By the authority vested in me by the Charter of Brown University and the Board of Fellows of the Corporation, I hereby declare the 251st Commencement of Brown University convened.
Welcome to this historic place on this absolutely glorious day! These will be your last academic exercises as Brown undergraduates. In a few minutes, you’ll be formally granted your degrees. Yes! And when you walk back up the hill to the Main Green, you will do so as alumni of the great Brown University Class of 2019!
But first, let’s reflect on the transition you’re about to make, from college students to college graduates. And I want to begin by going back to the last major life transition that many of you experienced, from high school to college. And it seems to me like almost yesterday that you arrived on campus—for many of you, in the fall of 2015.
Take a moment and conjure up a mental image of yourself as a first-year student at Brown. Or, if you’re a transfer student, where you first started college. Think about that. Think about that. What were you feeling? What were your hopes and dreams for your college experience?
Now, my guess is that, for many of you, an honest look at that self of four years ago is at least a little bit wistful – maybe even a little bit uncomfortable. Some of you may be thinking, why did I feel so socially awkward? So naive? And, maybe you were anxious about “doing college right”—whatever that means.
As seniors this past fall, looking at new first-years traversing campus in small packs, with lanyards around their necks, you may have thought “Super cute. Super clueless.” And then you may have winced when you recognized that that’s exactly what seniors were thinking about you, three years ago.
But please, I want you to be kind to your former selves. There’s something truly special about the qualities you possessed as first-year students. You were so receptive to new ideas, you were so optimistic, and you were so eager to do things that were consequential. You were open—intellectually, emotionally and socially.
You recognized, during that time of transition, that college would change you—even if you didn’t know quite how that would happen, or exactly what it would look like.
Now think about your current self, and how much you have learned and how much has changed since that day you arrived on campus. You know more about the world. You’re more intellectually ready to take on any challenge. You’re more comfortable in your own skins.
And Brown itself has changed since your arrival – in many cases due to your actions. You’ve left a lasting imprint on this University.
I don’t mean only your having bestowed the name “Blueno” on the enormous statue of the blue bear that arrived on campus in 2016. And then, transforming Blueno—for better or worse—into an enduring Brown meme that will live beyond you.
What I mean are things like demanding that the University commit to combating racism in all of its forms, and more broadly to building a more diverse and inclusive community at Brown. Now, along the way, some of these conversations were very difficult. They took courage. But, they were necessary and they were effective. And the result was a plan to make Brown better. It’ll take time to fully realize our aspirations but, with your help, we have made progress.
In addition, some of you were instrumental in leading a study revising the state's 2016 Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Plan. They like that, too! Because of your efforts, Rhode Island is considering a plan to more rapidly achieve its 2020, 2035 and 2050 targets for reducing its carbon footprint.
And another thing we learned from you that some Brown students were having to choose between buying food and buying textbooks. And so we changed how Brown administers financial aid, and introduced a program to provide free textbooks to those who need them. These changes will help generations of students who follow you. So we thank you for that.
You’ve done these things, and so much more. I’m grateful for your thoughtfulness and for your activism. I’m proud that you’ve already taken what you’ve learned here at Brown, and put it to good use in the world. And I have to add that I’m proud of the Brown women’s sailing team, which won the Women’s National Championship two days ago! You have to give them a shout out!
And now, as you embark on another great life transition, I want to leave you with some parting thoughts about the changes that lie ahead—and make sure you know that you’re positioned to drive change that improves your lives and betters the world around you.
I see three large changes that you must confront.
The first is change in the world of work. We hear a regular drumbeat of predictions that many of today’s jobs will become irrelevant due to new technology, hopefully replaced with new jobs that haven’t yet been imagined. The people who succeed in this environment will have the ability to create, and collaborate, and address complex situations, and lead with empathy. They will have human intelligence that complements artificial intelligence.
I have no doubt that Brown’s Open Curriculum has helped you develop the agility that will be needed in this rapidly-changing world. I’m sure that’s true. But I want you to recognize that this isn’t true of everyone. There will be—indeed, there already are—people who are left behind. Which leads me to my second point.
Economic inequality—which has been increasing within the US and many other countries around the world for decades—may continue to rise if the benefits of technological change go only to the wealthy and educated. I fear that widening economic disparities will continue to undermine social cohesion and possibly threaten democracy. We see this already in countries around the globe that are experiencing a rise in nationalism and xenophobia.
Now, all of you, thanks to your education, will likely, very likely, be on the privileged side of the socioeconomic divide. And you owe it to others to apply your education and talents to building strong societies and promoting prosperity that benefits everyone, not just those fortunate enough to attend universities like Brown.
Last, perhaps the most sobering change you’ll have to contend with is climate change. The best science tells us that catastrophic and permanent damage to the planet will be unavoidable unless we reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050—possibly 2040. This isn’t far away. You’ll be in your 40’s, a time when most people are in the midst of building careers and building families.
Now, it’s easy to not want to think about climate change. It’s a disturbing subject—so much so that I almost thought I should avoid the subject on this celebratory day.
But, you’re Brunonians. You rise to challenges. And you’re more than capable of facing hard truths, and then doing the hard work of making change. Addressing climate change will take the concerted efforts of scientists, policy-makers, artists, teachers, and leaders in business, not-for-profits and government. Every single one of you—no matter where you’re headed next—has a role to play. And I know you will. We need you to do this.
So let me end where I started. As you enter a changing and sometimes challenging world, recognize that you’ll continue to grow and change—even if you don’t know exactly how that will happen, or exactly what it will look like. I want you to embrace that change. I want you to own it. I want you to lead it. And I know you will.
As you depart, I encourage you to dig deep and channel your inner first-year self. Not the self-doubts and naivete—you’re welcome to leave those behind for next year’s incoming students! But never lose the optimism; the intellectual, emotional and social openness; the eagerness to learn; and the commitment to having an impact on the world.
These virtues, in combination with all that you learned here, will lead you to lives of meaning and consequence in a changing world.
So, now, would you like to be granted your degrees?