Academic Ceremonies - December Commencement


Remarks: Daniel Mark Fogel, President

Families and friends, faculty and colleagues in the university community, and above all the graduates whose accomplishments we celebrate today: Welcome. Graduates, we are thrilled that you have finished your degree requirements. We enthusiastically invite you to join us in May when your degrees will be formally conferred, but 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 some very special people, often unacknowledged, who have supported the graduates in countless ways. Would the parents and guardians of today’s December graduates please stand and be recognized with a round of applause? And now the grand-parents and great-grandparents? And now, husbands and wives of the graduates, with their children? 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 supporting Vermont's embattled agricultural economy and its vital and distinctive food systems to seeking to change human behaviors that too often lead to disease and premature death, from developing renewable energy technologies and unraveling the mysteries of climate change 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.

We are gathered on a historic campus. Just a few years after the legislature of the newly formed State of Vermont chartered the University of Vermont, in 1791, our first president, Daniel Clark Sanders, took axe in hand and cleared the wilderness that is now the College Green (the work of a college president was much more demanding in those days). George Washington’s comrade in arms, the Marquis de Lafayette, laid the cornerstone of the cornerstone of the Old Mill. There UVM's fifth president, James Marsh, laid out with the faculty a revolution in higher education, for it was here at UVM, under Marsh’s leadership, that the modern system of academic majors and electives was invented, thereafter 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 Congressman (and later 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. 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 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 argues decisively moved American thought into the modern world.

The glory of UVM extends to our own time. The University of Vermont has sent forth as its recent graduates Pulitzer-prize winning novelists, Academy-Award winning writers and producers, and two individuals who went, just two years apart, to Oslo, Norway, 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. Is there is any other University that can point to two Peace Prize recipients, let alone in such a short span of time?

In ways personal and particular to every one of today’s graduates, you have written your own history during your years here at the university. You have studied Animal Science, Elementary Education, Computer Science, Psychology, Nursing, Political Science, Natural Resources, Public Communications, English, Biology, Business Administration, Physics, Social Work, Engineering… to name but a few. Perhaps you knew your major from the day you enrolled … or perhaps—after trying eight different majors—your major found you.

Years from now, your memories of this place will be many:

  • The organic chemistry class that pushed you harder than you have ever been pushed.
  • The TREK journey in the Green Mountains, the Adirondacks, or on Lake Champlain, when you came to love this landscape in a week’s time and made friends you will keep forever.
  • You will remember carrying a dorm fridge up four flights in Harris-Millis; your parents, no doubt, will remember that as well; and my own muscles remember that fridge-laden trek on behalf of more than one incoming student.
  • One day you’ll look back on the evenings when you settled down to read, cruise the net, or brainstorm a group project with classmates in Bailey-Howe or the Davis Center.
  • You’ll recall the goal you scored in broomball, the catch you made in Ultimate, the wins and the losses in women’s rugby and club football.
  • You'll dwell on the memories of the late afternoon lectures so riveting you ignored your desperate sleep shortfall—or not.
  • You’ll remember cheering on the Hockey Cats from the bleachers in Gutterson, the excitement that gripped all of Vermont when Coach Sneddon’s team ventured to the 2009 NCAA Frozen Four and battled eventual champs Boston University to the final horn, and last spring's women's basketball team gaining the first March Madness win in program history, over Wisconsin.
  • Goosebumps will also be in order when you look back on the fabled naked bike ride in nineteen degree weather on bicycle, foot, or skateboard.
  • You’ll squirrel away ticket stubs as keepsakes, memories of concerts and shows at Higher Ground, at Nectar’s, at Ira Allen Chapel, and in this very gym.
  • You’ll cherish the reverie of spring afternoons on the Green, summer sunsets viewed from the Williams Hall fire-escape, and February’s early morning walk to class, the campus hushed under two feet of new snow.

As you leave our campus and make your way in this world, you’ll build upon the things you have learned here to create the life you’ve imagined. The UVM tradition provides 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. In that vein, I would surely fall short of your expectations for sententious wisdom on an occasion such as this if I did not offer you a few presidential prescriptions. To keep it short I won’t give you a David Letterman list of ten, but just four.

My exhortations to you 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 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 problems.

The second signature is health, indispensable to us as individuals and to humanity at large, instructing us that we must collectively address the scourges of the planet, among which we can count hunger and early mortality that still stalk vast regions of the world, the epidemic of AIDS, the immediate threat of pandemics such as the H1N1 virus, and the social pathologies of child labor in many lands, rampant addiction to drugs and alcohol, sexual slavery, and the global plague of violence, including pervasive male violence against women—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 might be framed in language apposite for the first two signatures of UVM, for the complex systems that link emissions spewed from a factory in Szechuan to the spawning of hurricanes in the Caribbean or the melting of polar ice present problems that can only be solved through application of many disciplines. And so I urge you to resist easy answers that evade a deep understanding of the complexity of our environmental challenges. 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.

Finally, and particularly apt at this moment of so many challenges to the economic well-being of our nation and its people, our University has a long tradition of service, exemplified here by the central role Service-learning courses play in our curriculum and demonstrated beyond our campus by UVM’s place as a national leader in community service and civic engagement. Today’s graduates enter a world where service to others will be essential to the well-being of our society.

And now, 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 own 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 UVM, the University of the Green Mountains. Looking back on the foundations of success and friendship that you built here at UVM from the vantage point of what we hope will be pinnacles of achievement and satisfaction, we hope, too, that you will be generous in supporting UVM and the generations of students and faculty who will follow you at this marvelous University. But that is for the future. Today the world lies all before you, rich with possibility. Perhaps, therefore, this is the moment to remind you of some wonderful lines by Emily Dickinson:

I dwell in Possibility—
A fairer House than Prose—
More numerous of Windows—
Superior--for Doors--
Of Chambers as the Cedars—
Impregnable of Eye—
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky--
Of Visitors--the fairest—
For Occupation--This
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise.

Last modified January 02 2011 12:41 PM

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