Commencement 2011 Address
May 28, 2011
Good morning and welcome to this joyous occasion and to our beautiful campus in the glorious State of Maine. This is a special day for our graduating seniors and for their families and friends. I congratulate you all.
This is the 206th Commencement of Bowdoin College — a college justifiably proud of its history, its traditions, its commitment to the liberal arts and its dedication to serving the common good.
Four years ago, I greeted an exuberant first-year class on this quadrangle promising to meet them at the same spot for Commencement four years later. Back then, this landmark building in front of you was about to reopen after a 29-month renovation and expansion project. Today, it serves once again as a beacon for this campus and for the arts in Maine.
Today is a magnificent day filled with pride, accomplishment, and celebration. To the Class of 2011—you have achieved so much over these four years. I have been honored to be with you. I will miss you.
Before I hand out any diplomas, I want to ask our graduating seniors to rise.
In what has become a tradition of respect and appreciation at the College, please face your parents, friends, and family—those who have supported and nurtured you— and thank them with a hearty round of applause.
Now, back to that Saturday night on the quad four years ago—the night when we greeted each other. On that night, I challenged you as you began your Bowdoin career. It was a challenge meant to encourage you to become intentional, active learners who engage in all that Bowdoin has to offer.
I am pleased to announce that you have all met my challenge with distinction. I congratulate you and the Bowdoin faculty and staff who, through their excellence, hard work, and commitment to you and to this College, have helped you immeasurably along the way. So, please stand again, and offer a second round of applause for the Bowdoin faculty—and staff—who have been committed to your pursuit of learning these past four years.
It is a great pleasure to welcome former Maine Governor John Baldacci—our state's 73rd chief executive—who graciously delivered our traditional greeting from the State of Maine, and who today, becomes an official member of the Bowdoin College community.
I also want to welcome and congratulate our other honorands, each a magnificent example of what we value here at Bowdoin: a commitment to excellence, to thoughtful examination, criticism and inquiry, to creativity, to principled leadership, and to good deeds—Mira Nair, Henry Millon, Cynthia Friend, and Béla Fleck.
And I especially want to thank the parents and families of our graduating seniors for your commitment to Bowdoin. It seems like yesterday that I greeted you as new members of the Bowdoin community. It is always a sad day to see the seniors leave, and it is also a day filled with emotion as we say goodbye to the wonderful families here today —many of whom I know as friends. You are part of Bowdoin forever. Please stay close.
It has been my tradition at Commencement to speak with you all briefly about leadership; to offer a challenge to leadership for our graduating seniors.
Yesterday at Baccalaureate, we talked about jobs and careers, and I had some advice—based on my own experiences—as you prepare to leave here and join the world of work or further study. Today, a final word of advice to you, our graduating seniors, while you are still Bowdoin students: In my view, there are two critical components of leadership: a sense of humility and a sense of humor. At Bowdoin we understand that leadership requires empathy—at its best it requires a person who understands in their heart and head the issues and problems they seek to solve, and the situations they aim to improve. As I said yesterday at Baccalaureate, a Bowdoin leader leaves his or her ego at the door. And so, on this very important and celebratory day, I remind us all of our responsibility to lead but also our responsibility to continue to learn and to listen. Listening is a much-underrated element of leadership.
All of us at Bowdoin are appropriately self-critical, and we often lament the "Bowdoin Bubble" and the perception that there is a dominant culture or political persuasion on campus. This year, it seems to me, the "Bowdoin Bubble" became the "Bowdoin Cauldron." We have faced up to serious issues in our residential community, and there is more work to be done. Many of you—when you leave here—will find yourselves in self-selected and self-reinforcing communities of like-minded people. In comparison, you may come to realize that Bowdoin is truly a place where difference is respected and reinforced. Break out of those comfortable surroundings when you can, and test yourselves. You will be well served if you remember your education at Bowdoin—the liberal arts education.
And, please remember the art of the “perhaps.” James Freedman, the former president of Dartmouth writes that "...a liberal education seeks to impress upon students that one of the most important words in the English language is ‘perhaps,’ and that we would all do better if we prefaced our most emphatic statements with the modest qualifier. Liberal education teaches the importance of tempering profound convictions with a measure of tolerance and a judicious sense of humility.” These are lessons well learned at Bowdoin and lessons I hope you will remember as you leave the relative “safeness” of this learning and living community.
Remember too that among the most underrated component of leadership is the ability to maintain a sense of humor. As we seek to lead by tackling serious issues and problems, we must also leave room to not take ourselves too seriously. A sense of perspective and irony are essential. Dwight Eisenhower reminded us that “...a sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” And from T.S. Eliot:
“Humor is also a way of saying something serious.”
Knowing and admiring this Class of 2011 as I do, let me take a moment to compliment them on their achievements. The talents in this class of students make us proud. They have completed their studies at Bowdoin at the highest level of achievement. We count students among us today who have completed elegant honors projects, played glorious music, created fantastic art, danced with grace, and performed magically on the athletic field.
These young women and men sitting before you understand leadership and accomplishment. They have lived it here at Bowdoin. We have every confidence and an expectation that they will continue this achievement and this leadership—this principled leadership—into the future, reflecting vividly the principles of service to the common good that we at Bowdoin so proudly represent. You have the tools and the skills to succeed. You have taken advantage of the opportunity Bowdoin creates, and now it is your responsibility to go from this place and continue to contribute and achieve.
And now, a final word to our graduates:
Look around you. You are surrounded by people who will be your friends for your entire life—not only your classmates, but also the faculty, staff, and even the president of this College. Bowdoin is grounded on yet another essential principle—the fundamental value of personal friendships that endure. My best friends in life are people who sat with me nearly forty years ago right where you are sitting today. I am confident that in another forty years, when you return for Reunion, you will say the same.
Within the hour, you will become alumni of Bowdoin College. In doing so you will join the most loyal and enthusiastic group that any college or university would be proud to call their own. Among these fellow alumni you will find old friends, and meet new ones. You will discover mentors and supporters ready to reach out and assist you throughout your lives. I know from experience. Take advantage of these relationships and stay connected and devoted to each other and to your college.
And now, let us return to where we began: The Offer of the College by William DeWitt Hyde, the seventh president of Bowdoin. Hyde set as Bowdoin's mission a liberal arts education that prepares us for a life of working with others for “common ends." He promised us the best four years of your life on this College campus. As you sit together as a community of Bowdoin students, I know this was for nearly all of you a fantastic four years. But, you will only truly reach Hyde’s promise for the best four years of your life if you go forth from Bowdoin and continue to learn, to listen, to lead lives based on the principles and mission of this great College. These are the best four years of your life simply because they prepare you for a life worth living in the Bowdoin tradition.
Congratulations to the Class of 2011, and Godspeed to you all!