President Lawrence's remarks: You will always belong to this place

He tells new graduates they have been trained to turn information into knowledge, and hopefully into wisdom

My colleagues on the Board of Trustees, honored guests, President Lobo of Honduras who honors us by his presence today – his daughter is among our graduates – thank you, sir, for being with us. Our honorary degree recipients, my dear faculty colleagues, my dear staff colleagues, alumni, supporters, families, friends of the graduates, and none of you will be offended, I know, if I say, most especially, most especially, future alumni of Brandeis University of the class of 2012.

Now presidents are not supposed to have favorite classes – and indeed, we do not! But that said, how can I not have a special feeling for the first class with whom I spent a full academic year? You spent your last year and a half here during my first year and a half as president. My family and I will forever be grateful to you for the warm welcome that has been extended to us and the way in which you welcomed us into your lives and your world here at Brandeis. But the special connection between us goes beyond that. With your last year of college being my first full year as president, we have all together been standing together at a threshold. We have all been thinking quite a bit, I believe, about transitions – about standing in the present at a threshold, contemplating what we have achieved in the past and particularly imagining what we hope to build in the future.  Change.  Change can be disconcerting but change is also exciting. Change can be exhilarating. Change is about opportunity, it is about potential, it is about growth and above all it is about beginnings. After all, today is not called “conclusion,” it is not even called “transition” – it is called “commencement.” So let me share some thoughts with you and yes, the inevitable words of advice on this, your Commencement day, as we stand together today on the threshold of your Brandeis graduation.    

And in turn, as you contemplate how far you have come in your lives and all that has brought you to this point, I know that your thoughts turn to your family and your friends. So much of what you have accomplished these past years is due to the support and the encouragement of those who love you and care for you. Would you please now take a moment, stand and recognize those who have supported you during your years here at Brandeis.

Now in the next few minutes what I would like to do is to share with you some thoughts about a question that has filled the news recently, from op-eds to conference halls, from Congress to family kitchen tables. Economists tend to call it the “value proposition question.” Parents and students tend simply to say: “Is this worth it?  Is college worth it?”

The question is particularly pressing today because of the pressing challenges that we as a society are facing. When you started with us four years ago, markets were crashing with more sustained uncertainty than at any time since the 1930s. Today much of that feeling of free-falling has eased but many of the uncertainties remain. Just as the housing bubble burst, many people ask how long can it be before the higher education bubble bursts. And I need not remind anyone in this hall that higher education is a very expensive undertaking. For many if not most of you, it is the most expensive investment you will make in your lives. And so to some extent, the question of whether college is worth it, if you will, is a bottom line financial question. Is college worth the economic cost?

So as to that, let me give a bottom line answer to a bottom line question. Studies have been shown, in fact, that college graduates in this country have lifetime incomes some 70 to 80 percent higher than non-college graduates. The long term payoff means that a bachelor’s degree is without doubt worth it. But there are lots of ways to get a bachelor’s degree, and the liberal arts is only one way. So even if the economic worth of a B.A. is clear, what about the worth of a liberal arts education, and particularly, what about the worth of your Brandeis education. Bottom line reasons alone won’t fully answer this question. Instead, let’s reexamine the question. To answer the question “is it worth it?”, we have to think about what we’re trying to accomplish in higher education. This brings me back to what I said a moment ago about change. I spoke about the mixture of excitement and anxiety caused by change. But in fact change is the only constant. That insight is at least as old as the insight of Greek philosopher Heraclitus some 2500 years ago who said, “nothing endures but change.” Or more recently, US Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki put it quite pointedly when he said: “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” Your training here at Brandeis has prepared you for change, for the challenges of a world that we literally cannot even imagine.

  • You have been trained to analyze carefully.
  • You have been trained to solve problems creatively.
  • You have been trained to communicate effectively.
  • And perhaps this most of all:  You have been trained to turn information – raw, undifferentiated bits of information that today are more available to us than any – into knowledge.

All of these are skills will serve you well not only today, the day that you graduate, but decades from now, when the work place will have changed in ways that are unimaginable to us today. It is precisely the training that flows from the liberal arts education that you have received here that will provide the skills to adapt and adjust to this ever-changing environment.  Mental agility and creativity will be in their highest demand in the decades to come.

The liberal arts training that you have received shapes more than just your value in the marketplace; it shapes your even more important value as a citizen. In a recent work Andrew Delbanco put it well when he said, “The University should be a place for reflection for the young to explore areas of the human experience, to be fully aware of history and the arts… We don’t want to have a population that has technical competence but is not able to think critically about the issues that face us as a society.”

Now by the training you have received at Brandeis, I mean not only what took place in your classes, but also in the laboratories and the libraries, the studios and the stages, the playing fields and the courts, dining halls and dormitories. Here you learned two vitally important lessons -- emotional intelligence (what is sometimes called EQ, as opposed to IQ) and risk taking.

Your training here includes the vast array of social settings at Brandeis, from one-on-one conversations to  truly astonishing range of student organizations. The willingness to engage in real relationships and build real communities is in many ways the real hallmark of a Brandeis education. Brandeis fosters your abilities to understand your own motivations as well as those of others: This is the essence of emotional intelligence recognized by psychologists today as actually the best predictor of success in complex organizations, be they private companies, government organizations, or indeed entire societies.

As for risk-taking, is there any greater risk in this society than the shear risk of being yourself? Of trying approaches to life without certainty of success or outcome? Here we can refer to two great modern philosophers, if you will. One, the great Dr. Martin Luther King, who said that faith is being willing to take the first step without knowing that the rest of the staircase is there. The other, another great philosopher, Dr. J., Julius Erving, who some of you will remember invented playing basketball above the rim. It seems to me that if we’re gathered in Gosman, we should talk a little basketball. Dr. J., when he played his college ball not far from here at the University of Massachusetts, was cautioned by his coach once, “Son, never leave you feet without knowing where you’re going to come down.” He said, “Sir, I can’t play basketball that way.” And you can’t live your lives that way either.

You have learned that very well at Brandeis. I have every confidence as I look out at your class today that you will achieve amazing and unique things in the world as you go off to law school, medical school, graduate school, jobs, businesses that you will start, and a full range of adventures that stretch out in front of you. A vital and potent combination of intellectual intelligence, emotional intelligence and a willingness to leave your feet not quite sure where you’re going to come down, will equip you to adapt to change over time, the greatest challenge that we will all face in the coming decades.

My final reason for telling you that your years at Brandeis have very much been worth it, is that as you leave this place, you most decidedly are not alone. It is absolutely striking to me how many Brandeisians tell me that their closest friends continue to be their Brandeis classmates. That is true of the class of 2011, that is true of the pioneer class of 1952, who will gather next month to celebrate our first, their first 60th reunion. There is much you take from your time here, but most of all what you take is each other. You are an undergraduate for four years – you are an alum for the rest of your life.

And it is not only each other, it is the place. Remember what you liked best about yourself here at Brandeis – and stay in touch with that person, the person you became, the person you are still becoming. There’s a paradox here. You can’t hold onto this place – you felt it this past week during senior week, as you tried to hold onto it and it slipped through your fingers. That is because places do not belong to us – we belong to places. You will always belong to this place, to its values and to what it stands for.  You have heard much and contributed much to our sense of social justice. Remember that social justice is not merely a part of the curriculum or a career path – it is a way of life. You must form your own idea of what “social justice” means—but whatever way you choose to embody that term, to make it real, it will always entail the highest ethical standards. Our two alumni honorees among our honorary degree recipients today exemplify this point brilliantly. Both Debbie Bial and the late Myra Kraft – Brandeisians to their core – understood that social justice is not about what we think in the privacy of our rooms and studies; it is about how we act out into the world and change that world. Each of them, a true woman of valor, took that from this place out into the world and the world is the better for it. We repair the world by building significant, path-breaking institutions like Posse and yes, this great university, and we repair the world by common decency and acts of kindness to each other. You will serve the cause of social justice in your professional life, in your activities as a volunteer, and in the ways in which you treat your colleagues, those for whom you work and those who will work for you, and all of those who will share in the rich lives that now stretch in front of you today. And if we cannot fully repair this world, then we can, indeed, we must leave it a little better than we found it.

I started by talking about your training, and as I project that training out into the future world, with all its uncertainties but also with all its opportunities, I conclude with my wishes for you:

  • You have been trained to communicate effectively – may you always use that skill to reach out to others and to build bridges.
  • 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, personally, locally, nationally and even globally.
  • And you have been trained to turn information into knowledge – may you learn to take the next step in that essential chain, and turn that knowledge into wisdom.

I hope that in the months and years ahead, you will always feel that Brandeis is a place to which you can return, either in your mind or even literally here on campus — return to find a beacon of clarity in an all-too-uncertain world.

It is one of the great privileges of standing here that I get to see all of you reflected in the eyes of your family and your friends. My colleagues and I know very well what they feel today when they look at you. “Maybe we love you too much. Maybe we expect too much of you. But we do, and you better not let us down!”

I thank you all.

We’ll miss you all.

God bless you all.

Categories: General

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