2004 Commencement Address
President Shirley M. Tilghman
June 1, 2004
Graduating students, honorary degree recipients, distinguished members of the faculty and staff, trustees, alumni, parents, family and friends:
It is a great pleasure for me to perpetuate Princeton's longstanding tradition of letting the President have the last word at Commencement. I recognize that those graduating today have probably been receiving lots of free advice from family and friends in recent weeks. At times you may have felt like a long distance runner streaming past the crowds that line the route of the New York Marathon. They applaud, shout encouragement, thrust bottled water at you, full of unsolicited advice – ease up, press on, take a break. Well, I am not going to begin with exhortation, but instead with praise.
I want to offer my heartiest congratulations to you all. You have met and ofttimes exceeded the very high expectations that we had for you when you arrived just a few years ago. Whether in the classroom, the laboratory, the studio, the playing field, the debating arena, or the stage, you have shown the kind of dedication, the intellect, and the heart that it takes to strive for excellence. Members of the Class of 2004, you have shown your concern for others in your Arts Alive project, which reached out to the children affected by 9/11, and you challenged each other to raise the level of intellectual discourse on campus. Your true stripes are indeed orange and black, and you have earned the right to be called the Great Class of 2004.
Members of the Graduate Class of 2004, you have inspired the faculty and your students with your passionate pursuit of learning and discovery. As you head to other universities and colleges to continue Princeton's tradition of teaching and research, the future of higher education seems bright indeed. For those of you who seek careers outside the academy, you go with finely honed intellectual skills that I know will serve you well.
With the growing hum of cicadas competing with me for your attention, I thought it would be appropriate to use this occasion to deliver a learned lecture on the life cycle of these strange insects, explaining the theories behind the mystery of their 17-year hibernation, interrupted only by a few days of frenzied aerial mating. I am sad to say, however, that this plan was vetoed by the officers of the senior class. Your student government at work!
But the cicadas inevitably bring to mind, as they have to many over this weekend, the Commencement of 1970, memorialized by one of that year's honorary degree recipients, Bob Dylan, in his composition, "Day of the Locusts." That Commencement will be remembered for another reason: it heralded the end of a tumultuous senior year for the Class of 1970, a year whose echoes reverberate in our own time. In 1970 we were at war, as we are again today, in a distant land whose language, religion and culture were different from our own. Whereas earlier wars of the 20th century had united and strengthened our country, the Vietnam War, like today's war in Iraq, divided us and raised fundamental questions about our policies and values.
In 1970 the civil rights movement was gaining momentum as institutions like Princeton increasingly opened their doors to students from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Today, marking the 50th anniversary of the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, we recognize how far we still have to go to make equal opportunity real in all our nation's schools. The third great issue of that day was the nascent women's movement calling for greater inclusion of women in the affairs of the world. That year Princeton awarded degrees to undergraduate women—eight of them—for the first time in its history. Today the number of women graduates in the senior class has increased seventy fold, yet we know there are still fields that women are discouraged from entering and in which they do not have fair chances for advancement.
What brought matters to a boil in the spring of 1970 was the invasion of Cambodia. More than 4,000 members of the student body, faculty and staff gathered in Jadwin Gym to protest and debate this escalation of the war. Although those times were tense, the campus community under President Goheen's inspired leadership rose to the occasion, and not only exercised its rights of free speech and assembly, but sought constructive ways to take part in the larger national discussion. Through their passionate engagement with the events of their times, the students of 1970 shouldered their responsibilities as citizens of a free democracy to speak out for what they believed.
Out of this maelstrom of debate came three lasting changes in the University: a more broad participatory governing structure that still includes such features as the U-Council, the Priorities Committee, the election each year of a graduating senior to the Board of Trustees; the institution of a fall break in late October to allow students to participate in election campaigns in their home communities; and the opening of FitzRandolph Gate. Until 1970 the Gate just behind you was kept closed all year except for special occasions like Reunions and Commencement. The Class of 1970 asked that the University permanently open FitzRandolph Gate to symbolize its recognition that Princeton should very much be part "of the world" and of its local community, and not stand aloof. To honor that commitment, the Class of 1970 inscribed their class numerals on the gates, with the inscription, "Together for Community."
The communal relationship between democratic government and an educated citizenry was clearly articulated by one of our country's founding fathers, John Adams, in the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1779. He wrote:
"Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend upon spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislators and magistrates in all future periods of this commonwealth to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences."
Princeton has aspired to fulfill Adams's vision by instilling in each of you the qualities of an educated citizen: the ability to distinguish reason from prejudice and leadership from demagoguery, to weigh evidence against rumor, and to know right from wrong. I hope each of you, particularly in this election year, will take seriously your responsibility as an educated citizen and engage, like your predecessors in the Class of 1970, with the momentous issues of the day. This expectation of Princeton graduates is a longstanding one. As Maureen Monagle pointed out yesterday at Class Day, fifty years ago Adlai E. Stevenson, two-time Democratic nominee for president and member of Princeton's Class of 1922, addressed the seniors in the Class of 1954:
"I would suggest," he said, "that it is not enough merely to vote but that we, all of us, have the further obligation to think, and to maintain steadfastly the right of all … to think freely… So you as educated, privileged people have a broad responsibility to protect and to improve what you have inherited and what you would die to preserve – the concept of government by consent of the governed as the only tolerable way of living."
Stevenson also reminded his audience that "People get the kind of government they deserve," for, as Americans, we, the people, are the government. That means that every vote matters and that the reflection and debate that should inform each vote are critically important. Unfortunately, far too few citizens have seen a voting booth. Indeed, the last time that more than 55 percent of adult Americans voted in a presidential election was in 1968, the year I graduated from university, an era my son refers to as the Pleistocene Era. This disturbing level of non-participation may help to explain why government is held in low repute by some. It is easy to criticize something in which we have no sense of ownership; it is far harder, and far better, to take possession of our government by embracing civic life, from town hall meetings to the lobbies of Congress. Only then will Abraham Lincoln's vision of "government of the people, by the people, for the people" be fully realized.
To guarantee that the message we send at Princeton is a consistent one, this spring we reversed a policy that prohibited some University-supported student groups from conducting voter registration drives on campus. That policy was antithetical to the University's intent to promote active citizenship among students. We want students registered to vote!
Research universities have another responsibility in a democratic society, and that is to generate new knowledge that will advance the welfare of its citizens, and the citizens of all nations. The importance of this mission was dramatically demonstrated in the aftermath of 9/11, when the State Department called my office seeking scholars who were experts in Middle Eastern languages, history, and culture; in the politics and sociology of terrorist groups; and their potential weapons. The scholarly work of our faculty and students, frequently conducted without regard for its future utility, was now essential to our government's response to those terrible events.
It therefore came as a surprise when an aide to Secretary Tom Ridge announced to a distinguished group of research university presidents a year ago that academic work was of no interest to the Department of Homeland Security, because it was generated too slowly and it was too abstract for the "real world." To the extent that our scholarship is presented in a form that is not easily understood, and to the extent that we do not seek venues in which to discuss our work with lay audiences, we bear some responsibility for that young aide's attitude. However, I firmly believe that we can make a crucial contribution to our nation's understanding of and capacity to deal with global terrorism and the many seeds from which it springs. (I should add that when some of our trustees and I met with Secretary Ridge this past spring, he, himself, demonstrated considerable interest in what the department could learn from universities.)
And so, to those of you who are leaving with advanced degrees to take up teaching and research careers, I hope you will not simply publish scholarly books and papers, though that may fittingly be your highest priority and most lasting contribution. I hope you will write op-ed pieces and columns in newspapers, give public lectures, advise members of your local, state and federal legislatures, and speak to both primary school students and senior citizen groups. In other words, I urge you to use your fine education at this prestigious University to serve your country, whichever country that may be, and the world; and the common human values that we cherish.
To those of you – and I suspect there will be many – who will someday serve our country and others in positions of influence, I hope that when you do so, you will look to the works of learned scholars for insight and inspiration. The oft-repeated warning by George Santayana that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" is the modern-day version of Cicero's lament that "not to know what has been transacted in former times is to continue always a child." Today you enter the world as adults, and as adults educated at one of the finest universities in the world, you have an obligation to make this world a better place for all of us.
As you walk through the wide-open FitzRandolph Gate today, as educated citizens of this and many other countries, I hope that you will carry forward the spirit of Princeton and all that this place has aspired to teach you – a respect for ideas and discovery, the courage to stand up for your beliefs and the rights of others, a commitment to civic engagement, and a passion for justice and freedom, all informed by the highest standards of integrity.
My best wishes go with you all.