Commencement 2017 Address

May 21, 2017

Good morning, everyone. Members of the board of trustees, honorary degree recipients, faculty, staff, alumni and alumnae, honored guests, families and friends of our graduates, and most specially the graduates of the Class of 2017. Welcome again to the 66th commencement ceremony of Brandeis University.

The students who we've recognized today have worked hard to reach this milestone. At the same time, we cannot let this occasion pass without recognizing the parents, grandparents, family members, and friends whose devotion and support have contributed mightily to the successes we are celebrating today. I ask all our graduates to please stand. Get that blood going. I ask you all, the graduates now to turn to your loved ones and join me in thanking those who helped you through your Brandeis journey. Thank you. Thank you all.

I also want to thank members of the Brandeis staff whose weeks of preparation have made this commencement weekend possible and enjoyable. Please join me in thanking our dedicated and talented staff as well.

Before I share some observations this morning, I'd like to give two special welcomes. One to someone here in attendance, and one to someone who is not here missing his first commencement in many years. Frank Brandeis Gilbert, a grandson of our university's namesake, and honorary degree recipient just last year has been a regular at Brandeis commencement ceremonies for many years. This year however, Frank and his wife Ann could not make it to campus and so we send our good wishes their way with the hope of seeing them here next year.

And another special welcome to Andrew Burian, grandfather of Class of 2017 graduate, Jordan Anholt. Mr. Burian is a holocaust survivor who at the age of 13 was separated from his family, sent to Auschwitz Birkenau, survived death marches and transfers in cattle cars to multiple concentration camps, and was ultimately liberated by the United States army in 1945. His life's story, one of great courage and determination is chronicled in a book, A Boy from Bustina published in Jerusalem by Yad Vashem, the world holocaust remembrance center.

Though Mr. Burian has given lectures and been honored at universities attended by his other grandchildren, those would be NYU, Harvard, and Princeton, in addition to Yale Law School and Columbia, he feels a special kind of pride from Jordan's connection to Brandeis. As members of his family have noted, Brandeis was founded and built upon the ashes of the holocaust and reflected at its founding, hope for the decency over the barbaric. Mr. Burian is, for our graduates today, and for all of us, an exemplar of perseverance, courage, and the belief in the good of people despite witnessing firsthand humanity's capacity for inexplicable evil. Mr. Burian, please stand. We are delighted to have you here with us to celebrate your grandson's graduation. Welcome to Brandeis. Welcome.

As we celebrate our graduates' accomplishments this morning, I want us also to celebrate our university, an institution with a remarkable history. Though I am still in my first year at Brandeis, I have learned much over the past 11 months. Admittedly, I have just begun to scratch the service of this complex institution and all of its wonders, yet I believe my early observations correspond to what you, our graduates, experienced during your time here and relate to what I hope you will take with you as you begin the next chapter of your lives.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Brandeis to a newcomer is its openness and its academic rigor. Two qualities that founding President Abram Sachar insisted upon from the beginning. President Sachar took risks in an unorthodox approach to academic administration to ensure those two attributes at what was truly a startup university. There were no alumni, no endowment, and no reputation. The American Jewish community proudly founded the university in order to provide an education to gifted students denied entry to leading colleges and universities because of anti-Semitism and quota systems.

Yet, from the outset, President Sachar stated that Brandeis would be non-sectarian 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 at many universities soon followed suit.

In fact, as early as 1952, four years after the founding, Ebony magazine, the leading African American publication at the time, praised the university's founding principles of openness. Ebony reported that Brandeis, and I quote, "Operates on a set of democratic principles, which could easily serve as goals for every other university in the United States. There are no quotas limiting students of any religion, and no racial barriers at Brandeis."

President Sachar's conception of openness, which included an openness to ideas, beliefs, and perspectives is as important today, and perhaps more so than it was in 1952 and must remain a defining characteristic of this university. As for the institution's early commitment to academic rigor, President Sachar aggressively recruited and hired leading scholars and public intellectuals, many of them immigrants from Europe who were unable to secure jobs following World War II.

Though they were leading figures in their respective fields in Europe, their status as outsiders and because of anti-Semitism practiced throughout American higher education, they were available for hire. These scholars were broadly educated and set a very high bar for academic excellence right from the start, a standard that endures to the present.

The current Brandeis faculty claims three MacArthur Fellows, three Pulitzer Prize winners, this year's Kavli Prize winner in neuroscience, two Gruber Prize winners also in neuroscience, 21 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 11 members of the National Academy of Sciences, three members of the Institute of Medicine, and three members of the Academy of Arts and Letters. The seriousness of the Brandeis academic endeavor has not waned over the university's first seven decades, and our students graduating today represent the fortunate beneficiaries. Now graduates, let's please take a moment to recognize and thank your faculty.

Examples of academic excellence and achievement among our students abound as well. One student graduating today is an immigrant, first generation college attendee, the recipient of a Martin Luther King scholarship, a biology major who co-authored a paper in a major journal on cancer, and next year will be attending Harvard to pursue a PhD in biology and biomedical sciences.

Another, a double major in biology and psychology, worked tirelessly on behalf of local youth and local schools and the elderly in area hospices and will join City Year to work with young people to help them fulfill their potential.

A third student, is headed to Mexico as a Fulbright scholar to learn how to develop and maintain strong diplomatic and business relations between American and Mexican firms and governmental agencies, after which she plans to join the U.S. Reserves and ultimately pursue a dual degree in law and public administration.

And there is the graduating senior, a non-recruited, walk-on athlete to the varsity track team as a senior, who has set multiple school records, will compete in the NCAA championships later this week, and plans to pursue a career as a diplomat.

Although all these students are exceptional in their own right, they are illustrative of the Brandeis Class of 2017: bright, idealistic, focused, and utterly impressive. They combine intellectual excellence and academic striving with a commitment to repairing the breach and making the world a better place. And they are following the passage of ancient Jewish wisdom, which speaks to one finding one's unique self and sharing it with the world from Pirkei Avot or Ethics of the Fathers. The text asks, "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?"

Through numerous conversations across campus this past year, discussions during office hours, and in the more than 40 small group lunches with students, faculty, and staff that my wife, Jessica and I hosted since August, I met a great many students who represent the kind of academic focus, ambition, and achievement exemplified by those four students. "Double majors, double minors" became a familiar mantra as I learned about our students' academic interests, dreams, and pursuits. Students told me the double/double thing is a Brandeis badge of honor. Well maybe so, but more than that, I have come to see it as an accurate reflection of the intense and rich education that you, the Class of 2017 have received and which will serve you for a lifetime. It is an education that should give you all the confidence you need to continue the intense pursuit of knowledge and contributions to society that have been hallmarks for centuries of Brandeisians who preceded you.

This university, from its beginning, created a learning environment based on openness and rigor. That combination has fostered a culture of learning that will never leave you. It has become part of you. Double majors, double minors will soon morph into deep and meaningful engagements in the arts, in community service, in scientific research, and in scores of other pursuits, the results of which will be consequential beyond yourselves. To the Class of 2017, undergraduate and graduate students alike. We wish you the very best as you leave Brandeis to begin the next chapter in your lives. We will be watching with great and abiding interest as you engage the world with the same zeal and curiosity we witnessed during your time here. Thank you and congratulations.