By the authority vested in me by the Charter of Brown University and the Board of Fellows of the Corporation, I hereby declare the 248th Commencement of Brown University convened!
Welcome to this beautiful place on this beautiful, momentous day!
Now, you may be ready to leave Brown, but I have very mixed feelings about seeing you go. And that is because this class, the Class of 2016, is the first that I welcomed to Brown as a new University president. And don't tell your classmates from other years, but you will always be really, really special to me.
So, subsequent welcomes to new cohorts of students, classes of students, they have already honestly begun to blur together, but I remember, I remember your start at Brown with remarkable clarity: welcoming you to orientation on the Main Green on a muggy fall day in September of 2012; and talking with you again a few days later, at Opening Convocation — sadly, in the gym, because it was pouring.
The energy in the room, though, was just unforgettable.
You arrived as an amazing, creative and brilliant group of students, eager to start your college careers. And today, four years later, you depart as an amazing, creative and brilliant group of students, eager to start your “lives after Brown.”
So, in a few minutes, I will recite the words that formally confer your degrees, and you will be on your way! But before I do this, I just want to take a few minutes to reflect on what we have learned from each other over the past four years.
And I want to start with something that I hope you learned from me if you were listening at Opening Convocation. You may recall that, at that Opening Convocation, I encouraged you to approach your time at Brown with “constructive irreverence.”
I explained that universities are, by their very natures, irreverent places full of irreverent people. Our charge is to advance knowledge and understanding, and this means challenging conventional wisdom. We can’t reach new insights, we can't invent new products, we can't devise great new public policies if we assume that everything we are taught, everything we see around us, is correct and can stay the way it is. And we can’t change the world if we can’t see where change is needed.
Now at the time, yes, I talked about irreverance but I also noted the importance of the “constructive” part of the equation. Challenging ideas and people without understanding them limits your ability to learn and impedes your ability to effect change. Being constructive means listening to and collaborating with others. And, it means taking action — not just tearing down what needs to be changed, but replacing it with something better.
So, we have been through a lot in the last four years. We know that it can be really difficult to strike the right balance between irreverence and constructive engagement. And this played out on our campus, in discussions about fossil fuel divestment, racial injustice, sexual assault and freedom of expression, and numerous other topics. And while we don’t always get it right, there is so much that we can be proud of here. We are a learning community. And we all learn from each other. It's a two-way street. And I know that I have learned a tremendous amount from you during our four years together. And, time and time again, I have seen members of this community step forward to pose creative, constructive solutions to problems that we face, on this campus and around the world.
So, in fact, while I may have tried to teach you about the theory of constructive irreverence on that day four years ago, in the time since then you've taught me about constructive irreverence in action.
I watched Brown students, working together with others, to apply the knowledge that they've gained from their studies to make a difference in our community and in the world at large. I can recall numerous examples that involve many of you standing right here today:
- The students who conducted qualitative research on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, to ensure the voices of affected families were heard.
- The students whose inspired work led to the creation of a new center for first-generation college students at Brown.
- The students who collaborated with legislators on drafting Rhode Island’s first-ever climate change bill, which was signed into law in 2015.
- The students who turned their knowledge of biotechnology into a new, faster rape test kit.
- And even, I would add, a team of lacrosse players that is playing the game in an entirely new and unconventional way — what they call “controlled chaos.” Congratulations.
So, these examples, these stories, are quintessentially Brown. They are stories of determined individuals pushing forward for change in smart and savvy and collaborative ways, making full use of all they have learned on their academic journeys. They are stories of people who not only came up with good ideas, but who made them come alive.
Now, I have to say one thing. You are really great but you can't take all of the credit for your Brown experience: the truth is that, for the last four years, you've lived in a community that was constructed for you by Dean of Admissions Jim Miller and our faculty and staff. Yes, and they are great. This resilient and resourceful Brown ecosystem — with its opportunities for personal creativity and growth, and intellectually demanding academics, and steady encouragement to think for yourselves and to give back to others — is precisely the kind of ecosystem in which constructive irreverence thrives.
So, now you are leaving. And quite honestly, you are going into a world that doesn’t always share the Brown zeitgeist. It is a place where personal insults pass for electoral politics, and where the media — social or otherwise — often create hollow echo chambers that reinforce beliefs rather than challenge ideas.
It is also a world where people are grappling with the same fundamental questions that you have been asking at Brown, but on a much broader scale—questions of how to create equity and justice; how to sustain successful open, pluralistic societies; and how to use technology for social good. So, going forward as you leave this place, you are going to see expansive opportunities to have an even bigger impact on the world. And, as people who have been steeped in constructive irreverence — who are not afraid of learning, collaborating, and creating and doing — you are perfectly prepared to play a role in finding solutions to the problems that animate these questions.
So in the end, I don’t want you to leave Brown behind. I want you to take Brown with you as you go.
I want you to embed yourselves in communities that support and inspire you; I want you to challenge yourselves to continue to learn and advance knowledge; and, always, see where change is needed, and to act.
So let me close by saying something that I said to this class at Opening Convocation. I said the following:
The Van Wickle Gates will open for you on the day you graduate — I hope with better weather than we have had today — and you will walk back down this hill, out into the world. And on that day, I hope you will be prepared to change a world that too often resists change, and too often tolerates the intolerable. To apply this constructive irreverence to the world and all that lies beyond those gates is your challenge, and I hope, your destiny.
Now we come to the most important part of this ceremony, where you are awarded your degrees.