Unlocking Potential: A Graduation Message
Congratulations to the Denison class of 2017. We have walked this path together, arriving at Denison in the fall of 2013 and spending four years learning, experiencing, and growing together. It has been an incredible honor to work with you. You are wonderful Denisonians. I am proud to be your president.
As I look back on my four years what I have come to realize is that Denison, more than any other college I know, does a tremendous job of unlocking potential. There is something unique about the way Denisonians interact with each other. We arrive one way and leave another. In some ways, this is not unusual. Liberal arts colleges are good at self-transformation. But, this college does something deeper. It has a way of helping our students find the dreams, aspirations, confidence, skills, values and habits that lie within you and bring them out. Our graduates are well on their way to realizing the kinds of lives they want to live and they have developed what it takes to be the architect of those lives.
This process is not linear and it is not easy. Your time at Denison has been filled with joys, successes, surprises, and it also has had its share of obstacles, frustrations, disappointments and sometimes failures. All of this is what happens when 2200 people live together on top of a hill. And it is what happens in a performance oriented liberal arts college.
There have been huge successes. Over and over again this year, I was witness to the fantastic academic work you were doing. I loved reading summer research and senior research projects. I had fun watching senior recitals and performances of various kinds. I witnessed your athletic and artistic prowess. In both athletics and the arts, your class is leaving behind proud legacies of teams, programs and organizations that have been strengthened through your leadership. These have been some of the joys.
And we have had to deal with crisis and tragedy together. We have dealt with the deaths of fellow Denisonians students during your time at Denison. We have had campus controversies. We went through a hard presidential election together.
I do want to take a minute to recognize your classmate Wendell Jackson who passed away the fall of 2015. He was a remarkable person who touched the lives of everybody who had the pleasure of knowing him. Can we take a moment of silence to remember him.
It is a challenging time globally. I have been reading Richard Haass’s new book, “A World In Disarray.” Hass is the President of the Council on Foreign Relations. He writes the world faces, “worrisome developments and trends” that include “increased rivalry among several of this era’s major powers, the growing gap between global challenges and responses, the reality of and the potential for conflict in several regions, and political dysfunction and changes going on within many countries.” He worries that that multiple deep divisions within American society make it increasingly harder for the United States to respond.
Hass goes on to call for a new way of thinking, which is defined by a world where nations are dependent upon each other. What we do impacts each other. Hence old notions of sovereignty don’t cut it. For example, if we are going to address environmental challenges, cybercrime or a range of other issues, what one country does impacts the ability of another country to manage its own issues.
Hass’s point, which I take as an endorsement of the kind of education you have received and an affirmation of Denison’s mission, is that the only path forward is for nations to learn to not just get along but to work across tremendous differences to do the public work it will take to address major public issues. We do not have to like each other. But, we have to learn to effectively work together. This will take retooling major institutions and organizations among many other things. As I read Hass’s book, it is clear that what he is calling for is for every citizen and every sector of society to be led by a generation that can think critically, understand profoundly, and connect broadly. We need a generation of politicians, CEOs, community leaders, citizens, who can connect with others because they can communicate, listen and hear; solve problems through rigor and reason; practice respect, tolerance, and humility; and commit to working with others to get things done. These are the liberal arts as described by William Cronin, Bill Bowen, Martha Nussbaum and so many other great champions of a liberal arts education.
This is why the faculty, staff, student development professionals, and this president devote ourselves to colleges like Denison. Each year, we bring 2200 amazing people to this campus and we give you a particular kind of education that we hope instills within you, inspires within you, the ability and habits of being an autonomous thinker, discerning moral agent, and engaged citizen. We hope that you will walk through life leading those around you in your personal, professional and civic lives. Some of you will do it in very public ways as leaders of corporations, non-profits, and communities. And many of you will be quite leaders. You will lead by example being the kinds of people others want to be around and emulate. This is the kind of leadership that Hass calls for as well.
The work of the liberal arts stared in classrooms. You studied with world class faculty who are great teachers and mentors. They are educators who care deeply about students. We exposed you to a wide range of academic disciplines, because we believe in the value of a broad-based education. We want you to think across disciplines. We need you to connect disparate ideas into new ways of thinking. Our faculty pushed you to move beyond memorizing content to learning to think for yourself. Our faculty connected, cared and catalyzed you to find your intellectual self and to develop the intellectual tools for understanding the world around you.
This work then extended beyond the classroom in at least two important ways.
You got involved. Being involved is a Denison thing. Some of you did it through athletics or the arts. Some of you were RAs, JuneO or AugO leaders, or ran student organizations. Many of you got heavily involved in community service and/or political issues. This was another important part of your Denison career. Hopefully, you took what you were learning in the classroom and used the residential piece of Denison to put theory into practice. The co-curricular was also heavily immersed in the liberal arts.
And you learned from each other. Denisonians are not monolithic. You are diverse in almost every conceivable way. This makes living together both fun and hard. It also makes it incredibly important. We have beautiful moments of learning, sharing, and having fun. And we have moments of mistakes, conflicts, and misunderstandings. All of this is important.
This year, we have had our share of campus controversies. It has been a difficult year for the country, and we are not immune. While these are difficult moments for our community, they are moments that give me great hope and pride. Your generation is standing up and saying we demand that our institutions do better. We expect institutions to be part of solving problems and creating the world we want to live in. And you are learning how to effectively work within, work with, and transform institution.
Many of you will find yourself in positions like mine. You are going to run institutions. You will learn that this work is more challenging than it appears from the outside. Institutions are not easy to move. And you will make mistakes. I have made my share of them. But, you will also learn that this work in not just important it is incredibly meaningful, and it is doable.
Along these lines, I want to thank the 180 seniors who signed the sustainability pledge this year — the most ever by a Denison graduating class!
So here is my charge to you, the Denison class of 2017. Here is what I ask of you, a charge:
Take the education you have received here and live our mission. Be autonomous thinkers, discerning moral agents, and engaged citizens. What I ask is that each of you develop your own views and voice based on your liberal arts training, and that you use those voices and views to positively impact the world around you. I also ask that you realize the importance of differences of opinion and that you read widely, and that you learn to work across differences to find new ways of being, living and thinking.
To do this, you must be life-long learners. Read often and widely. Join book clubs. Be patrons of the arts. Attend public lectures. Set a tone within your communities that learning is important and part of developing fulfilling personal, professional and civic lives.
Along these lines, let me make a comment about the arts. Our graduation speakers/ performers have been with us for four years as our quartet in residence. They are part of a push by Denison to double down on the arts. Through the arts we develop our voice. We learn empathy. We also find ways to engage and communicate ideas. Be patrons of the arts and that will be another contribution you will make to the world.
Second, embrace and sustain the relationships that have formed here. Many of you will remain life-long friends. You will be pleasantly surprised, as some of you will become life-long friends with fellow Denisonians who were not friends during your time on the hill. You are graduating into an alumni community of 40,000 Denisonians. Denison and Denisonians will provide relationships that contribute to your life.
Finally, stay connected and committed to this college. Come back for your reunions. When you meet interesting high school students suggest they look at Denison for college. Put a Denison coffee mug on your desk at work, a bumper sticker on your car, and a Denison pennant on your refrigerator at home. You are great people and we want the world to know that you are Denisonians. Identify yourself so other members of our extended family can do the same.
This is a great college. You are a great Denisonians. I am proud to be your President and I look forward to following your life’s journey. Congratulations Denison class of 2017.
Read more of Adam Weinberg's speeches and writings.