Spitzer urges Colgate graduates to stay in New York state

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Members of the Class of 2006 applaud during Sunday's chilly and wet commencement.

Members of the Class of 2006 applaud during Sunday’s chilly and wet commencement. (Photo by Timothy Sofranko)

Eliot Spitzer, champion of all things New York, implored Colgate University graduates on Sunday to stay in the Empire State “for the sake of our collective future.”

Prior to his 10-minute speech, delivered outside in a steady rain and 45-degree temperature, Spitzer, attorney general of New York and Democratic candidate for governor, received an honorary doctor of laws degree during the school’s 185th Commencement.

While Spitzer acknowledged that nearly three-quarters of Colgate’s graduates are not native New Yorkers, one could say that he appealed to the New Yorker in each of them.

“Never underestimate the power you hold. Set an example. Work yourself bleary-eyed. Be relentless. Demand more from yourselves, from your government, from your neighbors. Upend the status quo,” he said. “Step up, and do it here in New York.”

Spitzer, who has made a career of challenging the status quo, also cautioned Colgate students to “be prepared for pushback.”

Eliot Spitzer at the commencement podium with the Colgate seal in the background

Eliot Spitzer, attorney general of New York and candidate for governor, addresses seniors during commencement. (Photo by Timothy Sofranko)

“The Wright Brothers were told that heavier-than-air flight was both impossible and contrary to the will of God. The Beatles were told that the guitar sound is on the way out. IBM engineers who were told that there was no market for home computers.

“The future doesn’t belong to the army of the status quo. You couldn’t fly, you couldn’t rock, and you couldn’t surf the web if it did.”

Prior to Spitzer’s address, Colgate President Rebecca S. Chopp said in her remarks that the members of the Class of 2006 used their “knowledge, understanding, and insight to make a difference.”

She said she felt “a bit of nostalgia” about this year’s commencement, as she will “never again have the thrill of watching my first class graduate.”

“You and I arrived at Colgate at the same time,” she noted. “We have learned together what this place means, we have made a difference to this place, and we have become Colgate together.”

She charged the 693 graduates from 44 states and 17 countries to never stop doing good work. “Step forward with confidence,” she told them. “Make a difference. Continue thinking and doing.”

Chopp awarded honorary degrees to Spitzer; baccalaureate speaker Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, professor of ethics and theology for Drew University; Alfred J. and Aminy Inati Audi, owners of the L. & J. G. Stickley, Inc. furniture company; and Walter Massey, president of Morehouse College and former director of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

She then conferred nearly 700 bachelor of arts degrees and two master of arts in teaching degrees.

Honorary Degree Recipients

Eliot Spitzer, doctor of laws

Eliot Spitzer, nicknamed “Crusader of the Year” by Time magazine and “Sheriff of Wall Street” by 60 Minutes, has been attorney general of New York since 1999. He has spearheaded a broad array of initiatives that have focused on consumer protection, environmental stewardship, labor rights, personal privacy, public safety, and criminal law enforcement.

He has investigated conflicts of interest by investment banks, illegal trading practices by mutual funds, and bid rigging in the insurance industry. He has helped develop new disclosure policies for pharmaceutical companies after exposing the practice of concealing information about the clinical trials of drugs.

Spitzer began his career in public service as a clerk to U.S. District Court Judge Robert W. Sweet and, from 1986 to 1992, served as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan under Robert Morgenthau. He became chief of the labor racketeering unit, where he successfully prosecuted organized crime and political corruption cases.

He also spent time in private practice with Paul Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, and Skadden Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom. In addition, he was a partner at Constantine & Partners. Spitzer is a 1981 graduate of Princeton University and a 1984 graduate of Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review.

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, doctor of divinity

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz is an activist and theologian whose work centers on developing a theological and ethical discourse from the perspective of oppressed Hispanic women.

Academically trained and an intrinsic member of the mujerista community she studies, Isasi-Diaz embodies the struggle, which by definition begins with personal experience and ultimately advances the dignity and liberation of all Hispanic/Latino women who seek liberation and justice from ethnic prejudice, sexism, and classism.

Born and raised in Havana, Cuba, Isasi-Diaz was raised in a Catholic home and educated by nuns of the Order of St. Ursula. She became a political refugee in 1960 and left Cuba to enter the convent and earn a B.A. in European history from the College of New Rochelle in New York. From 1967 to 1970, she worked to overcome poverty and oppression as a missionary in Lima, Peru. In the 1970s, she became dedicated to fighting the oppression of women in churches, religion, and theology.

Today, Isasi-Diaz is professor of ethics and theology at Drew University in Madison, N. J. She holds a master’s degree in medieval history from SUNY Brockport, and a master of divinity, master of philosophy, and a doctorate from Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

Alfred Audi ’60, doctor of humane letters

Alfred Audi ’60 is president of L. and J. G. Stickley furniture company, a century-old family business in Manlius, N.Y., that is distinguished by its commitment to authentic designs, integrity of construction, and quality craftsmanship.

Since taking over in 1974, Audi, along with Aminy, his wife and business partner, has revived Stickley from an ailing company with 22 employees to a thriving international business with three factories, 14 showrooms, and 1,600 employees worldwide.

Audi has shared his success with central New York and Colgate University. He has served on the boards of M&T Bank, the American Furniture Manufacturers Association, the Metropolitan Development Association, the Brooklyn YMCA, and Plymouth Church. Three years ago, the Audi family made it possible for the public library in Fayetteville to expand into the original Stickley factory, and its generosity helped refurnish the Colgate Inn.

Audi has been named entrepreneur of the year by the Central New York Business Journal, and with his wife was recognized as the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year, the Syracuse Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year, and the Ernst & Young Upstate New York Entrepreneur of the Year. On behalf of his family, he established the E.J. Audi ’17 scholarship at Colgate, in honor of his father.

Aminy Inati Audi, doctor of humane letters

Aminy Audi is partner in Stickley and president of Stickley, Audi & Co., the retail division of L. and J. G. Stickley. A former freelance writer and reporter for the Voice of America, she is an advocate for women’s issues, human rights, and Arab-American relations worldwide. As a volunteer, she serves central New York’s business, arts, and higher education communities. She has served on the board of trustees of the State University of New York, Fine Furnishings International Advisory Board, the Syracuse Chamber of Commerce, the United Nations Association of Central New York, the OnCenter Convention Center in Syracuse and as president of Onondaga County Pastoral Counseling Center.

She has been named a Post-Standard Woman of Achievement in Business and is a recipient of the Zonta Foundation Annual Crystal Award and Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship. She has been a member of Women in Communications National Chapter and the National Organization of Arab-American Women, and on the executive committee of the Junior League of Syracuse.

Audi was a delegate to the United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, and to the U.N. Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1992. With her family in Lebanon, she has established an annual scholarship at the medical school of American University of Beirut.

Audi has conducted seminars throughout the country and in Tokyo on Stickley’s continuing mission and the pivotal role Stickley plays in the revival of the Arts and Crafts movement. She is a graduate of New York University. She and her husband, Alfred J. Audi, have three children and reside in Fayetteville, N.Y.

Walter Massey, doctor of science

Walter Massey has had a varied and distinguished career as a physicist, educator, and administrator. Since 1995 he has served as the ninth president of his alma mater, Morehouse College in Washington, D.C., the only all-male, historically black institution of higher learning in the United States.

Throughout his career, Massey has advocated for an understanding of diversity that transcends race to encompass socioeconomic, geographic, and religious differences among individuals. He has consistently worked to advance the teaching of science and math education, the education of minorities, and the role of science in a democratic society.

Massey was influenced by the role models and mentors he met while attending a predominantly black high school in Hattiesburg, Miss., and at Morehouse College, where he earned a bachelor of science degree at age 20.

Since earning his master’s and doctorate in physics from Washington University in St. Louis, he has held a range of administrative and academic positions in the University of California system, and at Brown University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Illinois. From 1991 to 1993 he was director of the National Science Foundation.

Valedictorian was Aleksandar A. Murdzhev of Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria. Murdzhev, a mathematics and economics major with a cumulative grade point average of 4.11. He graduated summa cum laude with honors in mathematics and honors in economics.

The salutatorian, with a GPA of 4.06, was Christopher G. Coutlee, of Geneva, N.Y. Coutlee majored in neuroscience and graduated summa cum laude with high honors in neuroscience and distinction in the liberal arts core curriculum.

Eliot Spitzer’s Commencement Address to the Class of 2006

Thank you for inviting me to share this special day with you, and thank you for that gracious welcome.It’s inspiring to see all of you gathered here at this significant moment — the culmination of your youth; the moment before you embark on the journey and adventure that is the rest of your lives. Your elation, hope, impatience, fear… wetness … It’s thick in the air today.

I join your parents and loved ones in congratulating you on this great accomplishment, and in taking a collective deep breath to see what you’ll do next. Because, quite frankly, anything is possible.

I’d like to begin by asking you to acknowledge your parents and family members, and your teachers as well as everyone else who helped you reach this important day. We accomplish nothing in life alone. We do it together.

The point of a commencement address is to encourage you to reflect on where you’ve been and where you are going, and, hopefully, to convey something meaningful in the way of advice.

But as the Roman poet Horace once wrote: “Whatever your advice, make it brief.”

Horace actually had good reason to feel strongly about time. In his era, people didn’t live as long as we do today — so they had little tolerance for filler.

My hope and expectation is that you will enjoy good health and longevity, but I will also try to heed his advice about giving advice. I won’t take long.

I am here today, like many of you, as a parent, as a New Yorker, and as someone who cares deeply about the future of this great state.

And as I look out at you, I see that future. I see a range of backgrounds, capabilities, opportunities — and, I see hope. But, sadly, I fear too many of you will leave in the coming months and years.

Over 180,000 more people left this state than came here between 2000 and 2004. 180,000.

People are leaving because they can’t make ends meet, and they are forced to look for better opportunities elsewhere.

This is not the New York we dream of. My father has lived in New York his entire life. The son of immigrants, he attended City College for free. He moved to Syracuse and started work as an engineer. He moved back to New York City and found success and prosperity. This dream, the dream my father lived, has grown far too infrequent.

Government can help. But even the strongest of governments can’t alter this course alone. When it comes down to it, only you can change the current direction.

So here is my request of you today: I’d like to ask you to stay in New York.

I know that nearly three-quarters of you are not native New Yorkers.

But I invite all of you to join in the process of restoring this state to the greatness it once knew. If you choose to go — back to California or Ohio or Georgia — I wish you well. But you might miss something spectacular.

Because we can make this a state where you make a great life for yourselves and your families. But we need your help.

I ask you to stay in New York — not for your tax dollars or even for your good company — but for the sake of our collective future.

New Yorkers take a special pride in their state. Some of you have only called New York home for four years, but you have felt it, too. Maybe in a small way, New York has captured a piece of your heart.

New Yorkers are proud when we recall the spirit of Ellis Island, proud when we think of the majesty of Niagara Falls, and proud when we hear the roar of the crowd at Yankees or Bills games.

But there’s more we can be proud of. The great weather. The land of extraordinary opportunity and hope. We are the Empire State; the gateway to America; the center of commerce and ideas for our entire nation.

But today this is a state desperately in need of a wake-up call — and a dose of passion. We need people devoted to new ideas, new businesses, new ways of governing.

It can be done. But only if you stay and add your voices.
Each of you can have a profound effect on the future of our state. No matter how big or small, our private actions can serve a higher, broader purpose.

As Robert Kennedy once said, an individual act can send out a ripple of hope. Each ripple of hope can generate other ripples. And the small ripples that we make as individuals can ultimately become important waves of future progress – an appropriate metaphor for today.

What I’m talking about is forging a legacy which we can hand to our children and grandchildren. At one point, this was done for us. Now, it’s our turn.

Let me give you three quick examples.

This first example has to do with the environment. A century ago, much of northern New York looked like a wasteland. Clear-cutting, erosion, and forest fires had devastated millions of acres of once-pristine forest land. Pictures from the period depict moonscapes. A small group of people got together and were determined to do something. But they were told: “Why bother. The region is too far gone.”

They didn’t listen. They rallied people, enlisted Governor Teddy Roosevelt and others and established the Adirondack Park. We now recognize the park as one of our greatest natural resources in New York, drawing outdoor enthusiasts, families, tourists, and, over 25 years ago, elite athletes from all over the world to compete in the Olympics.

The second example involves the economy. In the 1820s, a small group of forward-looking businessmen convinced Governor Dewitt Clinton that New York needed a canal that would stretch from Lake Erie to the Hudson River. For a long time, they had a hard time convincing others of the merits of the proposal. In fact, people laughed at what they called “Clinton’s ditch.”

Fortunately, they weren’t deterred. They fought for years to get the funding, and when the project was finally completed, it was the greatest economic boon the state and nation had ever seen. It created the Empire State. Not bad for a ditch.

The last example has to do with women’s rights. One of the greatest reformers ever was Susan B. Anthony, who led the women’s rights movement from right here in upstate New York. Talk about obstacles. For much of her career, she and a handful of supporters were met with jeers, not cheers. They were arrested, but it didn’t stop them. In fact, she once said something that I believe must have been her motto. She said: “Careful, cautious people, always casting about to save their reputations, will never achieve true reform.”

This is a tradition that we claim as New Yorkers. We would do well to remember it. It shows what citizens can achieve when they are willing to take risks, upend the status quo, question everything, and never take no for an answer.

Robert Kennedy said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”

Teddy Roosevelt said, “The credit belongs to the man or woman who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who spends himself for a worthy cause; who at the best, in the end, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, at worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

Live up to the sprit of these great New Yorkers. Follow in their grand tradition. Show us what you can do — if you choose to stand up.

The point is, never underestimate the power you hold.

Set an example. Work yourself bleary-eyed. Be relentless. Demand more from yourselves, from your government, from your neighbors. Upend the status quo.

Mark Twain observed: “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.”

It’s okay to be annoying in that way. Believe me, I’ve been called far worse.

So step up. And do it here in New York.

And be prepared for pushback. There will always be naysayers. An army of the status quo. They will call your canal a ditch, your vision a mirage.

History is littered with them.

The Wright brothers were told that ‘heavier-than-air flight was both impossible and contrary to the will of God.’ The Beatles were told that ‘guitar sound is on the way out.’ IBM engineers were told that there was no market for home computers.

The future doesn’t belong to the army of the status quo. You couldn’t fly, you couldn’t rock, and you couldn’t surf the web if it did.

Eleanor Roosevelt said: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

Each of you has the ability to achieve great things. But in order to do so, you must get involved, you must embrace change — and your dreams. Much of the world around you is invested in keeping things the same as they are. Only you have the fresh eyes needed to question everything and return dynamism to our state.

I hope I’ve made a compelling case. Please stay — and bring your energy, creativity, and fresh perspective to New York.

Your state will reward your efforts.

Thank you for listening.

Congratulations — God speed, and stay dry.