Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy Urges ‘Moral Leadership’ in 2017 UCSF Commencement Address

By Nina Bai

Vivek Murthy speaks on the stage of the UCSF School of Medicine Commencement ceremony
Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy addresses UCSF School of Medicine graduates on May 15. Photo by Elisabeth Fall

Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA, the 19th Surgeon General of the United States, urged UC San Francisco’s graduating medical students to stand up for truth, science and the most vulnerable among us, in a commencement address delivered Monday.

Murthy spoke about the many national challenges the new graduates will be inheriting, from the millions of underinsured and uninsured people, to an epidemic of substance abuse and addiction, to “a deep sense of division in our country that is fueled by fear.” As physicians embarking in this world, he said, they will have to go beyond providing the best possible care for their patients.

Vivek Murthy laughs with UCSF medical students
Vivek Murthy meets with School of Medicine graduates backstage before the commencement ceremony. Photo by Elisabeth Fall 

“The world needs you to embrace your role as a moral leader in society,” he told the UCSF School of Medicine graduates at Davies Symphony Hall. “Being a moral leader means standing up for truth, reason and science. It means speaking out for the most vulnerable among us.”

Murthy acknowledged that health care professionals have traditionally shied away from controversy and politics, but he urged them to put tradition aside. Now is the time to make their voices heard, whether that means writing op-eds for the newspaper or holding elected leaders accountable.

“Your obligation from today onward is to stand up for the vulnerable and the voiceless. And if that means engaging in controversy, then do it anyway,” he said, to a round of applause. “If that means taking the risk of being labeled as political, do it anyway because principles are only worth having if you have the courage to act on them.”

Murthy emphasized three qualities he wished for the new graduates: clarity, the ability to see clearly whether we are holding true to our values; courage, the ability to move forward even in the face of uncertainty and fear; and love, our greatest source of power and healing. He described the fundamental challenge in the world today as a struggle between love and fear.

Your obligation from today onward is to stand up for the vulnerable and the voiceless. And if that means engaging in controversy, then do it anyway.

Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy

“Fear is the crutch of cowardly leaders,” he said, and told the graduates to “choose to lead with love.”

Murthy sent the new graduates off with a sense of both urgency and hope. “Our journey does not end with graduation today,” he said. “Our journey ends when health is no longer the privilege of the few but the birthright of all people.”

Murthy, who was appointed Surgeon General by President Barack Obama in 2014, prioritized addressing obesity- and tobacco-linked diseases, substance abuse problems, community-based prevention programs, and reducing the stigma around mental health issues. In April 2017, his four-year term was cut short by President Donald Trump.

Murthy, the son of Indian-American immigrants and the first Asian-American appointed as Surgeon General, began his speech by telling of his “unlikely” journey to this stage. His grandfather was a farmer in a small village in India, but his father dreamed about the possibilities of America. His parents raised him to believe that “America was a place where your ideas and your willingness to work hard mattered more than the color of your skin, or the sound of your accent, or the fact that you had a funny-sounding name.”

“I stand here before you fully aware that in no other country in the world would the grandson of a poor farmer from India be asked by the President to look out for the health of the entire nation,” he said. “That is the power and promise of America and I am truly grateful for it.”

Watch Vivek Murthy's full commencement address: