Commencement 2017: In Tribute to William G. Bowen *58

In a few minutes, all of you will march through FitzRandolph Gate as newly minted graduates of this University.  Before you do, it is my privilege to say a few words to you about the path that lies ahead.

 

In doing so, I continue a venerable Princeton tradition that permits the president to have the first word to each entering class at Opening Exercises and the last word to each graduating class at Commencement.

 

Those of you who arrived in September 2013 and heard my Opening Exercises address may perhaps recall something I told you then:  namely, that I could not remember a word of what the University president said to my class when it entered Princeton in September 1979.  I wish I could say that Commencement was different, and that I remembered vividly the speech the president delivered almost exactly 34 years ago, on June 7, 1983.  It was a good speech, I can tell you that—but I can tell you that only because I re-read the speech about four weeks ago when I was preparing these remarks.  I cannot honestly tell you that I remember hearing it delivered.

 

I do, however, remember well the man who delivered it:  Princeton’s seventeenth president, William G. Bowen *58.  Bill Bowen passed away last October, at the age of 83.  He was a giant on this campus and a giant in higher education.  His theme on the day that I graduated evoked the informal motto that is carved into this front campus.  “You will find,” he said, “countless ways to give new life to … one of Princeton’s most important traditions:  a tradition of service.”

 

My classmates and I took those words to heart, as I hope you will, and as Bill certainly did.  Over the course of a ceaselessly productive life, Bill was a powerful and effective advocate for co-education, the excellence of the faculty, racial and socioeconomic inclusivity, and the freedom of speech.  He improved this University tremendously, and his scholarly work aided the cause of equal opportunity across this country.

 

Princeton seeks at these Commencement ceremonies to offer you models for how you might use your education to make a difference in the world.  That is why, each year, we present honorary degrees to people who have in various ways served our nation and humanity.  Bill Bowen himself received an honorary degree from Princeton almost exactly 30 years ago, and he remains a model worth emulating, not only for his success as a scholar, teacher, and leader, but also for his values, his compassion, and, not least, his resilient optimism.

 

Dr. Harold Fernandez ’89 told me a memorable story earlier this year about Bill’s values and compassion.  Dr. Fernandez was one of the speakers at the ¡Adelante Tigres! conference celebrating Princeton’s Latino alumni.  Harold described how he journeyed across harrowing seas at age 13 to come to the United States from his native Colombia.  He arrived undocumented, and he entered Princeton with a fake green card and a phony social security number.  During Harold’s freshman year, his status was discovered, and he feared that he would be expelled from the University and deported from the country.

 

Harold turned for help to a faculty mentor, Professor Arcadio Díaz-Quiñones, who brought his predicament to President Bowen’s attention.  Bill Bowen arranged for Princeton’s immigration attorney to defend Harold and personally supported his cause.  He also enlisted the help of Associate Dean Nancy Kanach, who, as it happens, will retire this month after 36 years at Princeton devoted to educating and assisting our students.  President Bowen, Dean Kanach, and others provided Harold with a University scholarship to replace the federal financial aid he had lost.  Harold eventually won legal residency.  He graduated magna cum laude and received the Pyne Prize, the highest honor that this University conveys on undergraduates.  He is now a heart surgeon whose medical skills have saved many lives.

 

At ¡Adelante Tigres!, Harold Fernandez told me how grateful he was to President Bowen for his assistance and his empathy.  Empathy, observed Dr. Fernandez, is something much needed, and all too lacking in today’s public discourse about immigration and many other topics.

 

I agree with Dr. Fernandez, and I am confident that Bill Bowen would have agreed as well.  In his 1981 Commencement address, Bill observed that “[s]anity, both personal and national, requires a capacity to think clearly; but it requires no less a capacity to care about other people, to acknowledge weakness, to derive strength from friendship and from love, to give as well as to take.”

 

Overcoming the fractious politics and bitter disagreements of our day will require empathy; it will require friendship and love; it will require an ability to connect and collaborate together.  It will also demand that we find a way to restore and rebuild faith in the institutions, of government and of society, that allow us to take on projects together.  That is no easy task, for we live at a time when confidence in our shared institutions is ebbing.  People are losing faith not only in government, but also in business, journalism, and non-profit organizations.  This year’s edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer, a widely cited measure of attitudes toward institutions, reported that “trust is in crisis around the world.”

 

Bill Bowen understood the importance of institutions in our lives, and he had a great love for this institution of higher learning where he spent so much of his life.  As he entered the final year of his presidency he reflected on the role of Princeton and other institutions.  “Institutions,” he said at Commencement in 1986, “exist to allow us to band together in support of larger purposes; they permit a continuity otherwise impossible to achieve; and they allow a magnification of individual efforts.”  Bill recognized that, despite the great value of institutions, they were at constant risk of erosion by the powerful currents of a diverse and individualist society.  “Learning to make the accommodations that institutional affiliation requires is not always easy,” he remarked, especially for people like our students, who have been encouraged to cultivate “critical habits of thought and a fierce independence.”  “But,” Bill continued, “there is a need to cooperate and collaborate, as well as to strike out on one’s own, if important societal ends are to be served.”

 

I hope you have the courage to believe in our institutions; to maintain, repair, and improve them; and to sustain them for the future.  It is all too tempting to complain about our institutions’ failures—whether on environmental protection, health care, education, or international affairs.  It is harder to see their essential role in securing the freedoms and opportunities that we cherish.  But, as Bill rightly said, we need our institutions because they enable us to pursue larger purposes together.  They are not perfect, not even close to perfect, but they are the best means we have to address shared problems and pursue shared aspirations.

 

And certainly we should seize every opportunity to work together, for the world today is a bewildering and anxious place.  You are, of course, not the first graduates to confront such a world as you pass through FitzRandolph Gate.  Indeed, here I can quote from what Bill said in those 1979 Opening Exercises remarks to my entering class, the words that I could not remember.  He observed then that “[i]t is in many ways a somber time, and I think we do well to recognize that reality—not as a justification for opting out, but as a prelude to considering how various individuals and institutions, including this University, can make a constructive difference.”

 

That was Bill’s way:  to recognize challenges clearly and respond constructively.  “Onward!” was Bill’s favorite exhortation, one he would utter in the wake of successes and setbacks alike.  As you move onward from this place, I wish you above all else a measure of Bill’s indefatigable optimism, of the conviction that we can and must work together to improve the world, and that learning, teaching, and the pursuit of knowledge are an essential part of what it takes to do good.

 

In that spirit, although I said earlier that Princeton tradition affords me the privilege of having the last word at the University’s Commencement, I am going to yield that privilege to my late predecessor.  I will leave you with the parting thoughts that he offered at Commencement in 1980.  He spoke about the place of learning at this University and in the lives of our graduates, and he closed with these words.  The place of learning, he said,

 

“should be ... a large and lasting one, consistent in character and scale with the values … of this University from which you are now to take your leave.  May it be a place able to accommodate the fun of learning as well as the effort all true learning requires.  May its boundaries be set not by what we think we know now, but by a lifelong curiosity and an abiding appreciation for ideas—for their elusiveness, to be sure, but also for their power, their beauty, and their capacity to enrich our lives and the lives of others.”

 

To all of you who today receive degrees from this University, from all of us here on the platform, congratulations to the Great Class of 2017!  Onward!


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