Thank you, Dean Mandel, and welcome everyone – students, families and friends! I am delighted to be here with you on this exciting day – a little bit of May in December, which we all need right now!
Now, this being an occasion marking the completion of your graduation requirements at a date other than May, I’d like to talk a bit about timing – not the time it took you to complete college, but rather how timing shapes us as human beings.
OK, I know what you are thinking: “Wow, C-Pax is in an existential mood today!” But don’t worry. There is a relevant point here.
And it is illustrated by the writing of distinguished Class of 1974 Brown alumna, Pamela Constable, currently the Washington Post bureau chief in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Pamela wrote a wonderful piece about her experience on College Hill for The Brown Reader, a collection of essays by 50 alumni writers, put together for Brown’s 250th anniversary.
Pamela made an observation about the timing of events in her essay, and how that timing intersected with the direction of her own life.
She recalls lamenting that her time at Brown came shortly after the seismic upheavals of an era buoyed by triumphant progress on civil rights and the cultural liberation of Woodstock – but also darkened by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the Kent State shootings.
She wrote, “I remember feeling frustrated that at eighteen, I had missed all the action…that I had been born just two years too late to be part of the impassioned crusades of my era.”
Her timing was off – or so she thought.
And of course, that wasn’t at all the case. Vietnam protests and peace petitions were a staple of her four years on campus. Those events shaped her, and she put her passion to work as an award-winning journalist, covering watershed events in hotspots around the world.
Four and a half years ago, give or take, it was your turn. On a sunny, overcast or very rainy day – depending on whether you started in 2012, 2013, or some other year – you arrived on College Hill to begin your Brown journey, bursting with purpose and intellectual curiosity.
Now, during those first few days on College Hill, you heard numerous speeches – several by me. My guess is that most of you were too excited (or maybe too exhausted from late nights of conversation with new friends) to remember much of what was said. So let me remind you!
When I spoke to you, I wanted to inspire you to think big picture about how your time at Brown would prepare you to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges.
So when I welcomed many of you to campus on September 1, 2013, I talked about the qualities you would come to appreciate at Brown, among them, a fierce commitment to education and scholarship that would have long-lasting benefits to society. And I went on to highlight climate change as an urgent issue being addressed by faculty and students.
Four and a half years later, the perils of climate change have grown only starker – with weather extremes, coastal flooding, coral bleaching, and species under pressure. Research on climate change continues across the University, and just last month, 12 Brown students, including a 17.5-er, returned from the UN Climate Conference in Bonn, Germany. This will continue to be a defining challenge of your time.
I spoke to most of you again at Convocation on September 3. I talked about Roger Williams and the founding of Rhode Island, the “lively experiment” that shaped the Brown ethos of intellectual openness, diversity, and commitment to serving the public good. And I went on to note the new challenge of the escalating violence in Syria, and the sad segue from the promise of the Arab Spring to the horrors of war.
Four and a half years later, nearly 500,000 people are dead. The conflict rages on. The wrenching plight of refugees breaks our hearts. And filmmaker Sebastian Junger visited the Watson Institute last week to screen “Hell on Earth,” his new documentary about the Syrian civil war.
Reminders of these and so many other daunting planetary, geopolitical and socioeconomic challenges we face arrive with a buzz on our smartphones, nearly every half-hour – the threat of war; broken notions of public service; bigotry and hatred that have gone mainstream; revelations of sexual harassment in the workplace; and democratic institutions under siege.
These are the strands of history that have intersected with your time at Brown. Whether you realize it now or not, they will forever shape your view of the world and your future actions.
And on the strength of your rigorous liberal arts education, you are prepared to be agents of change for the greater good – endowed with intellectual depth and flexibility; an ability to discern fact from fiction; an understanding of how current events are shaped by the past; and, I trust, a true moral compass to guide you through difficult terrain.
There is no wrong time to do the right thing.
There is no time for cynicism and inaction.
Memorably, Pamela Constable noted in her essay that “At Brown, we felt safely ensconced in a carefree, counterculture cocoon – free to criticize the university president, join a strike by cafeteria workers, break china laughing, or kiss the sky.” I suspect all of you have felt a measure of that precious feeling. By all means, take it with you as you go out into the world.
And if I can offer you timeless words that resonate across generations, it would be these: At the March on Washington in 1963, Martin Luther King spoke of the “fierce urgency of now,” a passionate call to his fellow Americans to take action on civil rights.
Today, your “now” has arrived. It is your time and there is so much to do. Go fix what needs fixing. Share your wisdom and discoveries with your communities and the world. Do what you love.
And do this knowing that we at Brown could not be any prouder of all of you for completing your degrees, and for doing so on your own terms, in your own distinctive ways. That is, after all, a hallmark of surviving and thriving at Brown.
Congratulations and Godspeed!