December 2014 UC Berkeley Commencement Address


Chancellor Nicholas Dirks: Graduates, family, friends and guests, welcome to the University of California, Berkeley and to the December 2014 Commencement. 

As Berkeley’s 10th Chancellor, it is my distinct honor and pleasure to preside over today’s celebration of the graduation of the class of 2014.

Graduates, today is your day.  You join and renew the long line of alumni reaching back to 1868 whose lives are forever entwined with this great university. Today you become one of some 465,000 living alumni world-wide who can proudly call themselves Berkeley graduates.

Everyone here has traveled a distinctive path to arrive at today’s graduation. Some of you are the first in your family to graduate from college; others are fourth generation Cal graduates. Whether you have come to Berkeley from near or far, from one of our local Bay area communities or from countries around the world, today’s event has special significance for all of you. 

The entire Cal community is proud of your achievements, but today, no one is prouder than those who have stood by you with their understanding, love and support. Graduates, please join me in thanking your families, partners, children, friends and mentors, everyone who helped pave the way for your arrival at one of life’s great crossroads. (lead applause) 

Graduates, commencement is a time honored ritual, a major milestone in each of your lives, and it recognizes the transforming experience of your time at Berkeley in the company of our brilliant faculty, dedicated staff, and your diverse and talented classmates. But, when all is said and done we gather today to celebrate your extraordinary accomplishment. You have been educated at the world’s finest public research university. I use the word “public” not because it qualifies the pre-eminence of what is now your alma mater, and not to deny our increased reliance on private sources of revenue, but because Berkeley’s public attributes, contributions and ethos are at the core of who we are, what we stand for and so much of what separates us from our private peers.  Berkeley has provided you with a rigorous education that has always been focused on and informed by the centrality of the idea of the public good. You have learned through critical reflection on and engagement with some of our most fundamental human debates and dilemmas; you have had to develop and perfect your skills of effective and persuasive communication; you have not only learned so much that is new but also participated in the production and development of the knowledge that is expanding our imaginative and technological frontiers, often through the research done right here on this campus; and you have asked yourselves and each other the most challenging moral and intellectual questions about meaning and purpose in our lives and society.

As Berkeley graduates, you are as well prepared as possible to negotiate a future that is being transformed so quickly by new technology, expanding globalization, changing social and economic structures, new cultural and political challenges, and dangerous environmental trends.  Indeed, if we have done our job well, you will not just negotiate the challenges ahead, you, like so many before you, will be leaders and innovators in finding ways to meet and overcome these challenges.   

These challenges – as well as the salient opportunities that are part of your prospects ahead – are now global in scale, whether in the form of poverty, climate change, the quest for sustainable sources of energy, more equal and widely distributed economic growth, global health issues, new political and social movements, and rising levels of international conflict. 

We know how committed you are to contributing to the public good in the truest and deepest sense of the word.

Yet, there is abundant evidence that the very idea of the public is in serious disrepute.  There has been a palpable decline in our collective confidence that government, and by extension and implication other public entities, have the capacity, or the inherent aptitude, to deliver basic services and to meet emerging needs. This, of course, stands in marked contrast to attitudes prevalent not so very long ago, when there was a broad national consensus about the efficacy and value of public institutions when it came to things like addressing poverty, building infrastructure, confronting environmental degradation, providing health care, or for that matter ensuring access to high quality education at every level.

Education is increasingly seen as a private good at best, and even that has been seen as compromised by the political drumbeat that calls for us to think of our mission as solely vocational. As an unfortunate consequence of this, the fate and future of one of this country’s grandest ideas – the joining together of moral and practical education for as many of our citizens as possible, with public institutions that are every bit as elite in their research and in their teaching as any private entity - is under great duress. 

Now, as graduates and beneficiaries of this uniquely American system of public higher education, you have a significant stake in the success of our efforts to preserve not just access and affordability, but also our excellence in research, teaching, and service that supports the greater good.  This means taking collective pride not only in supporting your alma mater but also in finding new ways for us, together, to define and to inhabit the meaning of the public in our current age. You can be – I dare say you must be - advocates with business and government, and indeed society at large, to help us marshal the full range of intellectual, political and financial resources required to continue our mission and to ensure that mission remains rooted in the public ethos that gave birth to this university nearly 150 years ago.

This quest to secure and sustain our public mission has nothing to do with nostalgia for days gone by. We live in a time when the need to reanimate our commitment to the public sphere – a precondition for the effective operation of our democratic political system -- is more important than ever, the only space where prevailing issues of inequality, prejudice, fear, and violence can be negotiated and addressed with any hope of success.

During your time here at Berkeley you have engaged issues that matter, and now that you leave you must continue to speak out with the wisdom, perspective, and determination that you have gained while here. Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” 

As it happens, you graduate at a time when we have been celebrating the fiftieth anniversary as well of the Free Speech Movement.  At Berkeley, we have a well-honed understanding of the fact that the exercise of free speech is critical to a free society, even as we know that this freedom comes with responsibilities, not to mention collateral costs. By guaranteeing this basic right, we also ensure that there will be times when we must tolerate speech that offends and even outrages us.  At Berkeley we celebrate robust debate and a vibrant culture, which includes a steady diet of contestation and critique, as well as a fundamental commitment to create a genuinely tolerant society. 

While we work together at the same time to build a more welcoming and safe campus, we learn over and over again, as we did this past fall, that we can never seal this campus off from the world and its myriad threats.  In the wake of court decisions in Fergusson and New York, we have worried that basic stereotypes have not just been reified by socio-economic determinations but have taken on deadly meaning for far too many of our citizens. And we have cried out to ask what more can be done, what more must be done, to promote justice, fairness, and understanding across racial and other divides.

Our task now is to use the community we have forged here to help us all engage these challenges and threats in meaningful and productive ways in the days, months, and years ahead.  Your education here has taken place both inside and outside the classroom, but never forget the power of the ideas, knowledge and experience you have gained in your education here for the issues you will face as you walk out into the world.

And do not forget the community that has been part of your experience here as well, for when we unite around common goals we can achieve far more than when we simply work on our own; we are, after all, all in this together. 

Graduates, this Commencement marks a turning point for you.  You cannot know where the future will take you, but as you go, know that we will be there with you, even as we hope and expect you will be there for us. You are now part of the greater Cal family, whose members help sustain each other and the campus in order to ensure that the dream, the promise that is Berkeley, remains a reality for future alumni for generations to come.

May the education you have received here serve not just your lives but your society well in the years to come. May your lives be richly rewarding and fulfilling, and may you enjoy much happiness. Congratulations and good luck Class of 2014.