A celebration of all things Brandeisian

Bial, Sen, Lawrence tell graduates that they face an uncertain world but have acquired the tools they'll need to cope with the future

Photo/Mike Lovett

Provost Steve A.N. Goldstein (left) and President Fred Lawrence bestowed an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters on Deborah Bial '87

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Video: Commencement Highlights

Remarks by President Lawrence
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Keynote address by Deborah Bial
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Student address by Daniel Liebman '12  Text and video

Juilliard's Polisi speaks to arts graduates Text

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Leading advocates for social justice gave Brandeis University graduates a grim overview of the world they face and a spirited charge to go out and fix it as the university observed its 61st commencement today.

Deborah Bial of the Class of 1987, the principal commencement speaker, told about 8,000 graduates, family members and well-wishers in Gosman Sports and Convocation Center that “the United States has made great progress in terms of civil rights and women’s rights. But the progress we’ve made has been too slow. This country is forgetting its way.”

“The people who have come before you have made a mess of things,” declared Bial, the president and founder of the Posse Foundation, which has been highly successful at creating opportunities in higher education for youth from America’s urban public school systems. “Now it’s up to you.”

Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate in economics, warned those attending the ceremony of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management in Spingold Theater that the size of the national debt may be misused in the upcoming presidential campaign to rationalize deep cuts in public spending.

“A large scale cutting of every kind of government expenditure, which would slash market demand, would hardly be a reasoned response” for an economy already suffering from insufficient demand and vast unused production capacity, Sen said. Citing the failure of austerity measures to lift Europe from recession, he said that “the last thing that should be done is to repeat that folly here.”

The world needs social policy and social engagement,” said Sen, who in addition to his credentials as an economist is widely acclaimed as a humanist and philosopher. “Human society has always flourished through people helping each other. Even economists recognize the importance of social cooperation and social engagement.”

Bial, Sen, the late philanthropist Myra Hiatt Kraft ’64, Nobel laureate in genetics Sydney Brenner and Juilliard School President Joseph W. Polisi were this year’s honorary degree recipients.

President Fred Lawrence, who was warmly applauded by the Gosman center crowd, assured the new graduates that their Brandeis education has given them the tools they need for the difficult work that Bial and Sen said must be done.

“You have been trained to communicate effectively – may you always use that skill to reach out to others and to build bridges,” Lawrence said in a charge to the students that resonated like a benediction. “You have been trained to analyze carefully – may you always be deliberate in your judgments and measured in your actions.

“You have been trained to solve problems creatively – may you always find ways to use your skills for the betterment of a world so desperately needing repair….”

Bob Bargar, whose son Alex majored in economics and was pre-med, said he felt the commencement ceremony was very uplifting.

“I was very impressed to see the genuine emotion that President Lawrence expressed when bestowing the honorary degree on Myra Kraft,” Barger said. “That was truly touching.  Debbie Bial was also inspiring with what she’s done in 25 years with her Posse Foundation.” 

Bargar attended commencement with his son Alex’s fifth grade teacher from Newton, Mass.

“I thought commencement was fantastic,” said Jill Goodman, whose daughter Jordana majored in anthropology and chemistry and will attend Boston University Law School in the fall. “The weather, the speakers. It was awesome. I thought President Lawrence did a really nice job.”

“It’s an emotional time,” said Arthur Goodman, Jordana’s dad. The couple admitted to a tear-filled drive from their Greenbrook, N.J., home.

“She worked hard, she had a lot of fun, and is very emotional about leaving,” Arthur Goodman said. “I’m glad to see that she has received the background that she’ll need to move on from here.”

Video: New graduates celebrate and reflect

Tamar Brown of Brooklyn, N.Y., majored in philosophy. Come fall, she will be working in a public high school in New York City serving underprivileged students. She was one of 500 recent graduates selected nationwide from a pool of 20,000 applicants to be a New York City Teaching Fellow.

Brown and her mother left Jamaica when Brown was 6 years old, after her father’s death, to be with family in the United States.

“I’m a first generation Posse Scholar,” Brown said. “Debbie Bial is celebrating, and I’m one of hers, so it’s a delight. I’m so excited.”

“I’m going to be blunt and say it’s sad to see that I’m one of only a few students of color graduating from Brandeis University this year,” Brown said. “That’s pretty sad, but it’s a celebratory moment and I hope to back to the New York City public school district and get those students to go here and other prestigious universities.”

Bial’s commencement address contained liberal amounts of stern judgments and fond recollections. She recalled close friends among her classmates, favorite professors and social practices at some dances during her day. But she was unblinkingly serious about problems facing the country.

 “The issues are right in front of us, stark, obvious, maybe event mocking,” Bial said. “Today, blacks and Latinos make up about 30 percent of the population, but they represent only about 12 percent of the student body at our top colleges and universities – schools like Brandeis. We are not thinking about or preparing nearly enough for the future.”

“Did you know that 97 percent of the U.S. Senate is white?” she asked. “Why? It’s the year 2012.

“We’re still engaged in a war in Afghanistan. Why?” she continued. “Do you actually know? …. And one out of every three black children lives in poverty in the United States. Why?”

Bial finished with a strong affirmation of Brandeis graduates’ abilities to act on these and other problems.

“If, during your time at Brandeis, you became involved in a cause, or joined a campus organization to address or discuss or work on a social or political challenge, or traveled to another country to help another community, or wrote a paper on an issue that you feel passionately about, or helped a friend or classmate go through a really hard time, I want you to stand up,” she said.

Virtually everyone in the Class of 2012 rose.

“Stay standing,” Bial said with emotion. “Look around you. This is an army!  You are where our hope lies. Look at the more than 800 of you in this graduating class who care.”

At the International Business School’s 18th commencement exercises, Dean Bruce Magid, the Martin and Ahuva Gross Chair in Financial Markets and Institutions, said graduates are entering an increasingly complex and competitive business world.

“I am reminded of the Hebrew phrase ‘Tikkun Olam’ – to heal the world – which I think aptly describes your challenge and role as leaders and problem-solvers of tomorrow,” Magid said at the ceremony in Levin Ballroom. “The task is great, but your drive and determination are greater.”

Concluding his address in Gosman, Lawrence also referred to healing the world as he told graduates to “remember that social justice is not merely a part of a curriculum or a career path – it is a way of life.

“We repair the world by building significant, pathbreaking institutions like the Posse Foundation and, yes, this great university, and we repair the world by acts of common kindness and decency to others,” he said. “And if we cannot fully repair this world, then we can, we must, leave it a little better than we found it.”

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