President Fogel's Commencement Address

President Fogel’s Commencement Remarks

I often say that the life of the University centers on the encounters between two groups of people, between talented, brilliant faculty, and equally talented and bright students prepared to learn from, and to challenge, their teachers. We are joined here today by a group of individuals who are the heart, soul, and indeed the very lifeblood of the University, members of our distinguished faculty, joined by retired colleagues (many of them, I know from their outstanding continued research, scholarship, and creative activity and service on behalf of their disciplines and the University retired in name only). Would our active and retired faculty please stand to be recognized.

But to name only faculty and students would be terribly omissive. Nothing happens here at the University of Vermont, in academic departments, in residential life, in the maintenance and operations of technology and the physical plant—in truth in countless ways—that is not supported and made possible by our talented and dedicated staff. To give one simple example, staff from the Offices of the President and Provost, from every academic college and school, from Student and Campus Life and from Facilities and Administrative Services, from Conferences and Events Services, have worked together for many days and nights—yes, they were out here on the Green long before the sun rose today—to create the series of celebrations that constitute Commencement at the University of Vermont. Would all of the staff members gathered with us here today please stand to be recognized for their outstanding contributions to the University of Vermont and to the success of our graduates.

Those graduates include students who in addition to earning their degrees are also this week newly commissioned second lieutenants in the United States Army. They represent a long and deep UVM tradition of service to our great nation, and I would ask that they please stand to be recognized and thanked by all of us.

Last year on this Green we held our 200th Commencement exercises. Those ceremonies should have been the 201st, but the War of 1812 led to the suspension of University operations in 1814 and set back our chronology by a year.

Today, then, marks the 201st Commencement, the first year in UVM’s third century of sending graduates forth into the world, and there are a number of other firsts and anniversaries that we mark today.

Among our graduates are the first to come out of UVM’s urban partnership with Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx, which in the fall of 2001 brought us the first class of Christopher Columbus students to enter UVM. They have helped to spearhead the rapid growth to record levels of a very healthy diversity in the UVM student body. Today, we celebrate the first among them to graduate – Raphael Okutoro, Emil Lopez, Leniece Flowers, and Job Amankwah.

Today we also celebrate the first graduate of UVM’s Vermont Studies Program, Michael Sullivan, who began his studies at UVM in the 1950s, but left before graduation to pursue a career in public relations. After retirement, intrigued by the new program in Vermont Studies, he returned to campus. Today he becomes the first graduate of that program, his bond with our state deepened by the knowledge he has gained of its history, politics, and society.

Another notable first is that 2005 was the inaugural year of the University’s Honors College, and today is the first time that the purple banner of the Honors College joins the other familiar colors of UVM’s schools and colleges in the graduation procession.

Among other UVM firsts we celebrate today, who can forget UVM’s first victory in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament: Vermont 60. Syracuse 57? The Catamount men’s basketball team brought our program to national prominence this year, capped by a thrilling first-round upset of a perennial powerhouse. Today we celebrate the academic achievement of these true student-athletes as Alex Jensen, Germain Mopa Njila, David Hehn, T.J. Sorrentine, and Taylor Coppenrath receive their diplomas.

In the year 2000, a generous bequest from the estate of Burlington-resident Genevieve Patrick made possible the Green and Gold Scholarships, which are awarded annually to the top student in each of Vermont’s high schools. Today we celebrate the first class of 18 Green and Gold Scholars to graduate.

Yesterday, here on this Green, there was a ceremony to mark the first century of the Boulder Society. Boulder--which honors senior men at the University for leadership, scholarship, and service—is the oldest honorary society of its kind in the United States.

Finally, as some 2,400 students graduate today, there were many eager to take your place on our campus. For the first time ever, more than thirteen thousand students applied for admission to the University of Vermont. The academic quality of the student body plays a critical role in building a school’s reputation and so, with heartfelt thanks for the excellence of the Class of 2005, we are proud to send our new graduates out into the world with the knowledge that their alma mater is a top choice for future generations of college students.

It is now my high honor and privilege to introduce to you our Commencement Speaker. Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons is among the most visible and highly regarded leaders in American higher education. President Simmons’ personal story, her rise from a Texas sharecropping family to become the first black woman to lead an Ivy League institution, has made her an inspiration to many and has drawn the attention of national media, including CBS’ 60 Minutes and Time Magazine, which, in 2001, named her America’s best college president.

At Brown University, where she was sworn in as the 18th president on July 3, 2001, Ruth Simmons has moved swiftly to enrich academics by expanding the faculty; investing in libraries, information technology, and facilities; strengthening diversity throughout the university; and establishing a need-blind financial aid process.

“If there is anything that I can bring to higher education,” Simmons has said, “it is a constant reminder of the need to bring children from the margins to the center, constantly redefining the center so that our democracy remains strong.”

Ruth Simmons knows what it is to be one of those children on the margin. She is the great-great-granddaughter of slaves and was raised in Grapeland, Texas, during a time when segregation and racism were a part of everyday life. Simmons has credited her mother, who faced challenges with “grace, magnanimity, and aplomb,” as the greatest influence on her life. When the family moved to Houston, Simmons entered public school for the first time. Thanks partly to financial support from her high school teachers, she attended Dillard University in New Orleans, where she graduated summa cum laude in 1967.

Simmons would go on to earn her doctorate in Romance Languages and Literatures from Harvard University in 1973. Her scholarship has included focus on the works of French West African poet David Diop and of Aime Cesaire, a politically active poet/playwright from Martinique. President Simmons is also the author of a book on the educational system in Haiti, and her appointment at Brown includes a professorship in the departments of Comparative Literature and Africana Studies.

Prior to assuming the presidency at Brown, Ruth Simmons built her career in higher education leadership with roles at the University of Southern California, Princeton University, and Smith College, where she was president from 1995 to 2001. While president of Smith, Simmons launched a number of initiatives, including the first engineering program at a women’s college in the United States. (The founding director of that program, Domenico Grasso, became the new dean of the College of Engineering and Mathematics at UVM this year.)

Simmons has been honored with the Centennial Medal from Harvard University, the Teachers College Medal from Columbia University, the President’s Award from the United Negro College Fund, and the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal. We are deeply grateful that she is with us as our speaker today. Please welcome Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons.