PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — By the authority vested in me by the Charter of Brown University and the Board of Fellows of the Corporation, I hereby declare the 249th Commencement of Brown University convened!
Welcome to this historic place on this absolutely glorious day!
I know that this may seem like just one stop in a very long day of marching and celebratory gatherings. But in truth, this is the most important part of the day — because in a few short minutes, I will officially confer your degrees, and you will transfer from being Brown students to being alumni of the great Brown University Class of 2017!
But first, before we do this, here it comes — the inevitable request for you to reflect back nearly four years ago, to September 2013, when most — not all, but most — of you began your Brown journeys.
VIDEO: President Christina Paxson: 'Live Courageously"
When you arrived on College Hill, we had just kicked off a year-long celebration of the 250th anniversary of Brown’s founding. And at Convocation, we were talking about history, and I noted that when Rhode Island was established, it was referenced in the Charter of 1663 as a “lively experiment” that would welcome people from all religious backgrounds.
This was, certainly, a historical moment of truth. Religious liberty was a stunningly radical idea at the time. Freedom of conscience and nonconformity were out of step with conventional wisdom. And the practice of tolerance in a diversifying society was pretty much untested.
This courageous act of conscience — embodied in Rhode Island’s founding — created a place of dynamism where people from different backgrounds benefited from their proximity to each other. And it was an early marker of the idea that freedom of conscience is a cornerstone of the liberal values that we uphold.
So where are we today? We find ourselves at another historical moment of truth, one precipitated by the elephant in the room — or maybe on the Green: the November 2016 election. For many of you, this was the first presidential election in which you exercised your right to vote. And it will forever be connected to your memories of your senior year at Brown.
The outcome of the election has affected some of you in deeply personal ways, had serious implications for our University community, and posed some challenges to our lively experiment.
Brown’s reaction to some of the policies of the new administration has been principled, not partisan. We have looked to our core values to guide our responses. We are concerned deeply for the well-being of our DACA and undocumented students and their families. We have opposed executive orders on immigration that disadvantage students and scholars who are refugees, or who come from several Muslim-majority countries. Universities should be open to all. And we are alarmed that scientific research is being devalued in ways that threaten the advancement of knowledge and put at risk American scientific leadership.
More generally, more broadly, the election laid bare deep socioeconomic, political and cultural divides in this country. And these divides are not new. They are decades, if not centuries, in the making — stemming from increases in political partisanship from the 1980s, increases in income inequality from the mid-1970s, persistent racial and ethnic disparities in opportunity that predate America’s founding.
And these divides are reverberating around the world. They are threatening democratic institutions and creating anxiety, even despair, among those left behind by globalization and rapidly changing technologies. And they are alienating those vulnerable to injustices because of their race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, gender and other identities.
These divides are threatening to undercut our capacity to move forward thoughtfully, openly, deliberately on policy issues that are important to citizens everywhere.
Now this is where it comes to you. I believe that the most consequential thing you can do as new college graduates is, in ways small and ambitious, to bridge these divides. And this takes courage. But it’s courage that I know all of you possess.
At this University, we aspire not only to prepare students for successful careers — that’s important, yes — but we also want to instill in students the courage to use their educations to have impact: in their communities, in their countries and in the world at large. And I’ve see you for the last four years. During your time on College Hill, you were courageous.
You were confronted with some of the thorniest problems of our times: climate change, gender-based violence, health inequities, racial injustice and religious intolerance. And so many of you acted, bravely and conscientiously, to address those issues. It fills me with so much pride to see Brown students respond like this, with a fierce determination to do the right thing, and to help others.
So what I want to leave you with today is a call to live courageously. It is as essential now as it was in Roger Williams’ time — if only to bridge the divides that separate us.
So what does this mean? This means having the courage to be a civically engaged citizen. After graduation, you will land somewhere — you may not even know where yet — to work, study and launch your post-Brown lives. Wherever you land, register to vote. Volunteer for a local nonprofit. Coach youth sports. Or shoot for the moon, and run for elected office. A good example of this from Brown is New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan, Class of 1980, who is a courageous leader on many things, but particularly the national opioid crisis.
It means having the courage of your informed convictions — doing things you believe in, even if you encounter criticism or even if you break social norms. So when Janet Yellen, Class of 1967, spoke at the 125 Years of Women at Brown conference last month, she recalled early Pembroke College graduates who fought for the opportunity to have careers. They knew they could make contributions to their chosen fields. They knew their education could matter, so they pushed back against the social mores and the workplace policies that limited their options. And that was courageous.
And finally, it means having the courage to be compassionate — to empathize with others, even those whose life experiences are very different from your own. You’ve heard a lot about this over the last four years. It’s going to be truer than ever when you leave this place. Another example is Lynn Nottage, Class of 1986, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright. For Lynn, it took audacity to build trust among the out-of-work steelworkers of Reading, Pennsylvania — who, as she said to me, weren’t the kind of people who she would normally talk to, much less come to trust a black woman from New York City. But her empathy enabled her to hear their stories of personal hardship — and they entrusted to her those stories — and she took from that the ability to write a play that could bridge divides and change the narrative of Reading, Pennsylvania.
To close, let me say this: Every historical era can be framed as “extraordinary times.” It’s trite probably to say this is that. But there is no time like the present.
So on this remarkable day, at this moment of truth, take everything that Brown University has opened up to you — and live courageously.
Go out into the world, fiercely, boldly and thoughtfully.
Keep this lively experiment burning brightly.
And don’t ever forget that people here at Brown will love you, and honor you, for doing just that.