Ceremonial Events - Commencement
Daniel Mark Fogel
President, University of Vermont
Chairman Lisman, members of the Board of Trustees, senior administrators and our distinguished deans, faculty, staff, alumni, family and friends of our graduates—and, above all, members of the Class of 2007, welcome to our 203rd Commencement Exercises at The University of Vermont.
Graduates, three years ago you had just completed your first academic year at UVM when we made a return to tradition, moving the commencement ceremony from Centennial Field back to the heart of campus. But the month of May plays funny tricks on us in Vermont—cold rains and rough winds can fall hard among otherwise sunny, temperate days, and that has now happened on four consecutive Commencement Sundays. It makes me think that in the 16th-century Stratford-on-Avon must have had a climate very much like Burlington’s today, inspiring Shakespeare to observe, in one of his loveliest sonnets, “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,/And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.” But that remembrance of the Bard perhaps gives us leave, as our Commencement Marshall, Professor Justin Joffe, suggested to me last night, to take a leaf out of Shakespeare’s play book since he had no hesitation in telling an audience that the bare stage of the Globe Theater was a palace in London in one scene and, in the next, the battlefield of Agincourt where Henry V defeated France. So imagine with me that this oblong of our indoor tennis courts is the Green, with flowers bedecking the fountain and Ira Allen’s statue clad in his annual black graduation gown. Gaze with me on the beautiful Green, on the very piece of land upon which Ira Allen founded this university. Look to the east and see the historic halls of University Row—Ira Allen, Billings, Williams, Old Mill, Royall Tyler, Morrill. Look to the west and see out across the rooftops of Burlington to Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains, this hilltop view that can still stop us all in our tracks regardless of how many times we’ve seen it.
UVM has always been a grand stage for inspiring vistas and momentous days. And let this, in spite of the weather, be such a day. Class of 2007, your graduation from the University of Vermont is upon you, this day that seemed incomprehensibly distant when you first met many of the people who sit next to you today as classmates and friends. You gathered on the green and lit candles together in our induction ceremony for new students, and over the next four years you would forge memories that will be yours to the end of your days. Your experiences have been as diverse as your fields of study and personal pursuits. Yet as you’ve found your individual paths during your years here, there has been much we’ve shared as a community, memories that will endure for all of us.
We have gathered on our campus to hear words of insight and inspiration from towering figures such as Nobel Peace Prize laureates Desmond Tutu and Elie Wiesel; United States Poet Laureate Donald Hall; “Inconvenient Truth” film producer Laurie David; Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia; and Senator Barack Obama.
We have gathered in times of tremendous grief: to mourn the loss of 2nd Lieutenant Mark Procopio, UVM Class of 2004, killed in Iraq on November 2nd, 2005; to memorialize faculty member James Petersen, an inspired and inspiring professor of anthropology, murdered in August 2005 while conducting his research in the Amazon; and, of course, to gather for strength and comfort in the darkest days following the terrible loss of one of the Class of 2007’s own, Michelle Gardner-Quinn. An alumnus, a faculty member, and a student—as we learned more about each of their lives following their deaths, Mark Procopio, James Petersen, and Michelle Gardner-Quinn gave us great pride in what they’d accomplished and what they stood for, shining examples of the best of the University of Vermont community.
We’ve come together in moments of joy and celebration, the unity that a great Catamount victory can bring to our campus and our entire state (think UVM 60-Syracuse 57 in March of what was for most of our graduates their sophomore year). Our varsity athletics programs have been on the rise during your years here, turning up the excitement and the school spirit at Gutterson, Patrick, and on our playing fields.
Class of 2007, you have been part of our university during an era of great change. We have completed a successful $250 million fundraising campaign that has made an immediate impact on your lives at the University of Vermont. We have inaugurated an Honors College that has enhanced the academic experience throughout this university. And as anyone who drove into Burlington on Main Street past the nearly completed Dudley H. Davis Center can plainly see, we have renovated numerous buildings and built new ones. Living through such change is not always easy. I’d venture you’ve all become adept at re-routing your paths to class as new construction fences have popped up. As the pace of progress pushes ahead on this campus, the flexibility, grace, and patience you all have shown is admirable and we thank you for it.
On this day of celebration, there are many people to thank. Let us begin with the families who helped you become the person who earned admission to the University of Vermont, the mothers and fathers, grandparents, brothers and sisters who supported you mentally, spiritually…financially, during your years here. Class of 2007, please join me in giving them a hand.
Families, your students have been in good hands during their years here. They have studied with an outstanding faculty. They have been supported by a talented and dedicated staff that is the bedrock of this institution. Class of 2007 and families, please join me in a round of applause in appreciation for this University’s wonderful faculty and staff.
I’m flanked on this stage by outstanding leaders of our University, our state, our nation, and our world. Our Board of Trustees, our UVM administrative leaders, honored officials from state and national government, and distinguished honorary degree recipients – your support of this university and higher education has been unwavering and inspirational.
Among the graduates, where could I begin? Your list of achievements is long and time is short. But let us take this moment to pay respect to the latest in a long and proud UVM tradition of service to the nation, going back to the days of Ira Allen himself. I ask that our ROTC graduates who are being commissioned as officers in the United States Army stand and be recognized with a round of applause.
And finally, our entire Class of 2007, we thank you. During your years on this campus you have become part of the fabric and history of this institution and enriched us all. Now you join our alumni – a group that includes recipients of Nobels and Pulitzer Prizes; CEO’s of major corporations and some of our nation’s top teachers; pioneering scientists and celebrated artists. It is now your time to build the life you’ve imagined, to take your years of education out into the world and make it a better place. Best wishes and congratulations.
Now it is my privilege to welcome today’s speaker.
The Honorable John R. Lewis has spent much of his life at the forefront of the fight for civil rights in our nation. It is a battle he has lived. Born in 1940 to a sharecropping family in Troy, Alabama, John Lewis grew up in a segregated world, but came of age at a time of tremendous upheaval…and great promise. He found inspiration in the actions of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the leadership and philosophy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
As John Lewis embraced Dr. King’s activism and his doctrine of non-violence, the course of a young man’s life was set. Years later, at the groundbreaking of the King memorial on the National Mall last November, Lewis would reflect and say of Martin Luther King’s influence: “He inspired us to get in trouble, but it was good trouble, necessary trouble.”
For John Lewis “good trouble” has meant:
- Serving as an architect of and a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in 1963.
- Serving as chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, helping to spur student activism nationwide.
- Participating in the historic Freedom Rides of the 1960s.
- Surviving repeated brutal attacks and more than forty arrests for his activism.
John Lewis would go on to take leadership roles throughout his life. He became director of the Voter Education Project, and with his guidance, VEP added nearly four million minority voters to the rolls. During the administration of President Jimmy Carter, he led the efforts of ACTION, the federal volunteer agency.
In 1986, John Lewis was elected to the United States Congress, representing Georgia’s 5th Congressional district encompassing Greater Atlanta. After two decades of exemplary service in Washington, John Lewis is the rare individual admired on both sides of the aisle. Senator John McCain has praised the courage of this man’s life. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has called him “the conscience of the Congress.”
We are greatly honored to have John Lewis with us today. But I might add that it is not the first time he has graced our campus. The year was 1964. The event: the “Pride and Prejudice” Vermont conference. Among the young voices who came to inspire students in Burlington to their own activism: John R. Lewis.
Forty years…it’s been far too long to wait for a return visit to Vermont. Please join me in welcoming back the Honorable John R. Lewis.