Judith Rodin's tenth Commencement
Address, and her last as president of the University,
May 17, 2004.
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.
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!
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
the festive air of Locust Walk on a beautiful day.
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
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?
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
Take it on! Take that experience in
building community and teach it to the world.
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.
Franklin's heirs. You have
learned at Penn that nothing great is achieved without
taking a risk.
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.
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
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
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.