Commencement 2016 Address
May 22, 2016
Chairman Traquina, Members of the Board of Trustees, honorary degree recipients, faculty, staff, alumni, alumnae, honored guests, supporters, families and friends of the graduates, and most especially the Class of 2016 —Welcome to the 65th Commencement Ceremony at Brandeis. Now, I’ve got to get something out of the way right away. These selfies are really important, OK? Ready? On three, OK? There we go. OK. We got that done. A little silliness is important.
Now, getting through university is an enormous challenge, and it’s difficult to succeed without the emotional, physical, and, dare I say, financial help of families and loved ones. So I asked the Class of 2016 to rise, to turn to your friends and families and acknowledge that support with a big round of applause.
Now, it’s worth noting that today is called “commencement day” rather than “completion day.” Over the past few weeks, I know you’ve all been focused on the completion part of your Brandeis experience — your papers, exams, theses, creative works, and presentations. But today is about commencing the next chapter of your lives. As you begin this chapter, you will find no shortage of people with words of wisdom. Some will tell you that you need to stay positive, confident, and true to yourself. Some will point out the big challenges that are facing you, as if you didn’t know that already. Some will share their success stories. This advice is not meant to overwhelm you, but rather inspire you. And finally, a few will share their failures. Trust me, this is not meant to terrify you, but rather give you hope that good can come out of even the darkest moments of your lives.
As I thought about what few pearls of wisdom I could share with you today, I decided to turn to our namesake, Justice Louis D. Brandeis, whose appointment to the Supreme Court 100 years ago you’ve spent your final semester here commemorating. Brandeis was a champion for the dignity of all individuals, and advocated active citizenship. He believed that all citizens in a democracy should have access and the ability to learn and freely debate ideas. So let me highlight four of his many famous quotes and link them to the experiences of our honorary degree recipients. I hope these examples will inspire you as you commence the next stage of your lives.
Justice Brandeis once said, quote, “In differentiation, not uniformity, lies the path of progress.” Each of our honorary degree recipients exemplifies this truth, but let me cite just two examples. In the 1970s, honorary degree recipient Jack Whitten began a course of experiments with paint that expanded, quite literally, the scale of painting on canvas. His paintings, or as he calls them, his “makings,” deal with extreme, elusive, and complex structures, and therefore he found traditional painting methods inadequate in the face of such complexity. At the same time, Whitten’s civil rights activism imbued his artwork most uniquely. In the 1970s, Mildred Dresselhaus, a full professor of electrical engineering at MIT, entered the nano world and began the materials research that would later result in her being called the “queen of carbon science.” Dresselhaus has been recognized for her leadership and contributions across many fields of science and engineering, and has broken through literally just about every glass ceiling there is in science. Both Mildred Dresselhaus and Jack Whitten differentiated themselves by upending conventional thinking and thus advancing their respective fields.
So how does this apply to you? No two of you have had the same Brandeis experience. You came from different places, you have different personal histories, you differ in your opinions, and you have different identities. During your time at Brandeis you have differentiated yourselves further by exploring your own path, all the while surrounded by the support of your faculty, staff, family, and friends. This university celebrates and supports diversity and differentiation, since it’s through that diversity of thought, expression, and experience that we create new ideas and knowledge. Hang on to that commitment to diversity, and don’t let conventional wisdom always determine the path that you take. Find inspiration in the examples of your classmates, faculty, and our honorary degree recipients.
As you pursue your distinct identities, be aware of those with different histories. Learn from them, and be mindful of your own conscious and unconscious biases against people who are not like you. If you find yourself in a situation making critical decisions and everyone around you is uniformly the same, consider the missing voices. What might they say? How might they change your point of view? Commit to an ongoing effort to address your own biases so that you can better engage with the differences among people and ideas that surround you.
One of the defining characteristics of Brandeis students that I’ve seen over my years here is how so many of you think of others before yourself. So I know you can do this.
Let me turn to another quote by Justice Brandeis: “Neutrality is at times a graver sin than belligerence.” In an interview that honorary degree recipient Agnieszka Holland gave about her experience of being arrested and imprisoned in Prague when she was a young film student there in 1968, she talked about the fragility of human freedom and courage. Her masterpiece film, Burning Bush, about the public reaction to the death of student Jan Palach in 1969 as he protested the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, explores this idea. In the film, she depicts the ease with which courage and integrity can give way to indifference and neutrality and the subsequent devastating impact that this can have on a society. But she also shows that positive change can come when those who believe that freedom is more important than their well-being consequently rise up and risk much in the pursuit of that freedom.
So what does this mean for you? Am I asking you to be belligerent for the rest of your lives? No. But don’t be neutral. There will be moments when you will need to fight for what you believe in, to step in and not step back. At Brandeis we often talk about the benefits of engaging in respectful dialogue and responsible language that’s sensitive to the opinions of others, free of rancor and attack. I believe that this is the right course of action, but often it’s easier said than done. It’s not so easy to be respectful when you feel your basic beliefs or identities are under attack. I am sure that many of you have experienced moments when, as much as you would like to engage in respectful dialogue with those you disagree with, it didn’t always work out that way. But please do not give up when it’s easier to be neutral rather than to step into a difficult and contentious dialogue. Don’t spend all your time with those who agree with you. If you do, you’ll never understand difference and never change the world. At the same time, if you only follow the path of belligerence, if you do not recognize the reason of others, and if you do not seek common ground where it can be found, you will experience failure and discouragement. Choose and conduct your battles wisely so that the final victory is one that advances society, not sets it back. As Justice Brandeis said, “In the frank expression of conflicting opinions lies the greatest promise of wisdom.”
The final Brandeis quote that I want to reflect on is, “Most of the things worth doing in the world have been declared impossible before they were done.” When alumna Julieanna Richardson began her project The HistoryMakers some 16 years ago, people told her it was impossibly ambitious. But she was determined to give voice to the experience and contributions of African Americans across our country, in all walks of life. In fact, it was her experience as a sophomore at Brandeis, recording oral histories of African Americans,that sparked the idea of The HistoryMakers years later. As a result, today we have a more complete history of our country and its people.
It’s particularly gratifying to call out the direct link between Justice Brandeis’s thinking and his own grandson’s record of achievement. In his role as executive director of New York City Landmarks’ preservation commission, honorary degree recipient Frank Brandeis Gilbert took on a ten-year battle to preserve the iconic Beaux-Arts building, Grand Central Station. At the outset, he was told his goal was impossible. That progress demanded the beauties — the beautiful building’s destruction. He was told nothing could be done. But he used his legal skills, and with the support of a coalition of community-based groups and high-profile figures like Jackie Kennedy Onassis, the building was saved. As a result, preservation policy across the country changed.
Now, don’t be intimidated by these accomplishments. Be inspired. Your Brandeis education has prepared you well to take on the impossible, to not be a bystander, and thus help repair the world.
Over your time at Brandeis you’ve grown intellectually as well as personally. You’ve created a community bond whose power you’ve only just begun to appreciate. Let me assure you that this bond of friendship, love, and kindness will carry you through all the ups and downs of your lives. Nurture this bond and it will nurture you.
So as you commence this next phase of your life, I urge you to do so with great optimism and hope. We’re all so proud of you and can’t wait to see what you will accomplish next. So class of 2016, seize the day and repair the world. Thank you.