Commencement Address by Ruth Simmons

May 19, 2002

Thank you. Chairman of the Board Manatt, President Trachtenberg, Trustees, faculty, staff, honored guests, family, friends, and of course graduates of 2002: Good morning.

That was pretty sad. OK, let’s try again.

Graduates of 2002: Good morning.

That’s better. I have to tell you that I felt a bit apprehensive coming to the podium this morning. After reading some of the student comments from the GW Hatchet about my selection as commencement speaker, I worried about giving this speech. With all the hype surrounding commencement speakers these days, it’s small wonder that so many were disappointed at having only a university president as speaker.

One student wrote: “I wonder who backed out.”

Another said: “I am not impressed.” One senior, adding an interesting twist, said: “Well, at least it’s not Tony Bennett.”

Well, let me tell you, I love Tony Bennett, so I am in good company.

But when I arrived this morning and saw the magnificence of this setting and the exuberance of this occasion, I have to say I started feeling just fine. I should say that there’s a student on my campus – there are probably many students on my campus like this, but I was journeying recently to give a commencement address in another part of the country and on the plane was a student from Brown. The student came to me at the baggage carousel and said: “President Simmons, I’m one of your students.”

I’m always happy to see my students and so I said: “Oh, I’m delighted to see you. What are you doing here?”

He said: “I’m on my way to see my brother graduate, and I saw that you were going to be the commencement speaker and I’m so delighted to have an opportunity to hear you speak, because I've never heard you speak before.”

I was startled, of course, because presidents love to speak and they speak all the time on their campuses. So I said: “But how can it be that you have never heard me speak?”

He looked at me without missing a beat and said: “Well, I’m a computer science major.”

Oh, boy. What is up with that?

Well, I agreed to be commencement speaker because of the decisive year that I was privileged to spend at GW. In 1968 when I was here, American universities were on the verge of tremendous change. I had just returned from a year in France during which the student revolution of 1968 was transforming that nation’s vision of access to education.

Here at GW, a somewhat less radical transition was in progress. The university was beginning to admit more students of color. There weren’t many of us in those days. The State Department was seeking to expand the participation of US minorities in the Foreign Service. It was a quieter revolution than was under way in France, but it was a revolution nonetheless. GW had invited visiting scholars at that moment from historically black colleges to teach here and through these efforts I encountered a visiting professor who pointed me in the right direction and inspired me to remain in higher education. Professor Sterling Brown’s inspired teaching has remained with me all of these years. So I owe a special debt to GW for launching me onto a path that led me to the role I now play.

As I look back over my career, I can think of nothing better than to have spent these 30 years working with students aspiring to learn. Nothing could have been more thrilling than that. So I am pleased to be here finally receiving my degree with the Class of 2002.

Now, what can one say about a graduation such as this? You’re not just privileged because you mark this moment in your lives with such a beautiful, poignant, and dramatic backdrop. You are graduating from a university that will launch you in the way it launched me so many years ago.

I had a novel experience here that shaped my thinking about how to contribute to society. Of course, many of you, whether sitting in the audience while “Crossfire” was broadcast live from the campus, or seeing your teachers quoted in public policy debates about trade reforms or tax cuts, or whether combining your classes with internships at the White House, the World Bank, or on the Hill, you’ve gotten the kind of education available to few in the world.

You deserve credit for your efforts to take full advantage of all that GW and Washington have offered you. For four years you’ve gotten up early for class without your parents having to wake you. You’ve resisted going to TGIFriday’s to stay in Gelman another hour, right? OK. You’ve worked as waiters at Bertucci’s, smiling at diners so that their tips can help pay for your books. So you’ve done your share.

But GW is an expensive school. I know that. With what they spent to send you here, your parents could have put another wing on the house, bought a couple of BMW’s, taken lots of cruises to the Caribbean. Seriously, some of them no doubt worked second jobs or went into debt and reduced their savings for retirement to put you through college, and you were able to see this day because they tortured you by making sure that you did your homework and refusing to accept your decision, as grave as it was, to backpack around Europe for four years instead of going to college, and by loving you the whole time, the whole time right down to this moment, when you don’t have any idea of what you’re going to be doing next. So you must be grateful to them.

Now, I grew up, as Darrell (Green) said, in Texas and I remain a proud Texan today. I hope some of you are from Texas. Texas is known for colorful public figures, some of whom you have no doubt heard of. But in particular there’s a story about Ma Ferguson. Ma Ferguson succeeded her husband as governor down there in the 1920s when her husband died. Ma Ferguson, like most Texans, was known for not being shy about her opinions. Once someone suggested that the new Spanish-speaking immigrants to Texas might benefit by having classes taught in their native language. Ma Ferguson was furious about such a notion, furious.

She picked up her copy of the King James Version of the New Testament and shouted: “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for Texas.”

Texas has come a long way since then and this country has come a long way since then, but we have a long way to go.

This final college year, believe me, you will forever associate your year with the destruction of Sept. 11, 2001, in which so many innocently lost their lives. On that day classes had barely begun when all of us in our offices in our dorm rooms, in hallways watching TV monitors, watched events that left us bereft, angry, confused, and afraid.

Right here in Washington, those events were especially heart-wrenching with so many lost. But out of the smoke and the flames, the grief and the horror, the fear and loss, a cruel and yet merciful clarity emerged. The world we were watching unfold that day was far from the world that Ma Ferguson saw, in which one religion, one culture, one language, one law, dominated our vision. Today we can see that it is not difference itself that endangers the future, for difference as old as the ages is one of our most enduring and greatest natural resources as human beings. It is to difference that we owe the fitness of our civilization, for as we advance, absorbing the robust elements of different cultures, we make our own better and stronger.

No, it’s not difference itself that is the problem. It is the consequence of not understanding and managing that difference that can lead to conflict and profoundly consequential loss. There are thousands of contrasting views and perspectives in which the seeds of conflict can find fertile ground. Whether these seeds grow, fed by ignorance and suspicion, or whether we nurture them so that they lead to ever-expanding understanding that can solve age-old animosities, is really up to us. In our continuing grief and fear, our education and that of those who do not know us can provide a different answer.

You know, recently I was in a meeting in New York listening to Bill Gates and Bono, of all people, opine about how to build support for global development. Suddenly, there was a tremendous amount of noise outside on Park Avenue. On the street, hundreds of protesters opposing globalization were shouting, “The people united will never be defeated.”

Whatever the definition of globalism, we know that we are irrevocably affected by the startling changes now shaping the world, made real to us by the instantaneous response of so many media relaying in real time what is taking place. This affects world markets, the speed of knowledge transfer, the shaping of public opinion in hundreds of world capitals at precisely the same moment. A comment made by a public official in the United States plays one way in our country, but reverberates around the world with an echo that each time it reverberates produces a distant and sometimes distorted version of itself.

You have to work hard to avoid the incredible tensions created by the transparency and the proximity of contrasting perspectives, needs, and political agendas. In short, we have to act like we know the we’re living in a world in which our audience today is just different. It’s bigger, it’s wider, it’s closer.

When you came here, you joined a campus with an astonishingly large international population. That’s one of the things I remembered most fondly about GW, was the international dimension of the campus and this wonderful city. You studied with teachers here who had been intensely involved with the agonizing issues of public life. You maybe got credit for working on the Senate Finance Committee and were able to hear Alan Greenspan analyze monetary policy, and that’s terrific.

But remember that sometimes education involves more than dazzling theorists and renowned professionals. Sometimes education arrives at your door in unrecognizable adornment. You must be watchful and open-minded if you are to excel in lifelong, deep, transforming learning, learning that delivers you from the mistake of overlooking how diversity is affecting your life.

I realize these days that as I reflect on my own upbringing, I learned from great scholars here at GW and at Harvard. Since those days as a student, I’ve met many of the leading figures of our time. It’s always a great pleasure for a citizen of this country to come to Washington to be honored, to be in the White House for special occasions, to meet the great figures of our time.

But let me tell you, I learned most in my life from a woman with an eighth grade education. My mother was a domestic worker and I had a chance to accompany her to the homes that she cleaned on weekends. By watching her work and having the benefit of her teaching, I learned about the variety of work that human beings can do with great honor and credit. I learned about the importance of everyday courage. I learned about the importance of respect for others. I learned about the need to treat even those who hate you with kindness.

I hope you’re fortunate to have such people in your life. But more importantly, I hope you have the good sense to recognize them, the good sense to recognize the uncommon teachers and the unrecognized heroes who are the bedrock of our society.

Yes, remember your classes and your professors here at GW. Remember your concerts at Lisner. Remember watching great basketball here. Remember listening to jazz on Sunday on GW’s radio station and getting a pizza at midnight. But work hard at remembering also the quiet, unheralded moments of learning. Remember the staff members, the janitor who cleaned up your building, the students that you met who were different from you.

Being in the presence of so much diversity, hearing uncommon perspectives, debating peers about international politics, it’s the fusion of all these experiences that creates a true lasting education.

As a college student, I was an ardent opponent of apartheid in South Africa. One day in a Greek philosophy class that I was in the discussion turned to the moral dilemma of apartheid. Like you, when I was your age I was supremely confident that I had all the answers, that I knew everything. In this class there was heated debate, as one would expect, with the entire class taking the position that apartheid was a bankrupt, immoral, and untenable practice.

But suddenly in the middle of the discussion a quiet girl, speaking very softly, who was a white South African, spoke up defending the rights of white South Africans. She ended her comments by saying: “It’s our country, too.”

There was stunned silence in the classroom and my own silence was the loudest of all. Today I cannot recall the names or words of any of the students who held views similar to my own, but this young woman and her words have haunted my memory since that vivid day over 30 years ago. I still don’t agree with her point, but I know she forced me to dig deeper and to test more rigorously my assumptions.

So my advice to you is to remember that some of the most salient moments of learning take place in the presence of difference, for it is difference itself that highlights truly what we know and what we do not know.

I wish I had taken advantage of the opportunity to speak with her about her views. She wouldn’t have changed my mind, but I would have learned more if I had been willing to understand the opportunity for learning posed by her presence. Such opportunities abound in this diverse world and it is through the artful combination of serendipity, deliberate strategies of encountering diversity, utility, enlightenment, information, that we will be able to cope in this global world.

In such a year as this, which will haunt our days for the rest of our life, it is important to remember how regenerative and vital life is. No matter what befalls us, our intrinsic humanity, if we focus on its continuous development, draws us ever forward, allowing us to rebuild broken lives, re-cement broken trust, regenerate broken faith, re-awaken lost love, rebuild failed enterprises.

Yes, ours is a fragile, but steely, humanity. Your lives, believe me, will reflect that fragility. We look to you to understand and assert with exuberance the joy and purpose of living and the possibilities of using this excellent education to the best advantage. Go into your communities and fight for the things we will need to secure our humanity.

When Wall Street firms struggled to recover from the destruction of 9-11, the leadership of those companies learned something about education.

But here’s what the leaders of those Wall Street firms learned. They learned that it was not their MBA’s from prestigious schools that helped them at that moment, when so many of their peers were lost. What helped them even more was their willingness to embrace workers, to weep for their loss, to pray with them after the manner of their particular faith, to express honestly their own pain and fear.

In that moment, when the human arts were needed more than ever, these leaders had to call on a broader set of skills and on a sensitivity to difference. If you practice the human arts, reaching out to people across boundaries, standing up for justice and fair play in the service of our democracy, showing kindness and forgiveness, you will enjoy more success than any good lyricist can ever adequately convey in a song, even if sung by the great Tony Bennett.

Now, my soon to be fellow alumni, I wish you contentment and enduring peace, the deep satisfaction that accompanies a life honorably, courageously, and joyously lived, and success in the human arts.

Congratulations and good luck.

©2002 The George Washington University Office of University Relations, Washington, D.C.
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