President Fred Lawrence's commencement address

Mr. Chairman; members of the Board of Trustees; honored guests – particularly our honorary-degree recipients; my dear faculty colleagues; my staff colleagues; alumni; friends of the university; family and friends of the graduate; and – none of you will be offended if I say most especially – soon-to-be alumni of the Brandeis class of 2015.

Now, 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 the class of 2015?  In fact, in many ways, as Perry just alluded to, I feel I am a member of the class of 2015. Together, we survived the drama of the move-in during Hurricane Irene – an early example of your perseverance and strength. You were undeterred by the storm’s driving winds and rain. Monday morning, the postponed date of your Convocation, you will recall the sun was shining brightly, just like today. And I told you then you would always associate your move-in with Hurricane Irene. And the message was clear:  Your flexibility, your teamwork, and your optimism could bring glorious results, symbolized by a resplendent sun.

But the special connection between us goes well beyond that. We have all been thinking quite a bit about transitions lately, I suspect. You, as you prepare to complete your Brandeis careers today. And I, as I prepare to complete my presidency next month. Change: Change can be disconcerting, but change is also exciting. Change is about opportunity; it is about potential, about growth, and above all, about beginnings. After all, today is not called Conclusions or even Transitions.  It is called Commencement.

So let me share with you some thoughts as we stand together today, on the threshold of our Brandeis graduation. I know that, over the past weeks and especially the past days, you have been reflecting on your time at Brandeis. So have I. I remember, at my inauguration, in this very building, my dear friend, President Morty Schapiro of Northwestern University, told the story of the university president who was shadowed for the day by the editor in chief of the student newspaper. Well, imagine a hypothetical president and a hypothetical newspaper called, I don’t know, The Justice, or The Hoot. I did have to get that in there. So the editor in chief tells the president, “I’d like to shadow you for the day.” And the president said, “You actually have picked the one day in the past five years I was planning on taking off.” And the editor in chief says, “I’m on deadline.  I can’t help you, Mr. President.” He says, “Well, that’s fine. You can shadow me for the day when I’m taking a day off, but you can’t talk, and you can’t bother me, and you can just observe.” He said, “That’s fine.” The president was something of a fisherman, so the editor in chief and the president go out fishing together. And during the day, the president’s line gets tangled in the weeds and snaps off. He figures he’s got to deal with that, so he walks across the water back to shore, back to shore, gets a new line, walks across the water, gets back in the boat, and continues to fish. And the next day, the student newspaper runs a story, and the headline is, “President of the University Can’t Swim.”  

Well, truth to tell, the job of the university president has become even more complicated and more challenging over the past five years. Some of these challenges are financial, as colleges and universities strive to balance the twin goals of excellence in research and teaching on the one hand, and affordability on the other. Some of these challenges stem from the large societal trends that necessarily have their impact here on campus, such as an ever-increasing polarization in our political and social debates, and the dramatic impact of social media in the entire nature of debate and discussion. I have found myself reflecting on these trends and challenges as I think back over the past five years.  

As you have been reflecting on your Brandeis careers, I hope and trust you have taken time to take pride in your accomplishments, individual and communal. I, too, take pride in so much that has been accomplished over these past years:  

I am proud of the stunning renaissance and revitalization of the Rose Art Museum that is once again an exemplar of what a university-based art museum can be.  

I am proud of more than quadrupling the amount spent on campus maintenance, allowing us to reopen the Linsey Pool; renovate East, and Ziv, and the Mods, and Lemberg, and the Usdan Dining Hall, and starting this past week the Sherman Dining Hall, among many other buildings on campus. And although there is much work yet to be done, after a long winter it is a particular joy to see the campus sparkle on a beautiful spring day, on a beautiful Sunday, May morning, on the Brandeis campus.  

I am proud that we have turned the corner financially, eliminating a significant structural deficit and putting us on a sound financial footing, including an endowment that has reached an all-time high, up nearly 30 percent since 2012.  

I am proud of our renewed network of connections with alumni across the country and the globe.

I am proud that this year we devote more than $90 million to financial aid – the highest level in the university’s history.

But I think I am most proud that our rearticulation of the message of what is special about Brandeis and a Brandeis education has borne fruit, and that, over the past four years, our applications have increased over 35 percent.

But I wish to talk about something else with you, in the next few minutes, that should fill us with pride. Although it takes more the form of a continuing challenge than of a specific accomplishment or a box to be ticked. It’s a challenge well-articulated by Theodore Roosevelt, who said, “Let us remember that, as much has been given us, much will be expected from us, and that true homage comes from the heart as well as from the lips, and shows itself in deeds.” So let us reflect for a moment on what has been given to us, and then on what is expected of us in both words and in deeds.

We have, all of us, together, written the most recent chapter in a remarkable story that began with the founding of the university in 1948. Our founders were committed to an institution that, in recruiting its faculty and in admitting its students, would reject all forms of discrimination:  race, creed, color, national origin, gender, religion. Today, we add sexual orientation. And although this seems less than revolutionary today, this took place nearly 20 years before federal law prohibited discrimination in education. Our founders’ dream was rooted in the American Dream:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men” – and we would say women – “are created equal;” a dream that was magnificent in its articulation, but flawed in its implementation at the time of our nation’s founding. Yet it found a, perhaps, ironic but compelling realization in, of all places, Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1948.  

So it seems there’s a straight line from 1776 Philadelphia to 1948 Waltham to today, now, here, and us. We have achieved a highly diverse campus that, while committed to deep founding roots in the American Jewish community, draws its members from a wide range of backgrounds, from across the country and around the world. Our amazingly diverse but interlocking community is perhaps best symbolized, to me, by our end of Yom Kippur break the fast under the tent of the Great Lawn, that we instituted four years ago. Over 2,000 students coming together to celebrate as a community, proving what I have always strongly believed: that our deep roots do not narrow us, but they broaden us; and that if we come together most authentically as a community when are comfortable with who we actually are, none of us is as smart or as good or as important as all of us.

And just as our founders bequeathed to us a commitment to nondiscrimination and diversity, so they challenged us with a model of a research university linked to a liberal-arts college. As I have spoken to audiences of Brandeis alumni and friends in these past years all over the world, I have invited to take part in a thought experiment: Imagine a Brandeis that, instead of with 3,600 undergraduates, had something closer to 11,000 undergraduates. And, accordingly, three times the tuition income to support programs and faculty and facilities. And before I ever asked for a response, I could read it in their eyes. That wouldn’t be a bad university, but it wouldn’t be Brandeis. And they were right. What we have is special, and it cannot be replaced or undermined by proliferating online-university degrees. What we have is essential to maintaining a just and a democratic society: a university with a seamlessness of the undergraduate and graduate and professional programs, maintaining a commitment to the liberal arts that is enhanced, not replaced, by more-focused advance study and research.  

The challenge to the liberal arts is significant today: its relevance, its practicality, its cost. As Fareed Zakaria recently wrote in his book, “In Defense of Liberal Education,” “Those who seek to reorient US higher education into something more focused, something more technical, should keep in mind that they would be abandoning what has been historically distinctive, even unique, in the American approach to higher education.” Brandeis can and must resist this trend, and remain an archetype of the liberal-arts model: education that is focused not on the transmission of specific information or skills, but on the inculcation of the ability to analyze closely; to communicate clearly; to identify and solve problems; and this above all – to turn information into knowledge and, at its highest level, knowledge into wisdom.

Let me now return to the nature and essence of this special Brandeis community we hold dear.  And for this, as for so many other significant insights, I turn to our namesake, Justice Louis D. Brandeis. Justice Brandeis was often associated with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as the great defenders of freedom of expression. And, indeed, Brandeis and Holmes famously dissented in a series of cases in which the majority of the Supreme Court upheld restrictions on speech, in the period right after the First World War. But Holmes and Brandeis reached similar conclusions through very different philosophical paths. Holmes, relying on the metaphor of the economic market, talked about the marketplace of ideas, and saw free speech to get the best results. He evaluated speech and expression by the results that it would achieve. Brandeis focused less on the outcome of free expression, and more on the inherent right of free expression. He spoke about the right of the citizen to take part for his own or the country’s benefit in the making of our laws. He believed that American freedom necessarily includes the right to speak or write about our laws, and that each citizen has the right to seek to make his own opinion concerning laws, existing or contemplated, prevail. To this end, Brandeis said, “Each has the right to teach the truth as he sees it.”  

This is the essence of our role as members of a community: to teach the truth as we each see it.  But that is not the end of the matter; that is only the beginning. This tells us how broadly expression should be protected, and what people may say. But it leaves the next vital question, of how people should aspire to express themselves and what they should say or, better put, how they should aspire to say it. Expression that may not be prohibited may certainly be criticized, sometimes even harshly. And expression that may not be prohibited need not always be honored.  Justice Brandeis was correct that the essence of free expression and the core of our role in the community is to teach the truth as we each see it. But our community is also defined by how we teach the truth, and how we let others seek to teach us in return.  

We must search for a respectful way to disagree, whether we debate and discuss in person or, virtually, in social media. I would advance three principles for respectful disagreement: that we look for common ground even when we disagree; that we learn to assume the best in each other and not to suspect the motives of those with whom we disagree; and that we disagree without attacking each other personally.  

This fall, Kathy and I will return to New Haven, and I will return to Yale Law School, where I was privileged to be a student in the late 1970s. Among my mentors was the late Charles Black, a legendary figure in constitutional law, and one of the architects of the anti-segregation arguments that led to, among others, Brown Against Board of Education. One of the other giants in constitutional law at Yale at the time was the late Alexander Bickel. Unlike Black, who was an advocate of judicial activism, Bickel argued for judicial restraint. When Bickel passed away tragically young, Black wrote an article in his memory in the Yale Law Journal. “Bickel and I,” he wrote, “agreed on everything except for our opinions.” It is as powerful a statement of respectful and even loving disagreement as I know.  

If we have lost the ability to say to those with whom we disagree that we agree on everything except for our opinions, we will have lost something very precious and, perhaps, irreplaceable.  But if we can strive to do so, we will be building the most important kind of community that there is: one worthy of the founders of our university. This is not a project that will end with your graduation. Remember what I told you at Opening Convocation after Hurricane Irene had ceased and the sun was shining: You are, indeed, undergraduates for four years, and alumni for the rest of your lives. How the Brandeis community will be defined in the years to come is very much in your hands and those of your fellow alumni.  

Albert Einstein famously said at the time of the university’s founding, “Brandeis is a name that cannot merely be adopted; it must be achieved.” You, now and in the years to come, in the lives you lead and in the relationships you form, will play a key role in seeing to it that the name and all it represents is, indeed, achieved.

My fellow members of the class of 2015, we have been together on this campus for these past years. We will now be connected for the rest of our lives.  God bless you all.

Categories: Alumni, General, Student Life

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