Remarks by President Ron Liebowitz

Good morning, members of the Board of Trustees, honorary degree recipients, faculty, staff, alumni, honored guests, family and friends of our graduates, and most especially the graduates of the class of 2019. I add my welcome to the 68th Commencement ceremony of Brandeis University.

The students who we will recognize today have worked hard to reach this milestone. At the same time, we cannot let this occasion pass without recognizing all those family members and friends whose devotion and support have contributed significantly to the successes we are celebrating here today. As I do each year, I ask all of our graduates to please stand, turn to your loved ones and join me in thanking those who helped you in so many ways to succeed in earning your Brandeis degrees. Please do this. Thank you.

I'd like to take a moment to thank the members of the Brandeis staff whose weeks of preparation have made this Commencement weekend possible. Please join me in thanking our dedicated and talented staff.

I would like to begin my remarks recognizing someone who I've given a special welcome to at Commencement during my first two years as president, even though he was not present. He once again could not join us in Gosman today, but he has been present, according to our records, for 64 of the university's 68 Commencement ceremonies.

I'm talking about Frank Brandeis Gilbert, grandson of justice Louis Brandeis. Frank, nearly 90 years old, attended the celebration of the founding of the university in 1948 at Boston Symphony Hall and had been a regular at these Commencement exercises since the first one in 1952. Frank and his wife, Anne, could not make it to campus for the past three graduation ceremonies and so we send our best wishes their way, knowing their hearts are with us today.

And though Frank and Anne could not join us, we are fortunate to welcome Louisa Brandeis Popkin to today's ceremony. Louisa is Frank's niece and Justice Brandeis’s great granddaughter, and we look forward to welcoming Louisa to Commencement exercises each year as we welcomed Frank for more than six decades. Our history may be relatively brief compared to established universities, but it is also so very rich and important to us and part of that history is our enduring connection to our namesake and the Brandeis family. So please join me in welcoming Louisa to this celebration.

At last year's Commencement, after my first two years on campus, I spoke about how inspired I was by you, our students, both graduate and undergraduates. Now a year later and only one year in seniority behind the graduates receiving their baccalaureate degrees today, I am no longer surprised by the intelligence and passion you show when talking about your Brandeis experience. Your favorite classes; senior theses; your singing groups’ new recordings; your volunteer work in the surrounding communities; the latest paper you're about to publish as you complete your PhD; or the new ventures you are creating here or halfway around the world. Beyond the undeniable passion I see in all these pursuits, there is also a great deal of compassion in how you see the world and your desire to improve it. This continues to inspire me.

If I were to select the bios of a random group of students who are graduating today, I would guarantee that even the most cynical among us would feel hope for the future. To illustrate my point, here are thumbnail sketches of seven students from different programs across the university who, while exceptional, are not unusual at Brandeis, and it should provide sound reason for optimism in our ever increasing complex and fractured world.

The first student is a Health: Science, Society and Policy, and anthropology double major who has been active in the Toxic Majorettes Dance Line, the Brandeis fashion club, and Brandeis Bridges, a campus group started six years ago with the mission of creating a space for black and Jewish students to have dialogue and to build connections.

This student has served as a community advisor in the department of community living, and following graduation from Brandeis, will work as a residential aide in the New York State Department of Public Health. The student plans to pursue an advanced degree in public health and advocate on behalf of those who face domestic violence.

These two students took a course in legal studies and then founded The Right to Immigration Institute, TRII for short. The first and only student-led organization in the country that certifies college students to act as legal advocates for immigrants seeking legal status. The institute recently won its first decision on an asylum case and will be hiring its first paid attorney this summer.

One of the students, a history and politics double major and legal studies minor, was inducted yesterday into Phi Beta Kappa and will head to Washington University School of Law to begin her studies in the fall. The other student, who majored in politics and philosophy with a triple minor in economics, legal studies and social justice and social policy, will continue to lead TRII after graduation, working to enhance services here in Waltham and expand TRII to other college campuses around the country.

The fourth student is a classical studies and history major and legal studies minor who has worked at the Brandeis Maker Lab, in the Brandeis Digital Humanities Lab, with the Harvard Open Access Project, and with the Brandeis classical artifact research collection. This student was named an alternate for the prestigious Marshall Scholarship and will be attending Oxford University in the fall to pursue a master's degree in archeology. After Oxford, this student will pursue a PhD in archeology at the University of Pennsylvania as a Benjamin Franklin Fellow.

My fifth and sixth students are sisters who helped lead the women's indoor track and field team to the 2019 Division III distance medley relay national championship. One sister, running solo, won back-to-back individual national championships in the 3000- meter run. She is a biology and Health: Science, Society and Policy double major with a minor in French, and is pursuing post-baccalaureate opportunities in clinical research. Her sister, an integral member of the national championship relay team, is a business major who will begin an internship through the Disney College program.

And finally, this final student is a biology and Health: Science, Society and Policy Major. This Brandeisian converted an internship in telemedicine at Boston Children's Hospital into a full-time job at Children's in a pilot study on voice assisted medical scribing. At Brandeis, the student was a chemistry supplemental instruction leader, a Waltham Group volunteer, and a proud member of the South Asian Students Association. Last year, this student was one of eight juniors inducted into their class of Phi Beta Kappa among more than 85 students.

I should add to this list the plethora of PhD dissertations completed this year in the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, many of which seek to understand and then address multiple health related challenges in underserved areas and for underserved populations.

Now, these are just a few of the shining stars among this year's graduates. I could've mentioned many others to illustrate the talents and accomplishments of the larger class. To generalize a bit more, I would say today's graduates, more than any other cohort of students since the 1960s, are intensely aware of the great challenges facing them and future generations. More importantly, these students are more willing to take action than their predecessors. They combine intellectual curiosity and academic focus with a commitment to making the world a better place. They are in concert with a famous Jewish saying from the Mishnah, which speaks to a hierarchy of service with a sense of urgency, beginning with a responsibility to oneself and then building upon that to serve others. From Pirkei Avot or ethics of the fathers, Rabbi Hillel HaGadol, asks, now quite famously, quote, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me, but if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?"

Whether it's criminal justice reform, inequality, failing public schools, the impact of climate change, refugee and immigration rights, or any number of issues that represent great challenges to society, it is this generation, your generation, that gives us the greatest hope to counter what has become a stalemated, highly partisan and largely ineffective political system. And as we celebrate your accomplishments this morning with hope and anticipation, I want us also to celebrate our university and to appreciate how it has prepared you to be the more active and socially engaged citizens you are.

The American Jewish community founded and nurtured this university in order to provide opportunities to talented students who were denied entry to leading colleges and universities because of antisemitism and bigotry. From the outset, Brandeis was to be nonsectarian and open to all and while many gifted Jewish students responded to the call of the new university and eagerly filled its early classes, other groups who had also faced bigotry and prejudice within higher ed soon followed suit.

Early on, founding president Abram Sachar aggressively recruited and hired leading scholars and public intellectuals, many of them immigrants from Europe. Most were unable to secure jobs in leading American universities because of Antisemitic and anti-immigrant sentiments. These scholars gladly came to Brandeis and quickly set a high standard of academic excellence, a standard and culture that endures within our faculty to the present.

Brandeis then broke the mold of the traditional university 70 years ago by inviting Jews, women, and blacks into the university and hiring brilliant refugees and immigrants. It was an institution on the leading edge of higher education, bold and beyond convention. And while we, as a relatively young university, are still learning what it means to be a fully open and inclusive institution — to create a learning community in which students from every background have access to all Brandeis has to offer — we must work to fulfill our founders’ vision and represent the leading edge of higher education, a paradigm for other institutions of higher learning.

The values that motivated those founders 70 years ago, rooted in the Jewish tradition, remain fully relevant and vitally important today. They shook the foundation of 20th century higher education by ignoring quotas and inviting previously excluded students into the academy. They should serve as both a compass to help us chart our future and as a mirror to ensure that we can see behind us to remind everyone of our rich and important past. And just as these values should inform our institution into the future, so too, should they serve as guideposts in your own lives.

To the Class of 2019, undergraduate and graduate students alike, we wish you the very best as you leave Brandeis to begin the next chapter of your lives. We'll be watching with great and abiding interest as you engage the world with the same zeal, curiosity, and commitment to others that we witnessed during your time here.

Congratulations and good luck.