2005 Commencement Address
President Shirley M. Tilghman
May 31, 2005
Before I begin my address, I would like to take a moment to express my own gratitude — and that of the entire University community — to Bob Rawson, the University orator, as he leaves the Board of Trustees, whose executive committee he has chaired for the last 14 years and after 20 years of service. Bob has served three presidents with great distinction, and he has provided extraordinary leadership as he helped shape and realize dramatic improvements that have transformed this University. All of us are greatly in his debt. I ask you to join me in thanking him.
Two days after Opening Exercises our world changed forever when 19 terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Virginia and flew a plane into a field in Pennsylvania. The true colors and spirit of the Princeton student body were plainly in evidence in the days following that tragic event. Rather than being paralyzed, you organized blood drives, collected blankets and food, planned events for the children of the families who had lost loved ones, and as is most fitting in a university, you sought ways to understand what had happened by engaging in discussions in seminars, colloquia and classes. I was deeply proud of the way this campus community responded during those dark months in the fall of 2001.
In a matter of minutes you will pass through the FitzRandolph Gates for the first time as Princeton alumni. I hope you will leave with pride in your accomplishments, leavened with a sense of responsibility to use your hard-earned education to make this world a safer, more just and more compassionate place for all of its people. For this world needs you to embrace our informal motto and to serve this nation and all nations — whether you work to improve the quality of K-12 education, develop treatments for intractable diseases like Alzheimer's, reduce the growing gap between the rich and the poor all over the world, address the deterioration in the quality of our global environment, provide inspiration, insight and solace through the creation of art, increase economic prosperity through invention or through entrepreneurship, or find peaceful solutions to divisive political problems. There are many ways to serve, but all require that you define your life in terms that are larger than yourself.
Today we conferred Princeton's highest tribute — an honorary degree — on six individuals who have used their extraordinary talents to leave the world better than they found it. This is the reason we award honorary degrees — to publicly recognize men and women who embody the very qualities of mind and character that Princeton University seeks to develop in all its students. I would like to take a few moments to reflect on those qualities that I hope you will continue to cultivate once you leave this truly privileged place.
Vera Rubin's curiosity about the natural world was simply unquenchable. She followed her passion for studying the stars with passion, determination and courage at a time when women were actively dissuaded from becoming scientists. She refused to conform to the 1950s stereotype that presumed women do not belong in astronomy, and went on to make enduring contributions to our understanding of the universe. Discovery requires an engaged mind, a curious mind, an open mind and certainly a persistent mind. Through our emphasis on independent work, we have sought to provide you with the training and opportunity to follow your own passions and satisfy your own curiosities. And, of course, finishing your senior thesis or your Ph.D. dissertation called upon all the persistence and the determination you could muster. May each of you continue to nurture your own unquenchable curiosity and the habit of independent thinking.
Through his sheer virtuosity as a musician, Yo-Yo Ma has brought joy to millions around the globe. What sets him apart from other musicians, however, is his cosmopolitanism — his appreciation that great music knows no geographical boundaries. Far from being restricted to the Western canon of classical music, he has introduced music lovers to the sounds of Brazil, Mongolia and the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa, to name but a few of the musical traditions he has explored. Today the globe is truly interconnected — whether the connections are fiber optic cable, satellite communications or jet planes — and to participate fully in the 21st century, each of you will have to follow Yo-Yo Ma's example and become genuinely cosmopolitan in your perspective. As a great American university with an international perspective, we take our responsibility to prepare you for this world seriously. We are working to broaden the horizons of all our students through expanded study abroad and summer language training programs, the creation of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, strategic relationships with universities all over the world, and postgraduate programs such as Princeton-in-Asia, Princeton-in-Africa and Princeton-in-Latin America. I hope you will adopt the perspective of a world citizen, and live your life accordingly.
Anne d'Harnoncourt has dedicated her life to collecting, conserving and interpreting the visual arts. To wander the galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is to travel through centuries and cultures — from the ceramics of the Ming dynasty to the stained glass of medieval Europe to the abstract images of Marcel Duchamp. D'Harnoncourt's work reminds us that the treasures of the past and the movements that have shaped them should always inform our thinking as we look to the future. A sense of humility and a deep respect for the achievements of those who have gone before us is an essential quality of an educated citizen, for as the great physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton said in 1675, "If I have seen further than certain other men, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants." All who teach and study here stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, for the mission of the University is not unlike a museum of art — to preserve the knowledge of the past and to transmit it to the next generation, while at the same time fostering the discovery of new knowledge and the creation of new art that will deepen our understanding of the human condition. I hope these twin imperatives will find full expression in your lives.
Over this Memorial Day weekend we have been celebrating a different kind of continuity — that of the Princeton alumni family. Beyond the pageantry — and this year the excitement — of the P-rade and the quaint charm of the class garb, the entire Reunion experience provides us with an annual opportunity to acknowledge and express our thanks to those who have paved the way for all of the graduates sitting on the front lawn today. Like so much else at Princeton, Reunions make a tangible connection between past and future — in this case between alumni born as many as 100 years ago and all of you, who become alumni in a few minutes. I hope that you will carry on this grand tradition of loyalty to your alma mater, with an abiding sense of responsibility to provide for the next generation.
J. Lionel Gossman is a Renaissance man whose devotion to ideas — as expressed in the history and the literature of 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century Europe — is legendary. At the same time Professor Gossman has educated and inspired generations of students, using his lively Scottish sense of humor to set students at ease, and never allowing his scholarly attainments to intimidate or overwhelm young minds. He is the quintessential Princeton faculty member — one who is able to combine imposing erudition with a devotion to passing on that wisdom to the next generation. Those of you who intend to pursue the life of the mind and create new knowledge will be following in the footsteps of Lionel Gossman and all others who hold that knowledge is among the most important gifts that one can give another human being.
Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka is a celebrated writer whose plays, poems and essays have captivated readers throughout the world. He is also an outspoken voice against tyranny who has struggled to survive in a four-by-eight-foot prison cell, sustaining himself by scribbling words on cigarette packs, toilet paper and between the lines of smuggled books. His commitment to human freedom and his belief in the fundamental dignity of every man and woman have never wavered. During your time at Princeton, many of you have been moved to speak out on issues of social and political importance, from the moral significance of a pre-emptive war, to the pros and cons of senatorial filibusters, to the needs of low-wage workers on our campus. You have encountered and debated historical injustices — from racial segregation to the horrors of the Holocaust. As you prepare to leave Princeton, I trust that the social and political consciousness you have cultivated here will give you the conviction and the courage to take a stand against tyranny and injustice wherever it arises.
On June 12, 1951, Jack Bogle sat where you find yourselves today. In some respects, his was a different university: Women were nowhere in evidence, and one of the first African-Americans to earn an undergraduate degree from Princeton, Joseph Ralph Moss, was a member of Bogle's class. Yet then, as now, Princeton planted seeds that led its graduates to commit their lives to the service and well-being of others. Jack Bogle drew upon the findings of his senior thesis to change the face of the investment industry through the introduction of low-cost mutual funds, and to champion the interests of individual investors. He also drew upon the values that were nourished here. For example, since 1893 Princeton's honor code has symbolized the importance we place on integrity — requiring each member of our community to assume personal responsibility for his or her academic work. Words and ideas, after all, are the coin of the academic realm, and it is essential that we uphold the value of our currency. But as former Sen. Bill Bradley of the class of 1965 said at an assembly on Cannon Green in 2003, "You'll need your moral compass long after you've signed your last honor pledge at Princeton. It takes a lifetime to build a reputation but only one false step to call it into doubt." I am also reminded that at that same assembly, Professor John Fleming exhorted you as follows: "Integrity is an excellent thing. You should all have it. If perchance you lack it, you should get it as soon as possible." Good advice, John. I hope that in years to come, the principles and standards to which you have been held here will guide all your actions. You are certain to be tested in little and not so little ways, but as Jack Bogle demonstrates, it is possible to pass these tests with flying colors and still achieve worldly success.
And so, as you walk, skip or run — whatever your preference may be — through the FitzRandolph Gates today, as educated citizens of this and many other nations, I hope you will carry forward the spirit of Princeton and all that this place has aspired to teach you — a determination to follow your passions in service to the common good, a respect both for tradition and for progress, an openness to new ideas and a willingness to share them with others, the courage to stand up for your beliefs and the rights of others, a global sensibility, a lifelong devotion to justice and freedom, all informed by the highest standards of integrity and mutual respect. And I fully expect you will continue to do as you have done at Princeton — to aim high and be bold.
My warmest wishes go forward with you all!