President Ainlay, members of the Board of Trustees, administrators, esteemed Faculty, family members and friends, I join with you in saluting the Union College Class of 2011. Congratulations!
What an honor to be here.
This remarkable school founded less than two decades after the birth of our country has remained true to its founders’ plan to create a unified academic community, open to all the diverse religious and national groups in the region. It has proudly combined its respect for tradition with an emphasis on continuous innovation.
Congratulations too to writer and poet Marvin Bell, for your richly deserved recognition today.
Today, you 520 graduates are surrounded by the people who have supported you every moment – and are thrilled at your achievement. They changed your diapers, taught you to ride a bicycle, proofread your essays for college application and probably provided some much needed allowance. You can give them a hug when the ceremony is over. For now, please show your appreciation to your family and other loved ones who are here.
I’m told this has been a week full of celebration – with a lot of goodbye activities to attend. I guess that means there’s been no time left to drop by Bombers – maybe have a Margarita shake?
The longest commencement speech in history was given over a hundred and fifty years ago at Harvard: it was 3 hours in Greek, followed by 3 hours in Latin. I’m going to leave out the Latin.
There are clichés commencement speakers use: this truly is the first day of the rest of your lives. The world awaits you. You have so much to look forward to, so many opportunities that lie ahead, so many more achievements. But as you think about the future, this is also a day to reflect on your experiences here at Union.
I talked to a few of you graduating seniors. Kelly Peterson described you as a cohesive unit, a group who has gotten to know one another well and who has looked out for and supported each other.
Anthony Perez told me how you’ve learned about the role your small community plays in the larger world by becoming the first school in the state to pass a “green fee,” promoting sustainability by taking money from your student fees to, among other things, help pay for windmills at the soccer field that provide energy needs there.
Alex Brockwell described how Union has made him more of an active learner in the classroom, and how that’s spilled over into the rest of his life, making him more assertive as a person. He and the others I spoke with single out Union professors for going out of their way to be available to students. Kate Leary told me about Dr. Charles Batson, in the French department, who traveled abroad with her student group, whom she’s gotten to know well and who has mentored her. “I will always be able to go back to him; he fostered relationships with us unique to a small school like this,” she said.
Alex, Anthony and Andrew Churchill spoke about Professor Zoe Oxley in the political science department, who during the 2008 election year, had the students simulate a series of presidential debates. I’m told in YOUR mock election, Michael Bloomberg defeated Barack Obama and John McCain. That would make the man who founded the company where my husband works, Bloomberg News, very happy.
There were many other professors they named.
It’s clear that this is a faculty that has touched the lives of each one of you. You’ve also changed each other. Richard Brodhead, the President of my alma mater, Duke, has noted: “the secret of a great [college] campus …[is] without meaning to or being much aware of it, the members of a community like [this] swap masses of information, strike sparks from each other, sharpen each other’s wits and raise each other ‘s game, through their encounters every day. Four years with all these forms of education swirling together in indistinguishable combination and you are changed: you’re smarter, more thoughtful, more capable, more confident.” He called the result the “new you” with a far more empowered self.
So where is this “new, empowered you” headed? What sort of world are you stepping out into?
My generation has managed to do a few things well; technological, scientific and medical advances abound. Thanks to the internet, information seems to travel at the speed of light. We haven’t found a cure for cancer or the common cold, but human beings are living longer and healthier than at any time in history.
We are all fortunate to live in this great country, to enjoy our freedoms. As we gather today, let’s remember the brave men and women defending our freedom in Afghanistan and Iraq and in and out of uniform at home and abroad. Too many of them have given their lives for us, and we can never say thank you enough.
The world you enter also has serious problems. The prosperity that my and your parents’ generation enjoyed for the past several decades – indeed, that you enjoyed when you arrived here at Union -- has stalled in the aftermath of the financial collapse and the worst recession since the Great Depression. Our economy is now recovering, but it’s a long, slow recovery, still painful for those unemployed or underemployed.
In the short run, the news is tough; it will probably take another 3 or 4 years for the damage done by the financial meltdown –liken it to a heart attack – to heal. But beyond that, the picture is bright. The smartest people I know who study the economy say just as previous crises have been cathartic, or cleansing, in the long run, so is this one.
The steps businesses have taken to get leaner and more productive, have made the country more competitive; U.S. exports are up. There’s a big revival in Silicon Valley, with firms like Facebook, Linkd In and others, seeing exploding growth. The American people and our political leaders may be on the verge of getting the country’s huge debt under control; or the markets will force a solution. And the financial system is in the process of cleaning itself up. The United States has surprising demographic strength: our population is on average younger than that of our biggest competitors, even China. Twenty years ago, the U.S. contributed 25 percent of the world’s gross domestic product; and even with the growth of China, India and others, the U.S. still contributes 25 percent of the world’s gross domestic product.
Finally, something you know firsthand, the U.S. still has, by far, the greatest college and university system in the world. We are producing graduates every year – like you – who are ready to start contributing.
The next few years may be challenging: you may have to move back in with mom and dad for a while (fine, as long as you do your own laundry) or take a job that’s not your first choice. You’ll have to be resourceful. But the future, as has always been the case in America, is bright.
Even with that, a sobering reminder: you will fail -- at something – in the years to come. Very early in my news career, I was removed as the anchor of the local 6 o’clock news and later, taken off the coverage of a presidential campaign. In each case, I thought my career was over. Somehow, I hung in there, threw myself into the next assignment, and it worked out all right. [There were also embarrassments: I once fell asleep while taping an interview. I’ll never tell who or where.]
You aspire to do big things; anyone who does takes risks and courts failure along the way.
You will be in good company. Winston Churchill failed the sixth grade; Gertrude Stein’s poems were rejected for twenty years. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team.
In politics, Ronald Reagan twice ran unsuccessfully for President, and Barack Obama, that promising Harvard Law School graduate and State Senator, was clobbered when he sought a congressional seat in 2000. And there was that other son of Illinois, humiliated in an 1858 Senate race -- Abraham Lincoln.
The reason they recovered from failure -- as you will -- is they were driven by a larger purpose. As the poet Robert Browning wrote, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp. Or what's a heaven for."
What matters is not that you fail, but how you respond. Hate failure, and then pick yourself up, dust yourself off and go on your journey to making a difference.
And, pay attention to the world around you, follow important events in your community, your nation and the world – be active consumers of the news. Our democracy depends on a robust, free press, and that press has been undergoing big changes lately, technologically, as we move from print and conventional TV and radio – to everything digital and mobile. Much of this is healthy: news is available from more sources. The social media like Facebook and Twitter are giving a voice to repressed peoples around the world, and changing the course of history, as we saw in Egypt. The young Google executive, Wael Ghonim, after being arrested, helped energize the pro-democracy demonstrations that overturned the Egyptian government.
This is accompanied by the collapse of the old business model, relying on advertising: Americans of your generation have grown accustomed to getting the news online, for free. Hundreds of American newspapers have closed down in recent years; over 15 thousand reporters have lost their jobs, and segments of society that used to be covered regularly, state and local government, for example, aren’t any more.
But we’re seeing exciting experiments with online news coverage in places like Seattle, Austin, Texas, and four hours west of here in Batavia, New York. Support these new ventures. As all of us figure out how to keep the American press free and strong, be part of the discussion, don’t take the news you see for granted. Think of the countries with the worst human rights records today: they are the same countries that enforce tight controls on the press.
Finally, to the women, but I want the guys to listen too. For only the second time in the 216 year history of Union College, women are in the majority of a graduating class. And this, only four decades after Union admitted women.
I don’t have to tell you that since your grandmothers and even your mothers were your age, women have come a long way. A woman has come close to being nominated for President, one sixth of the U.S. Congress is now women, women hold top ranks in the military, and in business, run colleges and universities and hold full professorships.
For the first time in its long and distinguished history, the New York Times just named its first woman Executive Editor, Jill Abramson; this, an institution that only a few decades ago was facing a major sex discrimination suit from its women reporters.
In fact, women have been the majority of college graduating classes, nationwide, for the past 30 years, and they make up nearly half of medical, law and business schools across the land. But as Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer, and thus highest-ranking woman, at Facebook, told the graduates of Barnard College a few weeks ago, it’s some of these very statistics that should give us pause.
If women have been breaking through these barriers for this long, why are only they only 16 percent of the United States Congress, 15 percent of corporate America’s senior office holders, and 24 percent of full professors? She went on to posit, “A world where men ran half our homes and women ran half our institutions would be just a much better world.”
We all want more choices: graduates, these are the type choices you will be faced with. You can shape the world you live in.
Celebrate this day, for as long as you can. You won’t remember your commencement speaker – few of us do – but you’ll recall this event, for the rest of your lives. You’ve been prepared for the opportunities and challenges ahead. Pursue your passions energetically, and make a difference.
Men, and women of the Class of 2011, believe in yourselves. Congratulations and thank you!