President’s Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Commencement 2013: Parting Thoughts
July 10, 2013
On June 4, I presided at Princeton’s 266th Commencement — the normally tranquil lawn in front of Nassau Hall awash in joyful graduates and families. In my remarks, I reflected on what our University imparts to and expects of its sons and daughters, especially in terms of pursuing a purpose larger than themselves. As I prepare to leave office, I would like to share these thoughts with you, grateful for all that I myself have learned in the past 12 years.
It gives me great pleasure to exercise the presidential prerogative of serving as the bookends to your Princeton education. In your first few days on this campus, at Opening Exercises, I took my inspiration from David Letterman and offered you my top 10 suggestions for making the most of your time at Princeton — everything from “study what interests you most” to “break out of the Orange Bubble and explore the world” to “remember to exercise, eat healthy, get some sleep and have fun.” Except for the sleep part, which I know you all ignored, I hope those recommendations were helpful from time to time. Now here you are — four years later — and we are going out together.
But before we do, let me celebrate all the ways in which you have left your mark on this institution, just as it has left its mark on you. You filled the campus with the glorious sound of music, the splendor and exuberance of dance, and the power of theater to both enlighten and entertain. On our playing fields you covered yourselves with glory, with the field hockey, squash and fencing teams winning national titles; the women’s basketball team winning four straight Ivy championships; the football team giving us a bonfire; and the men’s swimming and diving team bringing its unbroken run of Ivy championships to five — to name just a few of your athletic triumphs. You held conferences on science and religion, lobbied for a DREAM Act, engineered without borders, sustained dialogues on race, debated the relative virtues of latkes versus hamantaschen, designed new companies, promoted civic engagement, cooked slow food and taught in prisons. You showed us that it is possible to discuss the most pressing issues of the day with civility and an open mind. You dazzled your teachers with your commitment to learning, and your virtual theses and dissertations will reside in the archives forever. It has been a privilege — and a great deal of fun — to bear witness to your journey through Princeton.
As those of you who attended my lecture in the Class of 2013’s Last Lecture series may recall, in this, my last year as president, I have been reflecting upon what I have learned and what I will take away from this remarkable University. I suspect that many of you have been engaging in similar introspective exercises, in between thesis crises, Lawnparties, Reunions and job interviews. I feel strongly that I have a vested interest in the outcome of those reflections, for I predicted at Opening Exercises that Princeton would change your life. Was I right?
There is an obvious way in which Princeton has surely changed your lives. You are the beneficiaries of that most distinctive of American inventions — a modern liberal arts education — and you leave here knowing far more about the world in general, and your chosen discipline in particular, than when you arrived. This is true whether you leave as an accredited civil engineer inspired by green technology; a dancer who studied physics; a public servant equipped for the complexity of modern policymaking; a 19th-century English scholar devoted to the Divine Miss Jane; a chemist resolved to cure cancer; or whether you are still uncertain about what your future holds. Your education has not so much given you all the answers as it has taught you to ask the right questions. It has given you a thirst for free inquiry and the nimbleness of mind to cut through complexity to the insights hidden within. It has given you a powerful voice to make your case and the intellectual confidence to change your mind. And it has exposed you to the staggering breadth and richness of your own and other societies around the world. It is the best preparation that I can imagine for the rest of your life.
But the learning that happens in the classroom and the library and the laboratory, while certainly necessary for becoming an educated citizen of the world, is far from sufficient. Princeton is not simply about acquiring knowledge and jumping successfully through intellectual hoops, as challenging as those surely are to execute. It is also about making that last great leap from adolescence into adulthood as a member of a close-knit community living and working and playing on this beautiful and cherished campus. Your encounters with fellow students, faculty and staff have been an essential part of shaping who you are today and who you will become. Through the friendships you forged and those you turned away; the moral dilemmas you faced and those you sidestepped; the acts of kindness you performed and the ones you dodged; the times you were brave and the times you were not, you were testing your capacity and willingness to embody the qualities of character we most value in Princetonians — loyalty, courage, honesty, integrity and a commitment to serve others.
In her address at the time of Princeton’s 250th anniversary convocation, Toni Morrison echoed those twin goals of a Princeton education when she remarked that Princeton’s “… strength is knowing what its founders knew, that service to the individual, to the government, to the world requires unwavering commitment to intellectual freedom, [and] a fierce commitment to virtues already being debased by apathy: virtues such as integrity and honor and fair play and courage.”
The key word here is service. For with the privilege of a liberal arts education — and make no mistake, despite the slings and arrows directed at it by those who favor a purely utilitarian approach, a liberal arts education is a great privilege — comes an obligation to pursue a life with a purpose that is larger than you, to be in the service of this and all nations.
A call to service has been embedded in the very fabric of this University, founded in response to the Great Awakening of 18th-century America and influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment. Its message has reverberated through the centuries, as reflected in a Commencement address given to the Class of 1760 by our fourth president, Samuel Davies, who exhorted the graduates: “Whatever be your place, imbibe and cherish a public spirit. Serve your generation.”
This was reiterated in a commencement address that Woodrow Wilson gave at Swarthmore College in 1913, in which in plain speech he instructed the graduates: “Do not forget … why you are here. You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”
Happily, there are an infinite number of ways to “enrich the world,” and we are truly agnostic about which one or ones you choose. We only ask that you affirmatively make a choice to serve, calling upon the many ways in which Princeton may have already changed your life, and is likely to influence the choices you will make in the future.
I can think of no better touchstone to guide those choices than a set of questions that Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos ’86 posed to the Class of 2010 in his Baccalaureate address:
“Will inertia be your guide, or will you follow your passions?
“Will you follow dogma, or will you be original?
“Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure?
“Will you wilt under criticism, or will you follow your convictions?
“Will you bluff it out when you’re wrong, or will you apologize?
“Will you guard your heart against rejection, or will you act when you fall in love?
“Will you play it safe, or will you be a little bit swashbuckling?
“When it’s tough, will you give up, or will you be relentless?
“Will you be a cynic, or will you be a builder?
“Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?”
I am certain that your Princeton education has prepared you to meet those simple yet powerful questions head on. Your future, and the future, are now in your hands. As you pass proudly through the FitzRandolph Gate today, as citizens of this and many other nations, I hope you will carry forward the spirit of Princeton and make full use of the education you have acquired here. And, as I have instructed graduates for the last 12 years, I fully expect you to do as you have done at Princeton — to aim high and be bold! My warmest wishes go with you all.