Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons delivered the 2002 commencement address at Washington University in St. Louis May 10 and also received an honorary doctor of humanities degree. Speaking before some 2,600 graduating students and 10,000 guests seated in the university’s Brookings Quadrangle, Simmons offered touches of humor and poignancy in her speech, which received a standing ovation.
Receiving a degree is a privilege, and with that privilege comes a great deal of responsibility, said Ruth J. Simmons, PhD, in her keynote address at the 141st Commencement at Washington University in St. Louis.
Simmons, president of Brown University, told the graduates that they have a responsibility to give back to the people and places that have provided support for the past several years.
“Of course, you all know that you are leaving college in debt,” said Simmons, who received an honorary doctor of humanities from Washington University during the ceremony. “No, I don’t mean the obligation to repay the loans that helped finance your education, though, keep in mind, you need to repay those as well. I mean the debt you owe to the world that has nurtured you, to the family and friends who have supported you, to the generations to come who will falter or thrive, depending on how well you make good on your duty to the general good.
“There is nothing worse than a person who rises to high achievement and who thinks they did it on their own. I hope you won’t be one of those.”
Her speech, titled “Design for Living: Digital Truth and Technicolor Dreams,” had humorous moments, such as recounting Bill Cosby’s advice upon her being named the first African-American president of an Ivy League institution, as well as the first woman president of Brown: Watch out for paper cuts, he said. Her address also was poignant, as she referenced Sept. 11th and how Wall Street bounced back.
But her words stressed the importance of making ethical decisions in everyday life.
“The newspapers today are replete with prominent people who have failed to make ethical choices,” she said. “We see these tales of woe and we think, ‘What is wrong with them? How could they have been so sightless?’ At the same time, the media are also replete with everyday people who rise to extraordinary heights in the exercise of extraordinary judgment. We ask, ‘How could such a person rise to the pinnacle of courage, truth, and honesty when they are uneducated, when they are such humble folk?’
“The truth is, one gets better at making ethical choices if one practices making such choices on a daily basis. ƒ If you are to avoid being a victim of your education, you must practice this art of discernment on an ongoing basis.”
Simmons admitted that this is heady stuff for recent graduates. But a little here, a little more there, and suddenly making ethical decisions and having strong morals is second nature.
“The courageous and ethical use of knowledge and talent is a challenge that you may not be ready for today, but that’s okay,” Simmons said. “But if you live your life drawing abundantly from the broad education you’ve received at this great university, your strength in confronting the many dilemmas of life will grow stronger by the year. You must do the conditioning. You must do the conditioning. You must build up your strength, year by year.
“Go into your communities and fight for the things we will need to preserve to enhance our humanity. Civility, even when others are undeserving of it. Love, even when that sentiment is not returned. Forgiveness, even when cruel history brings us painful reminders of the many wrongs that have been done. Start today. ƒ Never let pride and self-interest delude you into thinking that you are better than human beings who have not had your advantages.”
Simmons concluded her remarks by emphasizing to the graduates the need to “practice the human arts.”
“Never be ashamed to express gratitude,” she said. “Gratitude is one of the most honorable undertakings of the human spirit. When Wall Street firms struggled to recover from the destruction of 9/11, let me tell you, the leadership of those companies discovered something. It wasn’t their MBAs from prestigious schools that helped them lead their firms out of the devastation of that moment when so many of their peers were lost. ƒ I’ll tell you what they found. What helped them most at that moment was their willingness to embrace their workers, to weep in front of them, to pray with them, to express honestly their pain and fear. In that moment when the human arts were needed more than any business acumen, these leaders had to call on a different set of skills. You’re going to have to call on a different set of skills from the ones you learned in your field.
“I salute you for all that you’ve done. If you practice the human arts, reaching out to people, standing up for justice and fair play, showing kindness and forgiveness, you will enjoy more success than any good lyricist could ever put in a popular song.
“On your professional course, make use of all that you’ve learned in your classroom, but fight for your spirit and the humanity that you have been given.”