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Penn Baccalaureate 2011

May 24, 2011, Volume 57, No. 34

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Penn Baccalaureate Address given on Sunday, May 15, 2011 by President Amy Gutmann.

True Merit

Graduates, family, friends, members of the faculty, Father Martin, and honored guests: Welcome, and congratulations to the great Class of 2011!

Long before John Wayne and Jeff Bridges­—or the Duke and the Dude —donned eye patches to star in True Grit, Benjamin Franklin thoughtfully defined that plucky quality’s close cousin: true merit.

True merit is “an inclination joined with an ability to serve [humankind]” and “the great aim and end of all learning.”

Graduates, you were admitted on signs of true merit. And, over the past four years, I’ve watched it—and you—grow. We’ve partied at my home and celebrated Hey Day together on College Green. You inspired me with your energy, filled me with pride, and made me tremendously hopeful about the future. Even at Hey Day when you were—how should I say this?—tastefully decorated.

Semester after semester you excelled in our classrooms and our laboratories. You pursued your extra-curricular interests with equal passion and purpose.

Our football team clinched the Ivy League title for the second straight season. Our women’s rowing team brought home the Orange Challenge Cup. No matter the sport, Quakers boosted our school spirit—with the help of our cheerleaders and the Penn Band, of course.

Through Civic House, Fox Leadership, and the Netter Center, you rebuilt homes and refurbished community spaces. You tutored in West Philadelphia and served as Big Sisters and Big Brothers to girls and boys across the city.

Musicians and vocalists among you moved body and soul alike; locavores championed sustainability initiatives. And, together, you relayed for life. You took back the night. You stood up for equal rights. And you raised funds to support our brothers and sisters in Japan.

These are more than demonstrations of talent and acts of kindness. These are magnificent examples of true merit in action. You adopted a more democratic method of electing UA representatives. You launched a new tree planting tradition. You changed our Penn community.

Tomorrow, as you sit with your friends on Franklin Field, you will behold seven diverse models of True Merit: our Honorary Degree recipients. Take to heart their world-changing achievements because each of you has such potential.

If a life on screen appeals to you, look to Oscar winner Denzel Washington, whose remarkable films span the Civil War, Civil Rights, and the distant future.

If journalism is your passion, reflect on the careers of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Pulitzer Prize winners who not only open our eyes to oppression and suffering around the world, they also agitate for positive change.

Or, if societal change is your aim, consider Mo Ibrahim, who democratized communications in Africa before transforming his homeland through philanthropy.

True merit, however, doesn’t demand that you work in the public eye. Three of our honorees have passionately pursued their interests largely out of the public eye:

For decades, Nobel Laureate Ei-ichi Negishi, a graduate of Penn, worked in a chemistry lab, advancing the development of everything from lifesaving medications to that cell phone you shouldn’t be looking at now.

Meanwhile, Penn Professor Renée Fox revolutionized sociology with interdisciplinary studies that expanded our understanding of the complex relationship between people and the practice of medicine.

Our nation and the world need more pioneering scientists like Negishi and more creative researchers like Fox. And, of course, we’d love to give you an honorary degree when you win a Nobel Prize or educate generations of proud Penn Quakers.

Or perhaps you live to write—any Kelly Writers House fans here? Draw inspiration from Joyce Carol Oates, whose stories—be they about beauties, boxers, or the world’s most famous blonde—have stretched our wildest imaginations.

The title of one of Oates’ books, Wild Nights!, is a borrowed bit of a poem by Emily Dickinson, who died 125 years ago today.

Dickinson’s life was spent mostly in solitude. Yet her’s too was a life of true merit. Her pathbreaking poetry continues to inspire.

As you, members of the great Class of 2011, prepare for your Commencement Day, I offer you a single stanza of Dickinson:

We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies— 

Tomorrow, you will be called to rise, from Franklin Field to the challenge of life beyond Penn. Your True Merit will lead you to answer the call.

Your Penn spirits will rise. And your statures will touch the skies!


Almanac - May 24, 2011, Volume 57, No. 34