At Princeton University’s 272nd Commencement on Tuesday, June 4, President Christopher L. Eisgruber encouraged graduates to use their Princeton education to provide the “service, citizenship and leadership” that the world needs.
His address, “Civil Virtues,” lamented the loss of civility in politics and public discourse. Speaking to seniors and advanced degree candidates seated on the sunny front lawn of Nassau Hall, Eisgruber extolled everyday virtues such as civility, truthfulness, due process and moderation.
“These civil virtues are neither glamorous nor exciting. They require us to respect others rather than draw attention to ourselves,” he said. “Yet, quiet though they may be, these virtues are also the indispensable foundation for any democratic society in which people seek to learn from one another and to pursue a common good that unites them across differences.”
Eisgruber expressed concern that “we as a country are losing the capacity to disagree respectfully and civilly with one another.”
“Bitter scrutiny is now almost inevitable for anyone who voluntarily enters public life, and increasingly it extends also to some who never sought the world’s attention,” Eisgruber said. Even people going about their daily lives, he said, “may suddenly find themselves caught in an unwanted spotlight, the target of unproved and hurtful accusations permanently inscribed on the internet’s digital surfaces.”
Rather than dwelling on why civil discourse has declined, Eisgruber looked toward the graduating students as hope for the future.
“If you want a society that has the capacity to make real and lasting progress on issues of consequence, you will need not only to live those values but also to speak up bravely on their behalf,” Eisgruber said. “I have gotten to know many of you over your time here, and I know that you have the capacity and the values required to engage constructively across even very heated disagreements.”
In closing, Eisgruber credited the students’ education at Princeton — in the classroom and beyond — with providing the resources needed to defend and nurture the civic values that are essential to the country’s democracy.
“I urge you to take up that challenge along with the others that await you on the path beyond FitzRandolph Gate,” he said.
Milestones and memories
The ceremony’s two other speakers were valedictorian Kate Reed, a history major from Arnold, Maryland, and salutatorian Rafail Zoulis, a classics major from Athens, Greece.
Reed, looking out at all the students seated under the trees, noted the passage of time leading up to this special day.
“Commencement connotes beginnings, and yet the valedictory address is a farewell address,” Reed said. “As this day is a paradox of beginnings and endings, goodbyes and hellos, so it is a day of many feelings. Sorrow, gladness, bitterness, tenderness — complicatedness.”
Acknowledging her nervousness about public speaking, she noted that vulnerability — “that uncomfortable, liminal, subjunctive space of openness and uncertainty” — can offer insights and awareness.
“So my hope for us, if you’ll permit me a hope, is that we can learn to walk out to where our experience frays away into the unknown, and that here, rather than assume the universal applicability of our worldview or reject that which is challenging or different or ‘other,’ we approach it with humility. … I hope that we leave space for silence and ample room for uncertainty. That we can exist together in the complicatedness of this world without losing our capacity to be vulnerable, to be brave.”
Zoulis delivered the salutatory address in Latin. The Princeton tradition dates to the first Commencement in 1748, when the entire ceremony was conducted in Latin. The salutatory, Princeton’s oldest student honor, began as a formal address but today often contains humorous comments and a fond farewell to Princeton.
In his oration [English translation], Zoulis lauded the leadership of President Eisgruber and the University’s trustees, and, addressing the faculty, said, “And under your tutelage, most learned professors, we have learned much, while you patiently tolerated our still present ignorance and corrected our unpolished theses.”
Highlighting his fellow students’ academic adventures, he said, “We have fought battles against innumerable problem sets and survived many papers,” adding that it may be “pleasing to have remembered these things one day.”
Now, at this special moment, the time had come to “march in triumph through the hallowed FitzRandolph Gate and let us use our knowledge for the glory of Princeton and the advancement of humanity,” Zoulis said.
The University awarded degrees to 1,282 undergraduates in the Class of 2019, two from previous classes and 562 graduate students.
As the bachelor’s degrees were conferred, Dean of the College Jill Dolan noted that she had started her deanship at the same time the undergraduates began at Princeton. “Each and every one of you has left your imprint on this university,” she said. “You hold an essential responsibility to transform the world with what you’ve learned.”
The University conferred honorary degrees upon six people for their contributions to education, literature, public service, science and space travel:
• Dr. Michael Drake, president of The Ohio State University and former professor of ophthalmology;
• Rodney Frelinghuysen, a former New Jersey congressman who served 12 terms in the House of Representatives;
• Peter Grant, the Class of 1877 Professor of Zoology, Emeritus, and Rosemary Grant, senior research biologist, emeritus, in ecology and evolutionary biology;
• Edith Grossman, translator of Spanish and Latin American literature;
• Ellen Ochoa, astronaut and former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
Princeton also honored excellence in teaching at the Commencement ceremony. Four Princeton faculty members received President’s Awards for Distinguished Teaching and four outstanding secondary school teachers from across New Jersey were recognized.
Later in the day, a commissioning ceremony was held in Nassau Hall with the Princeton Army, Navy and Air Force ROTC programs. It was the first time since 1972 that Princeton hosted a tri-service ceremony that commissioned new officers who emerged from the three ROTC programs.
Five seniors were commissioned as second lieutenants in the U.S. Army, three seniors were commissioned as ensigns in the U.S. Navy and one senior was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who graduated from Princeton in 1980, gave the commissioning address.
On June 3, seniors were recognized at Class Day ceremonies on Cannon Green. The speaker was comedienne and author Ellie Kemper of the Class of 2002.
Kemper urged the students to support each other and nurture friendships.
“[M]ore important than any career accomplishment is your ability and inclination to help one another,” she said. “In the age of Instagram, you might see your classmates as your rivals. … You might feel pressured to live the best life ever.”
She recalled some of her own setbacks as she struggled to make it in the world of improv comedy in New York City after she graduated. “Things never go quite according to your plan. … Don’t be afraid to change your course.”
Kemper concluded: “Trying to be a kind, thoughtful, hardworking person will ultimately make you a much happier person.”
In the afternoon, advanced degree recipients participated in the Hooding Ceremony on Cannon Green, where Dean of the Graduate School Sarah-Jane Leslie and Eisgruber congratulated the students.
Some 130 faculty members participated in hooding the recipients, indicating the close mentoring relationship that often develops during graduate study.
“Your hood signifies the knowledge you have gained and the skills you have developed, as well as the fact that you have contributed something genuinely new to an existing body of knowledge,” Leslie told the graduates.
George Will, a 1968 graduate alumnus and a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author, spoke at the interfaith Baccalaureate service June 2 in the University Chapel.
Will spoke in praise of praise. “So, I hope that when you are asked what you learned at this University, you can truthfully answer: I learned to praise,” Will said. “Intelligent praising is a talent. It is learned. Like all virtues, it is habitual. It is a habit. And it is a virtue we need more of right now.”
Will contended that people are happier when they are less angry, less envious and more positive.
“Today, there is a serrated edge to American life. The nation is awash in expressions of contempt and disdain,” Will said. “In this age of rage, disparagement is the default setting for many Americans. … Praise is, therefore, an antidote to something that today’s America has too much of: anger.”
The Rev. Theresa Thames, associate dean of religious life and of the chapel, ended the service with a benediction. “Now that your Princeton University undergraduate journey has come to an end, may you reflect on the blessings and the burdens; the lessons and the failures; the many ways you have realized your highest and best self,” Thames said. “And may you leave this place with purpose, passion and a call.”
Webcasts of Princeton graduation events will be available on the University’s Media Central website.