May 2017 Commencement Address

The following address was delivered by Chancellor Nicholas Dirks on May 13, 2017:

Graduates, families, friends and guests, welcome to the University of California, Berkeley and to our spring commencement. As Berkeley’s 10th Chancellor, it is my distinct honor and pleasure to preside over this celebration of the graduation of the class of 2017. 

Graduates, today is your day.  Today we celebrate and honor you.

Today we recognize you for your passion, perseverance, and accomplishments….which enable you now to 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 the 485,000 living alumni who can call themselves UC Berkeley graduates.

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. 

I myself hold a particular affinity for the class of 2017 because it is, in a way, my class as well. Four years ago, I came to Berkeley alongside many of you to begin my tenure as chancellor, and this summer I will also move on, in my case to join the ranks of the Berkeley teaching and research faculty.  Like many of you, that is, I’m not moving far away.

While I’m sure none of us would trade our experience at Cal for the world, our years together here have no doubt been marked by challenge and change. The Berkeley campus is facing unprecedented financial difficulties after years of stagnant funding by the state of California, threats of reduced federal funding for research, and a loss of political support for our great research universities. We are under fire for refusing to back down from commitments that we see as inseparable aspects of our public mission – such as our strong support for undocumented students – and because, though we are a public university, we stake our identity on remaining competitive with the best of our private peers.  That is, we are under fire for the fact that we hold to our twin goals of access and excellence.  We also continue to have other challenges that we are working to meet head on: We have and continue to confront issues related to sexual violence and sexual harassment on campus, the pressures of a housing shortage in a red hot real estate market that poses serious issues for students around basic needs, the need to educate large classes of students with the personalized attention, support, and resources you need, and the process of making the campus more genuinely welcoming and inclusive for all communities and identities – at a time when certain national trends make this even more difficult, and yet more important than ever.

Most recently, as you all know, Berkeley has been singled out by extreme groups from opposite ends of the political spectrum that have few reservations about turning a college campus into a political, and sometimes literal, battleground….particularly when it comes to provocative speakers with whom they passionately disagree.  On this front, let me also be clear: This University’s commitment to Free Speech is non-negotiable.  We honor our tradition as the home of the Free Speech Movement.  But we are also committed to maintaining the physical safety of our campus community.   We know these paired commitments can be upheld because throughout the years we have welcomed and hosted speakers from across the political spectrum without problems or controversy…or at least, those speakers whose objective was not senseless provocation, but real engagement with our students and faculty, through impassioned debate about the issues of the day.  That being said, we will host any speaker invited by legitimate campus groups subject only to the need to protect your safety; and we will do whatever is necessary to ensure the continuation of full and robust free speech at Berkeley.

While the road has sometimes been bumpy, and yes, there have been literal fires we’ve had to put out, I am proud of the work we have accomplished together amidst such challenges.

And I mean “we”: Members of your class have been instrumental in some of the university’s most important endeavors over the last four years. It was the efforts of survivors and student advocates that helped the university to critically examine our policies and procedures for handling cases of sexual assault and harassment, and begin the process of improving them. It was the work of the Black Student Union that, in partnership with the administration, helped us create the Fannie Lou Hamer Resource Center and craft the African American Initiative, which has already begun to improve the campus climate for black students at Berkeley. It was our student-athletes’ discipline and diligence in the classroom that enabled us to make a cultural shift regarding academic success in our intercollegiate athletics program. It was the interest of our students that drove us to create a new set of courses and programs in data science.  It was our student groups who modeled strength and resolve in support of our undocumented student population. It was you who helped to clean up the mess, literally, left by rioters in the wake of Milo Yiannopoulous’ event…as well as you who attempted, through student groups like BridgeUSA, to use dialogue, not violence, to cross the partisan divide.

Berkeley is no ivory – or ivied – tower, but rather a campus that not only lives in the world, but seeks to better the world.  We know that our university must engage with different and often polarizing ideas and issues, not shelter students from them.  We are committed to maintaining our public mission in part through our full engagement with the public sphere.

It is a defining quality of students on this campus that you do not sit idly by when you see the need for change. You reflect on the issues, consider solutions, and confront problems in all their complexity, and with all their deep and enduring difficulty.  You live the words of James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” You’ve done that as Berkeley students, and I know you’ll continue to do that as Berkeley graduates. 

As you move off campus, and away from the comforting embrace of a Sharetea boba at a Berkeley haunt on a hot afternoon, you must now be the leaders to whom the world turns as we seek to navigate a future that is being transformed so quickly by new technology, expanding globalization, resurgent nationalism, changing social and economic structures, new cultural and political threats, and dangerous political and environmental trends. The key, I believe, is not only to remember your education, but to activate it by being unafraid to imagine new futures; by matching actions to those dreams; and by anchoring yourselves and your communities to an abiding moral compass. 

I bring up the challenges Berkeley has and continues to face in these remarks also to remind you that as life takes you beyond Sather Gate, Berkeley itself still needs you. As our relationships with the university change this summer, it is vital that we all keep Berkeley close, remain committed to it, support it, and speak out about why it must be supported and, yes, cherished.

For Berkeley is not only the best university in the world, it is also the most important.  The University of California was founded here nearly 150 years ago as part of a monumental American experiment based on the belief that a nation benefits collectively from broad access to excellent higher education; that society is more just and morally sound when the possibility of social mobility is afforded to all based on merit, and not origins or family circumstances; and that democracy thrives when all of its citizens – not just the privileged and the elite – have the opportunity to garner, perfect, and produce the intellectual tools necessary to fully engage with the issues of the day. This philosophy continues to guide us as our North Star. 

Graduates, you cannot know where the future will take you, but as you go, know that Berkeley will be there with you.  And 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 university in order to ensure that, for many generations to come, Berkeley will continue to open doors to a better tomorrow for all of us.

Graduates, may you be bearers of Berkeley’s torch, carriers of its influence, promoters of its spirit. 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 2017. Fiat Lux.  And Go Bears.