2016 Baccalaureate Address by Randall Kennedy

2016 Baccalaureate Address (as delivered)

Randall Kennedy 

Princeton University, May 29, 2016 

I am thrilled to be here with you!

I am moved by the presence of parents, guardians, relatives, and friends of the graduates. In your ranks are those who have foregone vacations, taken out second mortgages, and uttered many, many, many beseeching prayers. Both you graduates and those who have done so much to help get you to this point deserve congratulations and celebration.

Most of all, I am exhilarated by the prospect of addressing a group that will undoubtedly shape our world significantly in the years ahead: the great Princeton Class of 2016!

The main aim of my talk is this: to nudge you to become ambassadors for higher education. What being an ambassador entails will depend on the circumstances in which you find yourself. For those of you who become politicians it might mean being especially attuned to thwarting policies bad for colleges and universities while championing policies those that are beneficial. For those of you who become moguls it might mean making colleges and universities the principal objects of your philanthropic ambitions. For everyone — lawyers, physicians, teachers, journalists, architects, engineers, house-husbands and housewives, for everyone — there are things to do: keeping informed; making governmental officials know that you care about their decisions regarding higher education; sharing your impressions and ideas with the stewards of our campuses; contributing what you can afford to the upkeep and independence of our schools. In general, being an ambassador for higher education means embracing opportunities to advance the best versions of collegiate and university life.

Why do I ask you to take that role?

At least three reasons come to mind: the importance of colleges and universities; their need for help; and your position as beneficiaries of a Princeton education.

Colleges and universities are essential to our culture, our politics, our economy. They provide the most far-reaching settings within which scholars master canons of understanding and pass on to peers and students the results of their labors. More than any other institutions in our society, they facilitate explorations of the most recondite subjects, bring to bear expertise on urgent, vexing problems, and encourage grappling with timeless questions: What are the ingredients of a life well spent? Why would a benevolent God allow children to suffer? Is there a relationship between knowledge and morality? What are the essentials of a just society?

Because of the importance of colleges and universities, problems that menace them are problems that concern us all. One is the striking diminution of support that has befallen our schools, especially those that are state-sponsored. What happens at public institutions should be of concern to us for a variety of reasons not the least of which is that Princeton resides within an interdependent eco-system of colleges and universities. From other schools we recruit talent and to them we send our outstanding graduates. Deficiencies in the system of higher education do not stay put; they are infectious, posing dangers to the system as a whole.  

Colleges and universities face a rising loss in confidence regarding the worthiness, by which is usually meant the marketability, of the humanities. 

At the same time, they face an ever-increasing burden of governmental regulation that undercuts their autonomy while encouraging the growth of expensive bureaucracies. Increasingly, mounting costs are putting all too many schools beyond the financial capabilities of students able to perform brilliantly but unable to pay the bills.   

Colleges and universities face problems, too, of their own creation. One is a lack of confidence in the attractiveness — the coolness — the “dopeness” — of their own mission. Illustrative is the pathetic fawning that shows itself in this very season as colleges and universities "book" celebrities as speakers at graduation ceremonies. One will not find academics handing out statuettes at the Academy Awards.  But one will find Hollywood’s denizens addressing academic audiences on even the grandest days of the collegiate calendar.

Although some of these difficulties burden Princeton, they do so at a much lesser magnitude than at other schools, which brings me to my next point: you are the beneficiaries of a remarkable institution whose gifts will endow you for the remainder of your lives. That has certainly been true for me. I enjoyed my time as a student here. I recall sensing back then how privileged I was to listen to Richard Ludwig’s lectures on American literature, to audit Arthur Link’s graduate seminar on American Progressivism, to talk about Stendahl over lunch with that great master of European literature Victor Brombert, to write a thesis under the direction of the eminent historian James McPherson, and to fall under the enthralling sway of Sanford Levinson, a remarkable jurist.

My appreciation of Princeton, however, has only grown. When I graduated I had a few friends I cherished — David Prather, Mac McCorkle, Hilary Ballon, Nina Beng-Jensen. But as time passed I began to value more fully folks I had previously neglected. It wasn’t until several years had elapsed before I recognized how lucky I was to have met Bob Gilbert and it wasn’t until decades had passed that I recognized my good fortune in having forged a basis in college days for deep friendships later with Billy Achtmeyer and Clint Furnald, Floyd Newton and Paul Rampell, Robert Thomas and Colleen Kelly. I am so happy to mention those names in this holy place because they are sacred in what they have meant to me.  

Later still, I had the good fortune of sitting on the Princeton Board of Trustees where I made new Princeton friends and got to see up close wonderful ambassadors for higher education who exemplify the spirit that I am imploring you to embrace. 

While I’m at it, I will mention one more name, a person who I met here and with whom I have remained in touch for nearly four decades. He is William Bowen. He was the President of the University during my time as a student. I met him at his house at a reception for resident advisers. We struck up a conversation about my senior thesis, a biography of the historian Richard Hofstadter. He proceeded to introduce me to a friend of his who had known Hofstadter intimately — the great sociologist Robert K. Merton. Ever since then, Bill Bowen has been introducing me to scholars who could further my research and sharpen my thinking. He has been reading over drafts of my articles and books. He has been cheering me on. He was the first person to suggest that I consider a career in academia. I am deeply grateful for his investment in me.

Princeton invests in all of its students by making available to them scholars and artists of the first rank. It bestows upon students a remarkable and admirable community, one that is more welcoming to more different sorts of people than ever before in its history. I feel called upon to say this expressly because of the vilification to which Princeton and many universities and colleges have been subjected. It has been said by some observers, for instance, that Princeton and its peers are afflicted by political correctness such that ideas which should receive a hearing are systematically repressed. There probably are episodes of ideological suppression amidst the many hundreds of thousands of students, professors, and administrators who occupy campuses, passionately propounding certain beliefs while battling others. These episodes, however, are outliers; they are not characteristic and they receive little backing from authoritative policy. Nowhere in America will one find environments more open to disputation than campuses like this one, the common home of Peter Singer and Robert George, Russell Nieli and Eddie Glaude, the Black Justice League and the Princeton Open Campus Coalition.

Princeton has no immunity to the social ills that beset our society. By no means, however, is it a den of racist iniquity or sexist degradation or class oppression. Far from it. Consider the following thought experiment: imagine that with respect to race, gender, sexual orientation, the distribution of resources, the environment, the resolution of conflict, and any number of other volatile subjects, the ethos that is ascendant here at Princeton magically became the prevailing ethos of the United States of America. Would this country, would our world, be better off? 

My answer is an unequivocal affirmative. We would be better off because the dominant spirit animating Princeton is one that loves learning, venerates excellence, champions questioning, tolerates complexity, embraces empathy, and abhors tyranny.

This university, committed as it is to fostering creativity and independence, strenuously supports academic freedom and the other varieties of freedom of expression. Voicing that support, the faculty, backed by its marvelous president, formally adopted a statement which declares forthrightly that at Princeton debate "may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed." The University, the faculty concludes, "has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it." 

Insistence upon academic freedom. Facilitation of respectful deliberation. Joy in academic discovery. Delight in artistic brilliance. A determination to do better tomorrow than we did today. These are the representative features of the Princeton that inspires us, the Princeton we admire, the Princeton we love, the Princeton in whose honor we ought be ambassadors for higher education.

Class of 2016 – Again: Congratulations. I look forward very much to hearing about your contributions in the months, years, decades to come.

Thank you.