to establish in 1890 the university division of Keio Gijuku, that is, the prototype of Keio University consisting of the departments of Letters, Law and Economics, Fukuzawa sensei started carrying on a correspondence with Professor Charles Eliot, the 21st president of Harvard University and asked him to recommend Harvard related professors who would feel happy to teach English at Keio Gijuku. As a result, Keio Gijuku welcomed three distinguished professors: Garret Droppers, William Liscomb and James Summers.  In 1898 Fukuzawa sensei succeeded in inviting Prof. Thomas Sergeant Perry, distinguished scholar of English and Comparative Literature, to teach Anglo-American Literature at Keio. Being the son of the nephew of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry who in 1853 opened Japan with four black ships and reestablished for the first time in over 200 years regular trade and discourse between Japan and the western world, Prof. Perry received an enthusiastic welcome in Tokyo.

What is more, in order to celebrate the tercentenary of Harvard in 1936 Dr. Koizumi Shinzo, the president of Keio University, visited Cambridge and highly appreciated the four necessary conditions of university defended by the 23rd president James Bryant Conant: 1) academic scholarship 2) liberal education 3) higher education 4) student life.  Inspired by the idea of Harvard, Dr. Koizumi envisioned and established the prototype of the Faculty of Science and Technology.

Now in the 21st century Professor Conant still remains influential.  The new president Claudine Gay states: “We are still on a journey that began in earnest with President Conant---to draw from a deeper pool of talent and provide our institution with the excellence it deserves and our diverse society with the leaders it needs and expects.”  Here we find her vision not incompatible with Keio Gijuku’s own mission to raise up future leaders and luminaries.