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Watch President Lawrence deliver his remarks.

Remarks by President Lawrence


President Fred Lawrence

Is it realistic to be optimistic?

Mr. Chairman, members of the Board of Trustees, honored guests, particularly our honorary degree recipients, my dear faculty colleagues, my dear staff colleagues, alumni, supporters, families and friends of the graduates, and none of these will be offended if I say, most especially, soon to be alumni of the Class of 2011.

Presidents are not supposed to have favorite classes — and indeed, we do not! But that said, how can I not feel a special connection with this graduating class? You have spent your last semester as students here during the time that I spent my first semester as president. My family and I will forever be grateful for the way in which you have welcomed us into your lives and your world here at Brandeis. But the special connection between us goes beyond that I think. We have all been thinking quite a bit 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 is about opportunity, about potential, about growth and above all about beginning. After all, today is not called "conclusion" or even "transition" — it is called "commencement." So let me share some thoughts and yes, the inevitable words of advice that accompany any Commencement ceremony, as we stand together today on the threshold of your Brandeis graduation.

Today is indeed a day to contemplate what you have achieved so far in your lives, and all that has brought you to this point. As you do so, I know that your thoughts will turn to your families and friends. Much of what you have achieved is owed in no small measure to the sacrifice and support of those who love you and have cared for you. I would ask that you now take a moment to stand as a class and to recognize your family and friends for all they have meant to you.

So as we stand together today on our respective thresholds, facing the future, what advice can I give you. A president about to give his first Commencement address gets lots of free advice. Including, as one colleague reminded me: "remember, no one ever says ‘I just wish the president had spoken a little longer.'" Mindful of that, I will tell you that I received my topic earlier this week from one of your classmates — you know who you are — who asked me the following question: "The world seems in so much turmoil — economically, socially, politically, environmentally. And yet I feel very optimistic. Is it realistic to be optimistic?"

Is it realistic to be optimistic? Indeed the world has changed dramatically over the past four years. The economic and financial world of 2007 seems quite remote now — by just one measure, in the fall of your freshman year, October 2007, the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit its all time high. And if we think back a little further, say one decade ago, the graduates at the Brandeis Commencement in May 2001 could scarcely have imagined the cataclysmic forces of change that would be affecting their world a mere four months later. There is new excitement that accompanies new challenges and new opportunities. But there is also a heightened level of uncertainty and concern as we face an economy and a world that has been greatly shaken over the course of your time here at Brandeis. Change brings great potential, but it also breeds anxiety. It is tempting to ignore this anxiety and this uncertainty on this happy day of your graduation but, for better or worse friends, that is not my style.

So I return to the question as to whether it is realistic to be optimistic, and I conclude that you have every reason to be optimistic as you face this uncertain future. And I would stress two sets of reasons in particular.

First, your training here at Brandeis prepares you for the challenges of a world that we literally cannot imagine.

You have been trained to analyze carefully.

You have been trained to solve problems.

You have been trained to communicate effectively.

You have been trained to turn information into knowledge

All of these are skills will serve you well not only today, the day of your graduation, but decades from now, when the workplace has changed in ways that are unimaginable to us today. It was roughly 2,500 years ago that the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that "nothing endures but change" or as we might say "the only constant is change." This has never been more true than it is today. It is precisely the training that flows from the liberal arts education that you have received that will provide the skills to adapt and adjust to this ever-changing environment. Mental agility and creativity will be in highest demand.

But let me be clear that by the training you received at Brandeis, I mean not only what took place in your classes, but also in the laboratories and libraries, studios and stages, playing fields and 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 includes the vast array of social settings on this campus, from one-on-one conversations to the astonishing range of student organizations here. The willingness to engage in real relationships and build real communities is in many ways the 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 most closely predictive of success in complex organizations, be they private companies, governments or entire societies.

And as for risk taking, is there any greater risk to take in this society than the shear risk of being yourself, and of trying approaches to life without certainty of success or outcome? Here we might take as our example not an ancient Greek philosopher, but modern philosopher of sorts, the great basketball hero and legend Dr. J, Julius Erving. Some of you may know that Dr. J essentially invented playing above the rim. Having watched Dr. J make one of his extraordinary moves, his coach supposedly called him aside and said "son, never leave your feet without knowing where you're coming down." To which the young Dr. J. is to have replied, "Sir, I can't play basketball that way." And you can't you live life that way either. You have learned that well at Brandeis. I have every confidence as I look out at your 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, new adventures, new organizations that you will start.

My second reason for telling you that it is realistic to be optimistic, is that 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 continue to be their Brandeis classmates. There is much you take from your time here, but most of all what you take is each other. You are undergraduates for four years — you are alumni for the rest of your lives.

And it is not only each other, 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 that last week during senior week; as you try to hold onto it, it slips through your fingers. But the paradox is this: places do not belong to us, but we belong to places. You will always belong to this place, to its values and 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 a curriculum or a career path — it is a way of life. You must form your own idea of what the term "social justice" means — but whatever way you choose to make it real, it will always entail the highest ethical standards. You will have opportunities to seek and to serve the cause of social justice large and small in your professional life, and in the activities as a volunteer that you will pursue, and in the ways in which you will treat your colleagues, those for whom you work and those who will work for you, in the rich lives that now stretch out in front of you.

I started by talking about your training, and as I project that training out into the future world, with all its uncertainties but 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 — may you always find ways to use your skills for the betterment of a world so desperately needing repair, locally, nationally and globally.

And you have been trained to turn information into knowledge — may you learn to take the next step in that essential chain, and learn to turn 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 to campus — return to find a beacon of clarity in an all-too-uncertain world.

It is one of the great privileges of standing up here that I get to see you all reflected in the eyes of your families and your friends. My colleagues and I know 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.