"You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. The great work begins."
President Riordan, members of the Board of Trustees, all of you here with various and sometimes multiple connections to Adelphi and most especially today’s graduates, welcome and congratulations.… Commencement! You’ve done it!
This is exciting. This is the most prominent role I’ve had in a commencement since my high school graduation in 1971. I was valedictorian, so I was the first to walk across the stage. I refused to shake hands with the principal or the superintendent. It gave the community something to talk about and write to the newspaper about for months. But I had fought with the administration for years. I felt we were hampered on all sides by silly wrong-minded rules. Boys had to wear belts. If you forgot to wear your belt—and I did more than once—you had to bend over and hold your ankles while you were paddled. Girls couldn’t wear miniskirts or maxi-dresses. No one could wear blue jeans to the big Friday night event in Texas—the football game. And most galling to me, I wasn’t allowed to wear my hair long down over my ears. Well—they’ve won that one. So anyway, 47 years later, I have a role again. I’ll tell you right up front, for better or for worse, I don’t intend to say or do anything controversial today.
And I’ll try not to slow things down. Some of you may not know, but the current plan for strategic action at Adelphi is called Momentum. When the president travels around the country visiting alumni—that’s all of you in an hour or so—she’s on the Momentum tour. In 1939, when the commencement speaker addressed Adelphi’s graduates he asked, “how’s your momentum?” I hope you all have some, and I’ll try not to break it. My field is the classics, Latin and Greek. We classicists tend to have at least one eye on the past. So in preparing this speech, I looked back. The early history of commencement addresses in the United States isn’t well documented. But apparently through the 17th, 18th and at least a good part of the 19th centuries they were occasions for students to display their oratorical skills—in Latin and Greek. As students’ skills in those languages waned, speeches were taken over more and more by figures of authority, most often ministers, judges and other officials.
A hundred years ago, in 1918 the Adelphi commencement was held in the opera house of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, just a few blocks from Adelphi’s buildings. There were 84 candidates for the bachelor’s degree. They were addressed twice, first by the chaplain from West Point—the United States had entered WWI, and some military element turned up in many commencements that year—and then by President Blodgett.
Coincidentally, 1918 also saw the birth of a man named Harold Howe II. Exactly fifty years later, in 1968, while he was the United States Commissioner of Education, Adelphi brought him in to be the commencement speaker in that strange complicated year of 1968. That year, by the way, was the year a few of your professors here today joined Adelphi—those of you who joined Adelphi then, 50 years go by quickly don’t they?! Anyway, Harold Howe was a remarkable man. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson had pushed through Civil Rights legislation aimed, among many things, at desegregating the schools. But it was Commissioner Howe’s job to see that it happened. And that wasn’t a smooth or easy task and not one for which he was always thanked or praised. But in 1968 he had other problems on his hands and in his mind. There was great unrest in the United States, deep political division. Martin Luther King had been assassinated. The Vietnam War was raging. And college campuses were the scene of protests ranging from peaceful sit-ins to extreme violence with property destroyed, guns drawn, and students tear-gassed. There were calls both from the public and even in some sectors of government to end funding for institutions that were the site of such protests.
In the face of such criticism leveled at colleges and universities, Howe, in his Adelphi commencement address made a spirited and moving defense of vigorous support for higher education. These institutions, he explained, were not the only place but historically one of the most important places for freedom of expression of all ideas, and for the discovery and creation of new ideas. They are engines of progress, nothing less than one of the means to preserve and to advance civilization itself. And so they deserve, they need, they must have the support of society. And so mindful of this, he urged the graduates, even at the commencement of their new lives, always to look back and support this crucial entity, and in particular, the one that had nurtured them, Adelphi.
Here we are another 50 years later. You graduates and I have something in common. You’ve spent some time here, but now that time is coming to an end. The same is true for me: I’m just on a more extended time scale. I’m finishing my 24th year here as dean. Next year will be my last—instead of my Commencement Day it will be sort of my Commencement Year, as I look to the beginning of a new stage of my life. During these 24 years I’ve changed some things at Adelphi: I was the founding dean for the Honors College and that meant that some things would be new and different. Not everyone was happy with that. There’s hardly ever a change that everyone is happy with. But always I’ve tried my best to make Adelphi better. And throughout all these years Adelphi has helped me to grow and to learn. I’ve loved my time here. But even while here I’ve been thinking about Adelphi once I’m no longer at Adelphi. And I’ve worked also to make my students think—while they’re here—about Adelphi once they’re no longer here on campus. I also work to keep my alumni attached once they’ve left. Adelphi goes on after Commencement Day.
In their post-Adelphi years, my alumni have experienced complicated feelings. I have alumni who never got to enjoy the Performing Arts Center, either of the new residence halls, the Center for Recreation and Sports. They had less adequate playing fields than you have had, a much less hospitable and user-friendly library, with fewer study facilities. The food in the UC—you’ll have to trust me on this—is much better now than in the past. And almost none of my hundreds of alumni got to be here for the Nexus Building. But the envy they feel as they look at all these improvements is tempered by pride. I know this because I write to all of them every summer. And I see them often. Most recently, in April, I was at a performance on Broadway of Angels in America. Over 30 students and alumni were there with me for the matinee and then again for the evening. Some members of the classes of 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2013 will be coming to my house for dinner next month in honor of their contributions on Adelphi’s giving day this spring.
But this particular phase of their Adelphi involvement too will come to an end. I’ll only be here on the campus one more year. As time goes on, they will find new modes of interacting with Adelphi. In the coming decades you and they will see many new deans and many new presidents. Your older professors will retire and younger professors will take their place. Your younger professors will become the older professors. And eventually there will be a Commencement Day when not a one of the professors here today will be present. But Adelphi will always be Adelphi and you will always be a part of the Adelphi community. As Adelphi grows and becomes greater, so will your pride in it. I have great hopes for the future of Adelphi, and I’ve made arrangements to continue to support it even in my retirement and beyond. And I’m happy to report that my alumni are doing the same.
Enough about the future. Back to the past. In 1930 President Blodgett addressed the graduates at the very first commencement for the Garden City campus. Adelphi, you may know, had moved to Garden City from Brooklyn in 1929. Just months after that, the stock market crashed. Dark years lay ahead for the world, for the country and for Adelphi. The college—it was just a college then—barely escaped bankruptcy during the 1930s. Only three buildings had been built by 1930, those we now call Woodruff, Levermore, and Blodgett. But in his 1930 commencement address President Blodgett was full of optimism. The short term was troubled, but on commencement day he looked past that into a brighter future. So, now, back to the future: he assured the assembled audience this way. “Some of us may not be present to see, but there will be those who will see plans now started carried much further along the road to progress. Dormitories will appear, a beautiful library will arise…” He was right of course. Those things and more that he couldn’t even envision have come to pass. So it will be with your Adelphi and with your world as time goes on.
So, you’re going out into the world to live your lives. Your generation says yolo. I don’t think it’s such a great phrase. It’s just a statement: you only live once. One of my languages is Latin. The Romans said carpe diem: seize the day. I like that much better. It’s an imperative, an order, a call to action. Seize the day!!! So do it. Go out from here: live, build, create, be joyous. Throw away your belts if you like. Wear blue jeans to football games. Women—if you want to, wear miniskirts and maxi-dresses; men—you too! All of you, wear your hair as long or short as you want! But please also keep Adelphi in your hearts. Support it in the years to come: because it’s your school. Because as commissioner Howe asserted at the Adelphi commencement 50 years ago, it’s an instrument of higher education, a forum for the creation and expression ideas, for the transmission and creation of knowledge, and as such it’s one of the means to make your future better and even a future beyond yours that none of us will see.
I mentioned that last month I saw Angels in America on Broadway with many of my current students and alumni. For the ending of my speech, I can’t come up with anything better than the ending of that play. And so I simply quote:
“Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.” The great work begins. Thank you.
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