December 2015 UC Berkeley Commencement Address

Commencement address, UC Berkeley, December 20, 2015

Graduates, family, friends and guests, welcome to the University of California, Berkeley and to the December 2015 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 2015.

Graduates, today is your day.  Today 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 stage. 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 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. 

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, 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 critical reflection and engaged study; 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.   

The world you enter is full of excitement and promise, but let there be no doubt that you must also now more fully confront a world that is rife with inequality, with prejudice, with fear, and with violence.

We are living in a time when mass shootings, acts of terrorism, and police killings are far too common. We hear irresponsible political rhetoric sowing distrust, resentment, and even open hostility towards our fellow citizens. We see political figures both in Europe and America rejecting any obligation to refugees, with some arguing that we should bar entry to our country on the basis of religious faith, or even having the temerity to praise shameful historical episodes in which entire groups of our citizens were interned on the basis of national origin. These are, in short, dangerous and even cruel times.

At the same time, today more than ever we must not forget that our best qualities are now and have always been built on the principles of compassion and inclusion and on an ever-renewed recommitment to the principle of a plural and open society. Indeed, our collective belief in the democratic ideal of equal opportunity for all is what most distinguishes us as both a nation and a university.

There is a strange disconnect across the land, and not just in the broader political debate, but also and especially at universities. On many college campuses we have heard demands for recognition of past wrongs, along with a heightened attention to the goal of ensuring a sense of belonging for all students. Too often, however, current debates have pitted a cultural commitment to inclusion against the fear that the process of creating such inclusiveness may somehow compromise our constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and our campus-based embrace of academic freedom. We must not squander our current moment in such false choices and misdirected dissension. Instead, we have the opportunity to recognize (and when necessary rail against) the ethical burdens of our history – the heavy and often uncomfortable weight of our past – not just to measure progress but also to register continued protest at our present, and, perhaps most of all, to express resolute hope for our future.

Much as many of us might like to forget the long history of wrongs, we can no more erase that past than we can rest assured that we are not repeating some measure of it. Indeed, our best way to ensure that we minimize our repetitions of past wrongs is to remain committed to looking squarely at them, no matter how much they may offend or even horrify us. Nor is this only about the past: a willingness to interrogate and challenge the injustices and complacencies of our own place and time has long been the special province of the public sphere of universities -- first and foremost the public sphere of this university, whose robustness is rightly celebrated as the hallmark of our identity and values. In sum, I believe we must hold fast to the traditions and values that create the shared foundation for both our unparalleled intellectual honesty and our deep sense of public mission.

As an academic community united both by a common faith in the preeminence of knowledge and a shared sense of ethical imperatives, we celebrate debate, contestation, critique. At Berkeley we are not frightened by big, provocative ideas. Indeed, we know there are times when we must tolerate speech that offends and even outrages us. At the same time, however, we need to ensure that all of our students are part not just of our intellectual but also our moral community. Many of our students are weary of fighting for level ground on which to enter debates, call out prejudice, acknowledge the quotidian ways in which racism or other forms of invidious presumption and stereotyping can inhibit not just free speech but full membership in the university community.

These are not easy issues; there are no universally accepted formulae to guide us in everything we say or do, even with the best of intent. But as a university we can all commit to the relentless struggle to connect our values and aspirations in accordance with the totality of ideals that make this university so great – a leader both as an institution and as the assemblage of extraordinary individuals who constitute it.

I fully expect you will take these lofty ideals with you long after you leave Berkeley, indeed that Berkeley’s ideals will live on through the lives you all will lead long after you pass through Sather Gate one more time to enter the worlds that await you.

Graduates, this Commencement does mark a turning point for you. You cannot know where the future will take you, but as you go, know that Berkeley 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.

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 2015.