Commencement, Fall 2012

Friday, December 07, 2012

 It is my privilege to be able to share a few comments with our graduating students on behalf of my faculty colleagues.

I hope you will not mind if, on this festive occasion of your graduation from UNF, I reflect for a moment upon the celebration, such as it was, that marked the completion of my Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania 35 years ago. To obtain that degree, of course, I had to write a dissertation. And write it I did, quite literally by hand, all 250 to 300 pages of it, on yellow legal paper, chapter by chapter, prior to dutifully typing it up on my Smith-Corona electric typewriter for submission to my dissertation committee. Once approved and defended in its entirety, according to the requirements of the university the final copy had to be professionally retyped, a service for which I paid dearly. That professionally prepared copy was in fact so precious to me that, before I was able to turn it in at the graduate school office at the appointed time a week or so after I received it from the typist, whenever I left my apartment I would wrap it in a plastic bag and put it in the freezer of my refrigerator in the event of fire. You can imagine how taken aback I was, therefore, when I delivered this official copy to the registrar of the graduate school, the absolutely last step to the acquisition of my degree after five years of effort, only to watch her nonchalantly leaf through it in order to make sure its margins and pagination were correct and then very unceremoniously throw it into a large box with all the other dissertations that had been turned in that week.

In search of a congratulatory pat on the back, I next went to my department office, but since this was early afternoon on a summer day, the office was quite vacant: no professors, no secretary, and no classmates. So I took the train to the little town of Narberth on the Philadelphia Main Line where I lived and went into the neighborhood tavern where I sometimes met my friends for an evening drink. Not surprisingly, given the early hour, with the exception of one patron the bar also was vacant. So I sat down in his vicinity, ordered a beer, and in my quest for public acknowledgment of what I regarded as my impressive achievement I observed to him that I was celebrating the conclusion of my Ph.D. Without missing a beat, and as if he had been waiting his entire lifetime for this very opportunity, he turned to me and said, in an utterly mirthless way, “Buddy, it doesn’t look like much of a party.”

By comparison, I can tell by the joy on the faces of the people who came here today to witness the receipt of your degrees that yours will indeed be a heck of a party. I also would point out that whereas I inhabited a pre-digital universe—no cell phones, no kindles, no floppy disks or usb sticks and of course no computers into which to insert such storage devices—your communication goes on and your texts more often than not reside in “the cloud,” wherever that might be, and while you might have to be concerned about being hacked, at least you do not need to concern yourselves with losing the records of your labors to the old-fashioned threats of fires or floods.

But there is one way in which, more fundamentally, you and I do indeed have something in common: unlike most Americans we possess university degrees. I trust yours will serve you as well as mine has served me. But more importantly, I hope you will do honor and justice to your degrees, not simply by enjoying the professional advancement that those degrees will facilitate, but by doing what you can to utilize the talents that your degrees confirm to improve the quality of the lives of those who are certainly less credentialed and quite likely less learned, less enlightened, and undoubtedly less fortunate than you are by virtue of possessing these degrees. Nor are your degrees those of just any institution. They are UNF degrees, and thus informed by the fundamental values of this institution: a commitment to the pursuit of truth and knowledge; ethical conduct; community engagement; diversity; responsibility to the natural environment; and mutual respect and civility. If you abide by these values and use the talents that you clearly have worked hard to acquire and perfect, you will do yourselves and UNF proud and, more urgently, you will do the kind of good that our conflicted world so desperately needs.

That said, permit me, in conclusion, also to say to you what no one said to me on my comparable day 35 years ago: job well done; congratulations; and go have a heck of a party.