Remarks from Commencement 2015 speakers

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Remarks from President Jeffery Herbst

Trustees, members of the faculty and staff, students, families, guardians, and friends, welcome to Colgate’s 194th Commencement and our celebration of the Class of 2015.
It is a pleasure to speak before you on this special day.

Before going further, I ask all parents and grandparents, friends and family of the Class of 2015 to please stand. Congratulations to you. We are grateful for the support you have provided to your students and to Colgate. While the students’ accomplishments are their own, they would not be here without you. Thank you.

I also want to acknowledge the presence of Dr. Thomas Bartlett on the stage. Tom was the eleventh president of Colgate, serving from 1969 to 1977. He was appointed at the same time that the Board of Trustees decided to admit women to Colgate and therefore ushered in coeducation, the most important campus development in the twentieth century. Tom is here as a grandfather of a graduating senior, another role I know he takes very seriously. Please join me in welcoming back President Bartlett.

Members of the class of 2015: your time at Colgate has come to an end. Between exams and good-byes, I hope that the last few weeks have provided at least some opportunity to review what you did and what happened in this place while you were a student. You undoubtedly have thought about what now seems like a blur of classes, extracurricular activities, friends, study abroad, trips home, trips back to campus, packing, unpacking. And you have surely thought about how busy you have been. In fact, Colgate students are very busy. We know from national surveys that Colgate students spend more time preparing for class, are more likely to come to class having completed reading or other assignments, and spend significantly more time on assigned readings for class than students at peer institutions. I am proud of those numbers, as you should be, and they may explain how quickly the time seemed to go by.

After this point, life will likely become more complicated. Spouses, partners, children, jobs, community service, religious observance will fill your lives and you will have far less control over your time than you do now. Even in this economy, you may personally have to adjust to an 8:00am to 5:00pm workday, or you will be expected to work around the rigidity of other people’s schedules or time zones. That may come as a shock to some of you. Experience suggests that, over time, you will, in fact, look back and think of your Colgate years as the longest period of unstructured time that you ever had. Within constraints, you could set your own schedule for intellectual pursuits, enriching activities, and friends. Some of this, no doubt, will be the gaze from rose-colored glasses, but it also will reflect the reality that no other time may offer the intellectual, social, service, and recreational opportunities you have had on this compact Colgate campus—all with friends nearby.

When not reminiscing about the past, you will have to think about how to use your time given your new, adult responsibilities. Here you will enter into one of the great paradoxes of modern life. After WWII, it was predicted that, given increases in productivity and the advent of computers, we would have to work less. A 1959 Harvard Business Review article suggested that boredom would become common. That has not happened and there is some evidence that in recent years workloads have grown heavier.

However, not everyone who claims to be working all the time actually does so. One study found that, when people were asked to keep detailed time diaries, those who stated that they were working extreme hours (75 or more per week) were sometimes off by as much as 25 hours a week. Recent evidence also suggests that a significant number of employees are able to moderate the time demands of their nominally consuming jobs through clever scheduling or subterfuge that makes it look like they are working harder than they are.

Yet, we certainly think that we are busy. Indeed, ask someone in today’s America how they are and they will almost certainly respond with “busy.” Indeed, many celebrate the long hours they work and “workaholic” is certainly not a pejorative term in much of American society. Or as Kanye said recently, to some acclaim, “I feel like I’m too busy writing history to read it.” It also appears that people, mainly women, who ask their employers to moderate their schedules (as opposed to faking it) tend to be punished during performance reviews.

Why the fixation on how busy we are? There are several reasons. The shift from an industrial to a service economy, and therefore from “widgets produced” to a more amorphous set of outputs, makes it hard to say what you have done, so it is more important to describe how you are doing it. Some professions bill by the hour so “busy” actually translates into income. Our electronic devices are now always with us and allow us to be in constant contact, so people may feel the oppression of work more acutely than in the days when leaving the office meant leaving work. It is hard to imagine Don Draper with an iPhone. The growth in the number of working couples has undoubtedly also increased the complexity of family life.

I have a particular perspective on this issue, which I gained living in and studying sub-Saharan Africa. In Africa, especially in the rural areas, I have witnessed some of the busiest people I have ever seen. Men and women, but usually women, often wake up well before sunrise to begin daily chores that for many include tending crops and gathering firewood and water and bringing these supplies great distances so that their families can survive. Their tasks often go long into the night. The work is constant and the stakes are very high: fail to get enough firewood and your family will suffer. Yet, in many years of travelling in Africa, I have yet to hear people describe themselves as busy. They are more likely, when asked to say how they are, to talk about their families.

Similarly, some of the most successful people I have known across a variety of fields and who certainly devote enormous amounts of time to their ventures, never say that they are “busy” when asked. Instead, they will tell you what they are doing, about their successes, and, for the truly honest, about their failures. I also have seen people who do not seem to be accomplishing very much constantly proclaiming how busy they are, leading me, and undoubtedly others, to wonder why it can look so hard to seemingly accomplish so little.

It is perhaps no surprise that one of the greatest compliments that can be paid to an athlete is that he or she seems to be playing effortlessly. When watching Michael Jordan take a jumper, Usain Bolt run the 100, or Lionel Messi score a goal, no one talks about how busy they are, although all three had to practice and train extraordinarily hard to reach the pinnacle of their professions. Rarely do we hear the mundane, behind-the-scenes details. Rather, it is what they deliver that amazes us.

I am going to depart from the usual bromides offered in graduation speeches and make a very specific suggestion to you: when asked how you are, never say “busy.” Consider “busy” a four-letter word. Of course, there will be times when you are busy but that is not the point. Rather than expressing to others the velocity at which you are doing things, why not discuss what you are doing? You might very well find that those who asked about you will value hearing how you really are.

If you do not share more than you are “busy,” you also inevitably isolate yourself. As my colleague Barbara Brooks has noted to me, friends, family, co-workers and others cannot know you unless you answer them more specifically. At Colgate, you learned the importance of being articulate: to use language with nuance and particularity. You are capable of so much more than the pat answer.

Another benefit of the Colgate education that you have received is the ability to think critically. Over the last four years, you have worked to understand complex problems and issues in Anthropology, Chemistry, Economics and many other subjects by studying context, history and sequence, and being able to reduce the issue at hand to its fundamentals. These habits of mind were not developed just so that you could master the course offerings at Colgate. Rather, these are life skills, to be employed by you over the next decades to inform you about the world around you and, critically, to teach you about yourself.

Refusing the all-encompassing “busy” will require you to reflect on what you are actually doing, whether what you are doing has meaning, and if you are proud of your undoubtedly prodigious activities. There is no better way to grow as a person, a friend, a partner, a citizen — and as a human being — than to constantly ask yourself whether what you are doing is right. Proclaiming to be “busy” defeats all of that. Say, and think, about what you are doing rather than about how occupied you are. Eventually, when it comes to Colgate and the rest of your lives, what you will remember is your accomplishments and not the time they took.

Congratulations and best wishes as you look forward to what you will do next.

Remarks from Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.

Thank you Mr. President and Professor Bouk. To the members of the Board of Trustees, the distinguished faculty, and to the extraordinary class of 2015, thank you for this honor and for the opportunity to share with you the joy of this special day. It is a humbling experience for a country boy from Moss Point, Mississippi to find himself amid the stunning beauty of the Chenango Valley on this historic campus. It is a long way from the reality of my mother who cleaned toilets for a living and my father who delivered mail and flowers in the blistering heat of Mississippi summers.

Life is funny that way. Amid its joys and tragedies, every now and again one has a singular experience—something that suggests, at least for the moment and it must be only for the moment, that you are more than a mere speck of dust, that there is something significant about the personality that is uniquely your own, and that you have said or done something that matters. Thank you for that experience today.

But I must admit that I have struggled to find the proper words for this occasion. You have dedicated the last four years to the arduous task of self creation and to preparing yourselves to enter a world that is, without mincing words, quite ugly in its details. So much is at stake, and I have never dared to do this before.

The beauty of the last four years rests, in part, in your willingness to try on different ways of being in the world. You’re not the same person who arrived here four years ago. I remember, during the heady times of my college days, my own narrow sense of what mattered being tossed aside as I met people from around the country and the world, as I encountered challenging ideas in the classroom, and as I tried on new selves and discarded old ones (failing over and over again at it all, but in each instance, as Samuel Beckett noted, “fail[ing] better.”)

Hopefully, you have allowed yourselves to be unsettled over these last four years. Hopefully you have “failed better” and have come to understand that one’s life is, in fact, the canvas upon which we make art. Indeed the art of living involves the kinds of habits and risks that universities like Colgate make possible. It is the power of a true liberal arts education to ruthlessly expose you to ideas that will shift the ground beneath your feet. What might it mean to have encountered James Baldwin and Toni Morrison here? To have read Judith Butler and Jacques Derrida here? To have struggled with W.E.B. Du Bois and Hannah Arendt here? To have worked in labs and thought seriously about the natural world? To have engaged the mysteries of the human mind here? Worldviews have collapsed, positions have shifted, and each of you has become larger, more expansive, because of it.

In this place, the cultivation of the critical sense equips one with the tools to engage in self-reflection. Those tools are a prerequisite for critically engaging the world at large. Over these last four years, whether you have majored in the hard sciences or social sciences, whether you are on your way to graduate school or law school or medical school, or whether you are destined to be on Wall Street, hopefully you have acquired the habits of reading, of questioning, of thinking critically that will shape how you navigate the rough seas of this world. These habits will shape how you respond to the difficult questions of justice and fairness, and how you will respond to the broader concern of democracy in this country.

The beauty and power of the liberal arts rest in its insistence that we begin the lifelong journey of learning with a constant and unflinching examination of who we take ourselves to be. We have to look the fact of this historic creation — the fact of you and me — squarely in the face as we embark on the journey. If we refuse, we remain permanently in the dock, trading in the illusion that our narrow world is the world as it is. (The equivalent of pondering shadows in Plato’s cave) No. This college experience, if it has been a singular one for you, has occasioned moments where you have had to turn your back on the ugliness and narrowness in you. And that has been the only way that you could have reached, as Ralph Waldo Emerson would have us do, for a higher self. In doing so, you made it possible to be better, and to do better.

Now, this work isn’t limited to our individual selves. You have made lifelong friends over the last four years. You have met professors who, I suspect, have touched your souls. They, like Beauford Delaney to James Baldwin, directed your eyes to see beauty in the most unexpected places. In short, you have built community here, loved and cried with others who, in their own unique way, have helped you become the person who sits here today.

And, in many ways, you have remade this place. Colgate University does not belong to administrators, to the Board, to the faculty, or to some abstract idea of tradition. Colgate belongs to you! And your presence here along with your classmates, unprecedented because of the distinctiveness of each and every one of you, occasioned a moment to make this place anew — to shake it at its very foundations in the name of the very principles that make it such a special place. Together, you have challenged Colgate to be better.

Some three hundred among you occupied the Administration Building for one hundred hours. You called attention to what it means to live here under duress, to experience daily insults, and to know that the idea of inclusion, real and genuine inclusion, exists only as an abstract value not a practical reality. Colgate, you maintained, had to fail better. Just as the university challenged you to turn your back on the ugliness and narrowness of a previous self, you challenged Colgate to turn its back on the ugly and narrow dimensions of this wonderful institution.

In so many ways, colleges and universities are training grounds for citizenship. Here you either cultivate the habits of courage or learn the habits of cowardliness and complicity. Over the past year, you have courageously forced this university to look unflinchingly at itself. You have set the conditions for a better university for that fourth grader today who, in a not so distant future, will find herself moving about this campus. And, hopefully, she will not have to ask herself if she belongs here.

But you can’t be naïve about change. Habits are hard to break. Especially when they hide in plain sight. We need only remember that in the spring of 1968 some 500 students occupied the Administration Building. They called attention to a climate of exclusion on campus and blatant racism among their fellows. And here you are, 47 years later, making a similar claim under different conditions. It is one of the hardest lessons to learn, particularly when you are young: that substantive and enduring change doesn’t happen overnight. That your commitments to improving Colgate, our country, or the world can’t be fleeting. Those commitments don’t work like a tweet or a post on Instagram or comments on Yik Yak. They ought to animate the spirit of a life lived over time. Otherwise, the new baby is stillborn and we grieve over what could have been.

Over these last four years, you have engaged in daring acts of self-creation, you have in countless ways challenged Colgate to be better, and now you are preparing to leave these hallowed grounds. A vast world awaits. And it isn’t a pretty one. War and violence, greed and selfishness, profound inequality and deep-seated hatred animate these days. Your fellows are in the streets clamoring for justice and insisting that no life in this country should be valued more than another. How will you orient yourself to the “fierce urgency of now?”

So much of the ugliness of our current moment requires that you and I turn our backs on the habits and practices that distort and undermine democratic life in this country. The question is will you do it? Do you have the courage to stand up and confront the powers that have hijacked the country in the name of greed, hatred, and security? Can you lead a revolution of value? Where we change how we view government, how we value each other, and change what we take to be ultimately meaningful in this country (where material success doesn’t define the fullness of who we are and who we aspire to be)?

Members of the class of 2015, will you do the work to free up your imaginations to dare to believe that this world can be different? All possibilities, even in the darkest of times, reach us through our imaginations. You and I must seize hold of the idea that a different arrangement of things is possible. And you must do so with passionate intelligence, in which you bring the fullness of what you have experienced and learned here at Colgate to bear on the world as it is in the hope of a world as it could be.

We must turn our backs on unintelligent and uninspired action.

We must turn our backs on greed and selfishness, on mean-spiritedness and provincialism.

We must turn our backs on those who believe that war and violence can solve the world’s problems

We must turn our backs on those who believe in disposable populations.

We must turn our backs on racial hatred, on sexism, on homophobia, on all forms of prejudice that deny the dignity and standing of every human being no matter their place of birth, the color of their skin, or who they love.

In short, members of the mighty class of 2015 you must challenge yourselves, you must continue to challenge Colgate, and you must challenge this nation to not only be better, but to do better. It is your inexhaustible voice, to paraphrase William Faulkner, your “spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance” that is the only possible salvation we have now. It is in your hands.

So congratulations and get ready to do the glorious work of transforming this world.

Remarks from The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings ’74

President Herbst, Former President Bartlett (would you stand up so we can all greet you?), university chaplains, faculty and staff, members of the board, and especially graduates and families:

I am enormously honored to be with you today, and I’m delighted to be part of another Colgate commencement weekend.

To put it all in perspective, tuition, room and board my senior year was $4,130. At my own graduation from Colgate, absolutely no one would have predicted that things would turn out this way and that I would be standing before you today.

In May 1974, when I graduated, we were just months away from the impeachment and resignation of President Richard Nixon, we were still mired in a shameful war in Vietnam, and, in church news, eleven women were preparing to become the first women to be Episcopal priests in what the very unhappy House of Bishops would call shortly thereafter an “irregular” ordination.

All around us, there were signs and signals that the rules were changing, that old ways were passing away, and that to make things change, we were going to have to stand up and fight for justice.

I learned to do that at Colgate.

I checked prices at grocery stores in different neighborhoods in Madison County in order to address price gouging in the poorest neighborhoods. He may not remember, but I met with President Bartlett when, just a year after the passage of Title IX, I was injured playing varsity volleyball for Colgate and learned that male athletes got their medical expenses paid and female student athletes didn’t. (To his credit, it was changed. And this is, by the way, probably the meeting he was thinking of when he greeted the news that I was going to seminary with that peculiar look on his face.)

The dean of students was also bemused. The one person who was not surprised was my beloved professor of religion, Coleman Brown. He nominated me for a Rockefeller Trial Year Fellowship in Seminary . And I will always be grateful that he was a person here at Colgate who saw something in me that I didn’t yet see in myself.

During my time here, we marched and sang and shouted and prayed against the war in Vietnam, even carrying a coffin in one demonstration in the downtown village of Hamilton. Upon learning this, my father, who was still recovering from the news that I had worked to register voters for George McGovern, informed me that if he saw me on television in a war protest, he wouldn’t pay my tuition. I told him I’d just have to duck when the cameras came around.

But that, of course, was the wrong answer. And as I browsed the #ColgateImpact hashtag after your Day of Impact, I saw that you all know better. Your ways of making an impact are public and creative. You know that when we seek justice, it goes better if we mix in some kindness and mercy. You’re not ducking for the camera.

The education you’ve received here at Colgate — I know, everybody tells you this— but it really is an enormous privilege, and as you finish your time here, I believe you’re well equipped to think creatively and critically about how you will make an impact in the public square. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about that by trial and error, but even more from watching people whose thirst for justice and mercy is unquenchable.

A couple of months ago, we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. And just a few weeks earlier, Congressman John Lewis, a lion of the Civil Rights Movement, received the Jonathan Daniels Humanitarian Award from Virginia Military Institute.

I paid special attention to this event, because Jonathan Daniels is a martyr of the Civil Rights Movement who is also a saint of the Episcopal Church. We commemorate him each August 14. He was a graduate of Virginia Military Institute — VMI — and he was a seminarian at Episcopal Divinity School (also my alma mater). And he was there when he first answered the call to go to Selma, where he marched from Selma to Montgomery and then stayed to register voters, tutor children, and live among African-American people in Alabama who had been disenfranchised, beaten down, and impoverished. On August 20, 1965, Daniels was killed by deputy sheriff Tom Coleman after he pushed 17-year-old Ruby Sales out of the way of Coleman’s gun. Coleman was acquitted by an all-white jury.

So John Lewis, who had his skull fractured by Alabama state troopers and still bears a scar on his head, went to Virginia to receive an award named for Jonathan Daniels, who was killed by that Alabama deputy sheriff. And you may begin to realize that this is not ancient history.

In accepting the award at VMI, Lewis noted that Daniels was seen by many in the South as an “outside agitator.” He said that Daniels “found a way to get in the way,” to get into “good trouble, necessary trouble.” He said that others who got into “good trouble, necessary trouble” were Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Lewis himself.

He continued, “For someone who grew up preaching to chickens, I feel blessed to be able to say to you: never give up, never give in, never give out. Lay down the burden of hate, separation, division; we all live in the same house, the American house, the world house. … We need to look out for each other and remember the life and contribution of Jonathan Daniels.”

We need to look out for each other. That just about sums it up. You’ll do that through random acts of kindness and generous demonstrations of charity, but that won’t always be enough, as it was not enough for John Lewis and Jonathan Daniels. Your Colgate education gives you the ability to think critically, which means you don’t need to take things at face value or be spoon-fed by the culture or anyone in it. You can figure out the truth as you see it — the readings from each of the religious traditions that we’ve heard today are helpful roadmaps — and then you can figure out what to do about it in your context with your gifts and your skills and insights.

And sometimes that will involve speaking truth to power, but often, as Noam Chomsky says, you don’t need to speak truth to power, because they already know it. You don’t need to speak truth to anyone, but you do need to join with other people and try to find the truth together. “The ones you are concerned with are the victims, not the powerful,” he says. Or, in other words, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

This is a deeply counter-cultural way to live. It does not require you to live in a yurt on the beach — although if you are planning to do that, I am all in favor of it as long as you text your parents on a regular basis. But if you pay attention, you’ll find a lot of people living all sorts of lives who are using their education and their gifts to seek the truth and look out for each other and for the most vulnerable people in our midst. I see it in cities where the slow burn of systemic racism has caught fire; in schools that are educating children who have no other hope; in boardrooms where executives are creating human working environments and paying a living wage; in churches, synagogues, mosques and temples where people are repenting of religious racism, homophobia, and sexism and embracing the dignity of every human being.

This is the work of living a life beyond yourself, which is really the only work worth doing. The Colgate community has prepared you well to do it, and I look forward to watching you and helping where I can.

It’s a privilege to welcome you to our community of Colgate alumni across the world. Congratulations, and blessings on you as you go forth from this place.

Go get in some good and necessary trouble.

Never give up.

Never give in,

Never give out.

And may your faith sustain you and give you courage.