President Fred Lawrence's commencement address
Mr. Chairman, my colleagues on the Board of Trustees, honored guests, particularly our honorary degree recipients, my dear faculty colleagues, my dear staff colleagues, alumni, supporters, families, friends of the graduates—and I know none of you will be upset if I say–but most of all – soon to be alumni of Brandeis University – the class of 2013.
Your Commencement Day is a true turning point in your lives – a threshold as you complete this significant phase of your life and start toward the next. This is the time when university presidents talk about the fact that you are about to confront change. But for the class of 2013, this is something that you already know quite well. You have been dealing with change throughout your college career and indeed well before. You began high school in a world with a growing economy, but by the time you joined us, you had witnessed financial and employment markets crashing with more sustained uncertainty than at any time since the 1930s. You went to high school in a world without the Occupy Movement or Wikileaks, and before the Arab Spring. At Brandeis, many of you reacted to change and challenges by reaching out to help others, including victims of devastating earthquakes in Haiti. You witnessed, albeit remotely, attacks on United States embassies abroad and, not remotely at all, attacks much closer to home.
And you witnessed, indeed participated in, change right here on campus, including my own a little over two years ago inauguration. My family and I will forever be grateful to you for the warm welcome that you extended to us and the way you have let us become part of your lives and your world here at Brandeis. You were some of the first students to participate in a Justice Brandeis Semesters, some of the first to take classes in the Mandel Center for the Humanities, some of the first to swim in the reopened Linsey Pool. You spearheaded ‘Deis Impact – our festival of social justice – and you brought the message of “Small School Big Spirit” all the way to the Today Show. And let it be clear that the only reason we lost to the University of Tennessee is because they have more kids on campus on any given day then we have living alumni. You’ve survived hurricanes and blizzards with good humor[laughter]. Good humor, right? And faced tragedy and uncertainty in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings with grace and compassion. We all learned the importance of confronting these events together. At Brandeis Beginnings, I like to remind students “none of us is as smart as all of us.” I believe that what we learned last month in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon attacks, is that none of us is as strong as all of us. We are Boston Strong – We are Brandeis Strong.
Having reached this milestone in your lives, I know your thoughts now turn to family and friends. You owe much of what you have accomplished to the support and indeed the sacrifice of those who have loved you and have cared for you. Please now stand and recognize those who have supported you during your years here at Brandeis, and in fact throughout your life.
So if we can all agree that the world is changing faster than ever before, and that you have been experiencing this change during a now substantial portion of your lives, it is worthwhile to take a few minutes, to think about how you will address the challenges of a world that is so very, very different from the one in which you went to high school.
I want to think about this from the precise moment we mark today: How have you been prepared here at Brandeis for an extremely fast-changing world.
From the perspective of today, I think the right question is not “What have I learned?” although it is related to that. The right question is “Who have I become?” or better yet, “Who am I in the process of becoming?” There are many aspects of this question to be sure, but for each of you graduating today, there will be different answers but for each of you graduation today, part of that answer is, “I am a Brandeisian.”
How you, personally, have integrated Brandeis values into your own experience will vary, but I am going to suggest to you today that there are some common themes as to what it means to be Brandeisian.
First, it means that you recognize opportunity. The ability to recognize opportunity is exemplified by the ways in which you have embraced the seamlessness with which our undergraduate program is connected with our graduate and professional schools and our wide-ranging disciplines in the ways in which they connect with each other. Consider the number of dual and even triple degrees we award today and the large number of you graduating with academic achievements in many (often different) fields: Biology and American Studies, Business and Art History, Health: Science, Society & Policy(which I just said for the grown-ups in the room, the kids know it as HSSP) and Film, Biochemistry and English. And those are just the duel degrees of the people I ran into on the way here this morning. Consider as well the number of you who explored studies and projects on a graduate level while still undergraduates. You have co-authored papers with neuroscientists, psychologists, economists and historians. To recognize and take full advantage of opportunities is not without its challenges. Those of you who have combined major campus leadership roles with your studies, achieved multiple degrees, studied abroad or taken part in a Justice Brandeis Semester know that sometimes this has been challenging, sometimes very challenging. You have always been buoyed by your hopes. As journalist and early American feminist Margaret Fuller, who had she lived a century later, would, I am quite sure have been a Brandeisian, wrote, “Cherish your best hopes as a faith, and abide by them in action. Such shall be the means to their fulfillment.”
Being Brandeisian also means that you are a leader. In your years here, I am sure that you have played a leadership role in some area, formal or informal, in the arts or sciences or business or policy, for an issue or an event, a celebration or a remembrance. Leadership, after all, isn’t just holding a title or winning an election or organizing an event. Leadership is also standing up for something you believe, taking an idea and making it a reality, helping friends out of difficult situations, demonstrating kindness and compassion, communicating your ideas clearly and convincingly, and righting wrongs.
Our outgoing chair of the Board of Trustees, Malcolm Sherman, has exemplified this kind of leadership. In the face of economic challenges and leadership transitions, he has continually reminded the Brandeis family over the last six years that this institution brings great value to students, to scholarship, to the arts, and to the world. Mal, your Brandeis family salutes you and thanks you for all you have done for this institution over your decades of service, and especially over these past six years as chairman of the Board of Trustees.
Now, just as our outgoing chair, Mal Sherman, joins the class of 2013 in this time of transition, there is another member of the graduating class as it were I would like to recognize, our master of ceremonies par excellence and the unmistakable voice of the Brandeis Commencement, Dr. John Hose. Over 30 years, John has ably served half of the presidents of Brandeis as a trusted and valued adviser. He will retire at the end of June. John, Brandeis will always be grateful for your extraordinary service to this institution and you will always be a cherished member of the Brandeis family.
There are two other attributes that I think relate to being a Brandeisian. Brandeisians take risks, do things that challenge them and even scare them. They stick their necks out for causes they believe in and they move beyond their comfort zone whether it’s appearing on stage for the very first time – anyone who has been to Culture X knows what I am talking about – or engaging in serious discussion of issues with people of very different views and backgrounds. Risk-taking doesn’t just occur on the top of a mountain, it occurs on the ground, on the Great Lawn or in late night conversations in dorms. Is there any greater risk to take in this society at this time than the sheer risk of being yourself, and of trying approaches to life without certainty of success or outcome. You have learned that well at Brandeis. I have every confidence as I look out at on this class today that you will achieve amazing and unique things in this world as you go off to law school, medical school, grad school, new jobs, to start your own companies, and a full range of adventures that lie ahead. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his journal, wrote to himself: “Do not be too timid about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better. What if you do fail, and get fairly rolled in the dirt once or twice. Up again, you shall never again be so afraid of a tumble.”
Brandeisians are not afraid of a tumble!
Finally, Brandeisians follow the lead of our namesake, Justice Louis Brandeis, and know that social justice is not an abstract theory but is a way of life. If you can take this principle into everything you do, I have no doubt that each and every one of you will have a positive influence on your world, however you may choose to express it. Sometimes you will be presented with wonderful opportunities to repair the world. Sometimes, the opportunities reveal themselves only in response to difficulties. How we respond to adversity says a great deal about our character and as we have faced challenges to our safety and security, I have seen in our community the echoes of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King who said, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Each of the honorary degree recipients whom we celebrate today has proven the worth of Dr. King’s words. Vartan Gregorian in the world of higher education, libraries and philanthropy. Rick Hodes in the streets and hospitals of Addis Ababa. Ellsworth Kelly in the artistic realm and museums around the world, including our own wonderful Rose Art Museum. Chaim Peri for hundreds, thousands of young people, Ethiopians and Russians, whose lives he has immeasurably changed. Elaine Schuster, providing her voice for those without voices. And Leon Wieseltier in the uncompromising search for a politics that avoids easy labels and seeks a deeper integrity. Light drives out darkness, love drives out hate.
Look around you today. As you leave this place, you are most decidedly not alone. It is absolutely striking to me how many Brandeisians tell me that their closest friends, year or years or decades later, continue to be their Brandeis classmates. There is much you take from this place, but most of all what you take is each other. You are an undergraduate student for four years – you are alumni for the rest of your lives.
And it is not only each other that you take with you, it is the place. Remember what you liked best about yourself 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 felt it slip through your hands. That is because places do not belong to us – we belong to them. You will always belong to this place, to its values and what it stands for.
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 to campus – return to find a beacon of clarity in an all-too-uncertain world. Calling this place home, in the deepest sense of the word and for the rest of your lives – that more than anything is what it means to be a Brandeisian.
Thank you all.
We’ll miss you all.
God bless you all.