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President Judith Rodin's tenth Commencement Address, and her last as president of the University, May 17, 2004.

Making a  Positive Difference in Society

Chairman Riepe, colleagues, honored guests, parents, families, friends, and all survivors of final exams and dissertation defenses: Welcome to the 248th Commencement of the University of Pennsylvania!

To all alumni who have joined us on this glorious occasion, welcome back! I particularly wish to acknowledge members of the Class of 1979, celebrating their 25th reunion, and members of the Class of 1954, celebrating their 50th reunion. We take pride in your achievements, your leadership, and your loyalty to Penn.

As a Penn alumna, I have cherished the privilege of welcoming each new graduating class into our growing family of fellow alumni--now close to 300,000 strong.

But this commencement will always have a special meaning for me--not just because this is my last time, not just because we've got great honorary degree recipients, as well as the coolest speaker ever!

I'm thrilled because I am graduating again from Penn since you have made me an honorary member of the senior class. So I say to you today:

My fellow graduates! We share so many memories:

We've savored the festive air of Locust Walk on a beautiful day.

We've braved the wind tunnels of Hamilton Village.

We've cheered all the women's and men's Ivy League championships.                     We've applauded Officer Floyd Johnson, the whistling traffic cop.

We've survived years of construction, we've volunteered hundreds of hours in the community, and we've learned so much together.

Can you ever forget the joy of a full-throated Econ scream, the thrill of your first Penn sweatshirt--or the agony of having the lights go out in Van Pelt at midnight?

Of course, it would still take several lifetimes to know and experience all Penn has to offer. You're going to need the knowledge you've gained at Penn, and all the knowledge yet to learn, just to keep up. As the Red Queen warns in Alice in Wonderland, "It takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place."

But we haven't trained you to stay only in the same place. For what a world we are sending you into! On one hand, it is bursting with exciting and unprecedented opportunities in the sciences and arts, in politics, business, and communication, indeed, in all fields of human endeavor.

For some of the industrialized and developing countries of the world, these are very good times indeed. Thanks in large measure to knowledge generated by faculties and graduates of the world's great universities, infant mortality rates are falling, life expectancy, literacy, and personal incomes are rising, and democracy--once considered a fragile Western experiment--has swept through Eastern Europe, Russia, and parts of Latin America, and is taking root in Asia.

At the same time, we are also living in what philosopher Stanley Cavell describes as a "dissociated world," a world filled with enough corruption, deprivation, degradation, and war to shatter our faith in progress, in our institutions, and in one another--if we allow it.

These are challenging times. Your generation is the first to confront a global epidemic of terrorism unlike any the world has known. But, as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead reminded us, "It is the business of the future to be dangerous."

For more than 250 years, Penn has dared to embrace the mission to create a better, healthier, and safer tomorrow. Now, I ask you, who have had the privilege of spending the most transformational years of your lives here:

Are you ready to make the future your business? Are you? Then take it on!

In his play Arcadia, Tom Stoppard frames our challenge with bracing clarity:

"The future," he writes,  "is disorder. "A door like this has cracked open five or six times since we got up on our hind legs. It's the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong."

Graduates, you are ready to crash through those doors--because your Penn experience taught you to think deeply and broadly, to put your knowledge to work for the betterment of society.

We've taught you to have the courage to brutally re-examine ideas when they're proven unworkable or wrong. For example, as an institution with the best intentions, Penn thought it was doing the right thing when it imposed its vision of urban renewal on West Philadelphia during the '50s and '60s.

But later we came to realize that we were inevitably connected to our neighbors by shared history, and that our futures were intertwined. So we engaged our neighbors as partners, with your help and involvement. We listened to each other and learned from each other. We worked together to revive our neighborhood.  And in the process, we converted the fact of our connectedness into networks of personal, dynamic connections.

By rethinking our relationship with West Philadelphia, Penn became a better citizen, a stronger academic institution, and a greater force for solving the problems of cities.

With that experience and so many others you derived here, you will now have to define your roles as local neighbors and as global citizens.

Think about the soaring economic growth of the two most populous countries of the world, China and India. Their emergence as global economic superpowers will have profound long-term implications for the world.

Think about the problems of Africa, where today's commencement speaker is working tirelessly to help people transform their lives, and live free from disease.

And think about Iraq and the Middle East.

No one is better fit to solve these vexing problems than you. You represent over 100 countries, and you have lived together on this compact campus in peace and understanding.

Take it on! Take that experience in building community and teach it to the world.

Our founder Benjamin Franklin, embodied this spirit of daring as an entrepreneur, as a scientist, and statesman. He chased a mighty whirlwind into the woods to study its properties when others shrank back in fear. Into his seventies, he accepted dangerous assignments to support America's revolutionary war against Britain. And he leaned against the gale to oppose slavery near the end of his life.

You are Franklin's heirs. You have learned at Penn that nothing great is achieved without taking a risk.

 We have also given you much more than skills to succeed in your chosen pursuit and make a great living. We have instilled in you the habit of independent, critical thinking. We have taught you an abiding commitment to free expression, even when it causes discomfort. Especially when it causes discomfort.

We have shown you the importance of a robust exchange of ideas and a relentless search for answers and truths, however inconvenient or disturbing they might turn out to be. 

We've taught you to place knowledge and learning in service to society. We've instilled in you the moral imperative of uniting people of diverse backgrounds in common and important work. And we've passed along good, old-fashioned, Franklinian values of persistence and patience. 

You have already lived these lessons during your time at Penn. You've taken to the field to improve literacy and public health close to campus and all over the world. You've done pro bono work with the indigent, helped launch local businesses, designed smarter software, and worked for better health care. You have translated your flashes of inspiration into magnificent works of art, music, and literature.

And through all the post 9/11 stresses and all the heated debates over the most contentious issues of our times, you hung together as one united community, even when external forces threatened to pull you apart.

In this age of instantaneous communication and immediate gratification, you have learned that progress and meaningful transformations are still not won in swift, lightning strokes. Rather, they are earned through patient, persistent work that is academically informed and morally animated.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs Board of Education, which, as the history books tell us, ended racial segregation in our public schools. The ruling was hailed as a seminal moment in the American experience--a triumph of social justice.

Yet, all the courageous, hard work that went into winning that case was merely a prologue to the struggles and battles that have since ensued. Who could have foreseen, for example, that the spirit of the Brown ruling would be more faithfully and energetically pursued in the world of higher education, which has been strengthened beyond measure by its embrace of diversity?

Yet, 50 years later, many of America's public schools largely remain racially segregated still, underscoring the truth that documents carrying the full force of law--including your well-earned Penn degrees--don't mean a thing if you fail to keep swinging into action on behalf of your ideals and values.

I know you can change the world, because you have changed Penn as surely as Penn has changed you. And I am confident that many solutions to the world's greatest challenges will have your fingerprints all over them, because, to borrow from William Wordsworth, your minds are well on their way to becoming "a thousand times more beautiful than the earth on which [you] dwell."

As I prepare to leave this stage for the last time, I am filled with four overwhelming emotions: amazement at all this great University is accomplishing across so many fields of scholarly endeavor; gratitude to our faculty, staff, and alumni for supporting our shared vision to make Penn a truly great University and a powerful force for integrity, progress and humane leadership in the world; admiration for our students, who don't wait until they graduate to start making a positive difference in society; and sadness at saying good-bye.

But my faith in you turns that sadness into hopefulness and joy. Graduates, be dreamers of great dreams. Be movers of mountains. I commend to you your future.



  Almanac, Vol. 50, No. 34, May 25, 2004