December Graduates' Recognition Celebration
Daniel Mark Fogel, Professor of English and President of the University of Vermont
Faculty Senate President Justin Joffe, Chairman Lisman, trustees of the University, members of the faculty, administration, and staff, families and friends of our students who have completed their degree requirements this past summer and fall, and above all those students themselves whose accomplishments we are celebrating here today, it’s an unseasonably warm morning in Burlington, in a season ideally suited for gatherings like this, if not for the ski industry—welcome and congratulations! We are thrilled that you have finished your degree requirements, and while you are enthusiastically invited to join us in May when your degrees will be formally conferred, we hope that you find this morning’s celebration to be a memorable and satisfying way of marking your substantive accomplishments.
This is, for all of us, a joyous occasion — the moment when we recognize the achievements of our wonderful students. It’s also a moment when we can acknowledge that behind every student there stand very special people, often unacknowledged, who have supported the graduates with investments of hope, love, concern, and, yes, tuition dollars and care packages. Would the parents and guardians of today’s December graduates please stand and be recognized with a round of applause? And now the grandparents and great-grandparents? And now, husbands and wives of the graduates, with their children? And other family members and friends? And to all of you, on behalf of my colleagues on the faculty and staff, let me say thanks for entrusting your students to us, and for the support you have given them and the University of Vermont.
December graduates, you have completed your degrees at an extraordinary institution. Your University of the Green Mountains is steeped in the traditions and values of Vermont: practicality, environmental stewardship, civic duty, fairness, social justice, and respect for individuality. It is deep within our ethos to make a difference on the things that matter — from monitoring the impact of acid rain to battling drug addiction, from developing sustainable farming practices to preserving the memory of the Holocaust. The future lies bright before UVM, and you will write the next chapters in the annals of achievement that distinguish graduates of this institution. But we should always be mindful of the rich history that has produced the ethos and values of UVM.
For we are gathered here in a historic place. Just a few years after the legislature of the newly formed State of Vermont chartered the University of Vermont, in 1791, out first president, Daniel Clark Sanders, took axe in hand and cleared the wilderness that is now the College Green outside the doors of this chapel. It was just down the College Row in the Old Mill, where George Washington’s comrade in arms, the Marquis de Lafayette, laid the cornerstone, that our fifth president, James Marsh, laid out with the faculty a revolution in higher education, for it was here, under Marsh’s leadership, that the modern system of academic majors and electives was invented, only to spread from Vermont to colleges and universities across the nation and around the world. Here, we saw the first women and the first African-Americans admitted to the nation’s most venerable honor society, Phi Beta Kappa, not long after Vermont’s U.S. Senator Justin Morrill authored, in the darkest days of the Civil War, the Land Grant Act that established higher education in America as a public good. Here, just outside the north side of Ira Allen Chapel, lies John Dewey, one of America’s greatest philosophers and progressive thinkers, an 1879 graduate of UVM. Your University’s place in the pantheon of American intellectual history was memorialized in Louis Menand’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book of 2001, The Metaphysical Club, in which a key chapter, titled “Burlington,” was devoted to James Marsh and, even more so, to John Dewey and his role as one of four thinkers who Menand believes decisively moved American thought into the modern world.
But the glory of UVM is by no means a thing of the past. In recent times, The University of Vermont has sent forth as its graduates Pulitzer-prize winning novelists, academy-award winning writers and producers, and two individuals who went, just two years apart, to Stockholm, Sweden, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Jody Williams in 1997 for leading the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and John McGill in 1999 as president of Doctors Without Borders when that organization received the award. I doubt that there is any other University that can point to two Peace Prize recipients, let alone in such a short span of time.
The UVM tradition thus provides you with great examples that we hope will guide you on the way, just as we hope that the teaching and inspiration of our distinguished faculty will guide you. You are in truth among the luckiest individuals on our planet. You belong to the most privileged generation in the wealthiest and most powerful nation in history, and a vital and precious part of what has been given to you is your education here at UVM. But for the vast majority of our fellow humans the world in which you will pursue your lives from this point forward, in the words of Matthew Arnold,
Has really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain . . .
Most human beings do not live graced by our blessings of abundance and liberty and stable institutions. And yet, as our painful experience in Iraq has instructed us, and as most Americans now realize, we cannot simply export and impose upon others the American way, and efforts to do so, even those that are idealistically motivated, have a high potential to come to terrible grief.
It is the season of giving, and of you, to whom much has been given, much will be asked. It is time to give back — or to continue your preparation for doing so in graduate and professional school. At a time when none of us should doubt that our own safety and well-being are linked inextricably to the safety and well-being of the poorest of the poor, of the most deeply dispossessed in the most far-flung lands, we have high hopes that many of you will rise to the challenge we set forth some six weeks ago when Provost Hughes, former Provost John Bramley, and I offered the University a proposed new mission statement: To create, evaluate, share, and apply knowledge and to prepare students to be accountable leaders who will bring to their work dedication to the global community, an authentic grasp of complexity, effective problem-solving and communication skills, and a lifelong commitment to learning and ethical conduct. If you become accountable leaders; if, having achieved personal and professional happiness in good health—for our hope that you will do so tops the list of the high hopes with which we send you forth this morning—your life and work express dedication to the well-being of the global community; if you have the authentic grasp of complexity that we greatly hope is the legacy of the liberal education we have offered you here; and if, always learning and growing and always striving to act rightly and honorably, you seek and embrace opportunities to solve problems for the public good, then you will be the graduates we dream of who fulfill the rich legacy of the University of Vermont.
A piece of American wisdom has it that all politics are local, and you have now completed a critical phase in your education in a state that exemplifies that adage above all others—in Vermont, with our 246 cities and towns, and our long tradition of citizen participation in governance through the institution of the town meeting. But the problems of the world today—our economic, social, political, health and environmental challenges—tend not to be local but systemic and global. Coal-fired power plants in the Peoples Republic of China affect the climate here in Vermont, and the rate at which the ice-cap is melting in Greenland. Chinese industry, among many other destructive and inadequately regulated variables, may well be factors in cutting down our skiing and snow-boarding days at Bolton, Stowe, Sugar Bush, Smugs, and Jay Peak. Simply thinking globally while acting locally is no longer possible, for it is more and more the case that when we act locally we act globally as well. Recognizing how closely our fate is intertwined with the fate of people around the world, and with the health of our complex planetary ecosystem, I want to offer you a few presidential prescriptions, for while we are all very proud of you today, we want you to make us prouder in the years ahead, to bring renown to your alma mater, and to remember where you built the foundations of the contributions you will make to the world you will some day pass on to your own children and grandchildren.
My prescriptions are tied to the distinctive signatures of a UVM education:
- The first signature is liberal education, our ideal of the well-rounded
student, not blinkered by the narrow perspectives of a single discipline or
methodology but able to integrate different modes of knowing to gain the authentic
grasp of complexity without which the great challenges facing the world will
utterly baffle and defeat us: please do not accept simplistic understandings
of complex phenomena or succumb to formulaic answers to subtle and intricate
- The second signature is health, indispensable to us as individuals and to
our communities and to humanity at large as a collective, instructing us that
we must collectively address the scourges of the planet, among which we can
count, for example, hunger and early mortality throughout much of the developing
world, the epidemic of AIDS, the threat of an avian flu pandemic, and the
social pathologies of child labor in many lands, rampant addiction to drugs
and alcohol, sexual slavery, and the inveteracy of male violence against women
not only here in Burlington, as we have been so painfully reminded this fall,
but in societies around the globe—I enjoin you to cherish your own health
and to support every feasible measure for advancing the physical and social
well-being of society.
- The third signature is the environment, and it can easily be addressed in language apposite for the first two signatures of UVM, for the complex systems that link a factory in Szechuan to the effects of global warming in New Orleans and Spitzbergen and Burlington, Vermont, do not admit of easy answers. Such phenomena yield to understanding only through the lenses provided by many disciplines. And so I urge you to resist easy answers that evade a deep understanding of the complexity of our environmental challenges, for only through authentic understanding that does not do violence to the phenomena by oversimplifying things will we have a chance of guaranteeing the long-term health of the planet and of its inhabitants, vegetable and animal, flesh, fish, and fowl.
In a moment I will introduce Professor Saleem Ali, of the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, who will offer us a closing reflection. I don’t know what he will say, but I imagine something of the sober tenor that such occasions seem to elicit from us. And I confess that my own remarks to you have perhaps been insufficiently leavened by humor. So please allow me to set up my closing remarks with one of my favorite Jewish jokes. It goes like this.
Angered with the iniquity of mankind beyond anything in many millennia, God announces that in a week the world will be destroyed with a second inundation like Noah’s flood. Immediately, people everywhere congregate with their spiritual leaders. Buddhists are enjoined to meditate and achieve Nirvana. Christian ministers appeal to their congregations to accept the savior and so to achieve eternal life. And, in the synagogue, the Rabbi exhorts his congregation with these ringing words: “My fellow Jews, we have only six more days in which to learn to live under water.”
Well, we have far more than six days, but there is no question among many leading scientists and policy makers that our time is relatively short—that we may be measuring in decades, not in centuries, the time that remains in which to solve the enormously complex challenges that face our crowded and increasingly strained Spaceship Earth. Amid the joy of today’s celebrations, amid the heartfelt congratulations with which we commend you for all you have achieved as graduates of UVM, with every good wish that we offer our graduates we express also our hope that you will leave your children a world with brighter prospects than the world that my generation is bequeathing to you and that, looking back, you will say that the foundations of much of the good that you will do in your lives and work lay here in Burlington, here at The University of Vermont.
Congratulations, one and all!
Last modified December 27 2006 05:11 PM