Good morning! Welcome to this historic place on this glorious day! These will be your last academic exercises as Brown undergraduates. In a few minutes, you’ll be formally granted your degrees. When you return up the hill to the Main Green, you will do so as alumni of the great Brown University Class of 2022!
I hope you loved marching down the hill with generations of alumni cheering you on! They are so excited for you.
And, I hope that over the past few days you’ve had a chance to ask some of them about their time at Brown. If you did, you would have heard familiar themes that bind generations of Brunonians together. Not just the excellent education you received, but also things like shopping period; Spring weekend; and 5 AM breakfasts at Louie’s (and not because you woke up early.) You may even have found some members of the 50th Reunion Class who took courses from Barrett Hazeltine!
Although you have much in common with previous generations of alumni, your class is different. You have had the distinctive experience of a global pandemic that intersected three of your four years at Brown.
Going to college during a pandemic was not what you had planned, and certainly not what you would have preferred.
For a period of time, you had to give up things you love, like musical performances, athletics competitions, volunteering in local schools, and more. Some you lost loved ones to the pandemic -- people who should have been here today to celebrate your graduations. They would have been so proud of you on this wonderful day.
In the face of very real grief and disappointment, you found ways to keep your communities together, virtually. You held remote concerts, supported our local healthcare providers, and tutored schoolchildren on-line.
There have been many hard moments. But maybe someday, your memories of this period will develop a hint of nostalgia. Just think about it:
- No one knows better than you, the real joy of meeting friends outside in the fresh air on the Main Green.
- You could yawn all you wanted under your masks in the most boring classes.
- And, you’re possibly the first generation of Brown students to say you missed being able to eat inside at the Ratty.
Let’s be serious. This community came together and supported each other. It was a team effort. Judging by the memes I see, Russell Carey (who used to be known to students primarily for his role in calling snow days) has become a campus hero. But in truth he’s one of many, and we owe all of the administrators, faculty, staff and student leaders a debt of gratitude for getting us through this time.
Today, hundreds of Brown employees are here to support our largest ever in-person Commencement and Reunion Weekend with all of your friends and family members. Can we please have a round of applause for all of the Brown employees here today?
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I’d initially decided to stay away from the pandemic in my remarks to you today. But, it’s been just too big a part of our recent lives. We’ll all be processing the significance of this pandemic experience on our lives, for years to come.
As I start that processing myself, I’ve been considering what I’ve learned about making hard decisions in times of great uncertainty.
On one of the numerous Zoom meetings I had with other college presidents over the past two years, I remember one president describing how it felt like driving through a thick fog with no headlights, and having to make quick decisions about whether and when to turn right or left. Stopping was not an option.
When you’re faced with this kind of fog-like uncertainty, what do you do?
We like to look for silver linings, and perhaps there’s something to learn from our experience. The truth is that life is filled with uncertainty. We often don’t know whether decisions we make will ultimately turn out to be right or wrong.
As Brown students, you’ve faced many decisions as the architects of your education, navigating the Open Curriculum. As college graduates, you’ll navigate even more. In the coming years, you’ll make many consequential decisions—where to live, where to work, whether and when to go to graduate or professional school, whether and when to start a family.
I can guarantee you that there will be points in your life when you feel like you’re driving through fog with no headlights.
When this happens, what do you do?
My experience through the pandemic taught me two things about tackling hard decisions in the face of uncertainty.
One, hold fast to your values.
Brown is defined by its values: academic freedom, respect, equity and integrity. And the fundamental importance of advancing knowledge.
These are the values that have guided my own decision-making in the pandemic. We brought students back to campus. We never stopped our research. We didn’t have layoffs. We protected the health of our students, employees and community members.
Doing these things was core to who we are and what we stand for.
Values are important. They are what make us step back and ask ourselves: What are we trying to accomplish and why? What matters in the big picture?
I thought about this after Frances Haugen, who is best known as the “Facebook whistleblower,” spoke at Brown. Hopefully some of you saw her. When Frances realized that her work at Facebook didn’t align with her values, she had to decide what to do.
She could continue advancing in a stable and lucrative career. Or she could take a new path – one that would come with many short-term challenges, but that was true to her values. She chose the latter. (I should add that she also encouraged students to go work for Facebook and make change from within.)
Someday, you might find yourself in Frances’ shoes. What do you do? My advice: always hold fast to your values. Always do the right thing.
Two, accept the risk of failure.
During the pandemic, Brown took some calculated risks in line with our value of advancing knowledge.
For example, would we be able to stand up a first-class testing program in time for the start of the Fall 2020 semester? (Despite a few bumps, we did.) Would our students—all of you—abide by the necessary health protocols? (For the most part, you did.) If we hadn’t been willing to take some risk, we would have gone fully remote. But that’s a decision I think we all would have regretted forever.
You have to be willing to take risk. Finding real joy, making discoveries, changing the world – these are things that happen when you’re brave enough and bold enough to accept that you might not get it right on the first try, or the second, or even the third.
A couple of months ago, Bill Clinton visited Brown, and he was asked about whether he has any regrets about his career in politics. He shared that he probably would have regrets no matter what career he chose. And then, he talked about the need to take risks.
He said, “The unhappiest people at my high school reunion are not the people who have gone bankrupt, lost elections, been beat up (or) had terrible things happen. The unhappiest people are the people who were afraid to try what they wanted to do in their lives.”
I don’t want any of you to lead lives of regret. I want you to go out into the world, live by your values, and be the brave and bold Brunonians that you want to be.
And when you return for reunions in 10, or 20, or 50 years—to cheer on future graduating classes as they march through the Gates—you’ll be able to talk with your classmates about how your time at Brown, pandemic and all, has shaped the decisions you’ve made and the arcs of your lives from today on.
And now, would you like me to read the Latin script that confers your degrees?