Published May 28, 2016

Commencement 2016 Welcome — May 28, 2016

Text of the commencement 2016 Welcome by the President: May 28, 2016

May 28, 2016 by Office of the President

Good morning and welcome to this glorious celebration.

Welcome to our honorands and trustees; welcome to our faculty, staff, and alumni; welcome to our Brunswick neighbors; and welcome especially to family and friends who are here to celebrate this joyous occasion. Thank you for traveling from all parts of our country and the world to be here on the beautiful campus of the college we love. And to our graduates, one journey ends today and another begins. 

First things first. I would like to ask our students to stand up. . . now turn and face your parents, family, and friends—those who have supported you and who love you. Consider all that they have done for you to help you get here today and thank them with your rousing applause.

This is our 211th Commencement. In 1806, when our first Commencement took place on these grounds, Thomas Jefferson was in the White House, Congress was in only its ninth term, and it would be three years before Abraham Lincoln was born. While the design of this campus has changed a touch, this Quad was then, as it is now, the emotional if not physical center of our college. And Massachusetts Hall, just over there, our first building, was standing. Very few institutions have been as durable as Bowdoin, a place that embraces both change and a steadfast commitment to our values as essential elements in providing a great liberal arts education.

To our students, many congratulations. You have successfully completed a very challenging and compelling course of study and taken full advantage of the cultural, artistic, athletic, and, yes, the social aspects of Bowdoin. You are moments from leaving the world of a student and joining the ranks of our amazing and devoted alumni.

Let me ask you to stand again—last time, I promise—and give the faculty and staff at Bowdoin a round of applause for all they have done to make this rich experience possible. 

Julianne and I have enjoyed beyond words the opportunity to come to know you, and we are grateful for the warmth and friendship with which you embraced us during our first year. We look forward to seeing you as alumni of our College for many years to come, both back here on campus and in those places you will be calling home. 

Thank you to our honorands—Dorothea Rockburne, Frank Shorter, Peter Small, and Darren Walker—for sharing yourselves, your experiences, and your remarkable accomplishments with us. Dorothea, Frank, and Darren—welcome to the Bowdoin community. Peter, thank you for everything you have done for Bowdoin for so many years.

Let me also thank Debbie Barker for her wisdom and leadership as chair of our board of trustees for these last three years, and for her wonderful partnership during my first year as president. 

On this Memorial Day weekend I would like us to recognize two students—James Gibson Hartley and Brendan Lawler. Both were commissioned into the United States Marine Corps yesterday. We are so proud of you.

Yesterday, at Baccalaureate, I spoke about the virtues and necessity of ruthless objectivity and boundless faith in attacking the most worthwhile challenges you will face, and to seek work that brings you joy.

This morning, I want to leave you with a few thoughts on one of the most significant responsibilities and opportunities you will face. This is a need to find ways for open, honest debate and discussion about the hardest and most difficult social, political, and economic issues—discourse that we generally find deeply uncomfortable and sometimes even offensive. 

We have reached a situation in this country where far too often each of us happily exists in an echo chamber—we only engage those with whom we agree on these tough issues. We have become a nation and a world shaped by cable television; we pick the channel where we hear our views affirmed and reinforced, and where the “discussion” usually takes the form of either unchecked one-sided rants, personal insults, or yelling. This echo chamber and cable-TV model has profound consequences. The current state of our divided society is due, to great extent, to our inability to listen carefully to the views of those with whom we disagree, to respect and understand these views, and to engage those whose well-considered ideas are at odds with our own.

Much has been written lately about colleges and universities on this score, in general pointing to the lack of a willingness to confront and debate hard ideas in our intellectual spaces—about the intolerance that can exist, that often manifests itself in an unwillingness to allow those with views different from the consensus to be heard. There is truth in these criticisms; institutions of higher learning can and must do better. I spoke about this in my inaugural address last fall. We work hard at this at Bowdoin, and often our students lead the way, but we are far from perfect and and must keep getting better. It will remain challenging, but we will not waver. This is central to our mission.

So what about you, the Class of 2016? What about you out there in the “real world”? For you, this engagement is also essential as a life’s work. You need to invest yourselves in being able to have honest, open, and respectful discussion and debate on important issues with those who disagree with you. This is true for at least three reasons. First, it allows you to test your ideas, to sharpen them, and to adjust them when you are persuaded it makes sense. This allows you to have the most impact on the really hard issues you will face and that you care the most about. Your arguments will be weaker and incomplete without having tested them rigorously, without legitimately considering alternatives. Your ability to make change will be limited.

The second reason is personal . . . selfish. Your lives will be richer and deeper for engaging in this way, for the exposure to different ways of thinking about an issue, for the challenge of wrestling with whether to affirm your views or change your mind, of developing a rigorous and thoughtful way to counter an argument with which you disagree. This is part of a life well lived. To spend your life in the company of ideas and beliefs that never change and are never challenged suggests narrow-mindedness and isolation.

Finally, democratic society depends on robust discourse. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.” Isolation from different and uncomfortable ideas gives rise to alienation from civic life and to the rise of demagogues. The generations that have come ahead of you have not always done well on this score, and so we turn to you. Perhaps this is what Hyde was getting at in “The Offer of the College”— to “cooperate with others for common ends.” Our civic life depends on you being better than we have been. 

The stakes are high, but you are more than ready for this challenge. This I know with certainty. You possess a powerful combination of intellect, knowledge, thoughtfulness, respect, and courage. Be confident and fearless, and engage. We are counting on you.

In “The Offer,” Hyde described these as the best four years of your life. For those who have come before you—those who have marched across these steps—these were among the best four years both because of the rich, wonderful, challenging, and rewarding experiences on campus and for the foundation of knowledge, skills, friendships, and deep sense of self that comes from these experiences—experiences that will make your life richer every day.

We honor you and celebrate all that you have accomplished. Class of 2016, many congratulations and Godspeed.