Spring 2016 Commencement Address

The following remarks were delivered by Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks at UC Berkeley's Memorial Stadium on May 14, 2016:

Graduates, family, friends and guests, welcome to the University of California, Berkeley and to the Spring 2016 Commencement. 

It is my distinct honor and pleasure to preside over today’s celebration of the graduation of the class of 2016.

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 475,000 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. 

Graduates, commencement is a time-honored ritual, a major milestone in each of your lives, and it recognizes the transformative 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 spent the last several years on the campus of one of the most academically rigorous institutions of learning in the world. Berkeley is not a place where anyone can simply “coast.” We pride ourselves on excellence, and we have expected nothing less than excellence from you during your time here.

Incredibly, many of you have met this challenge and succeeded academically while simultaneously competing at the highest levels of a sport, or while spending hours each week cultivating a skill or interest as a member of a student organization, or while volunteering much of your free time for a cause you believe in. Some of you have achieved success at Berkeley even while raising children and many of you have been working part-time jobs to help make ends meet. For all of you, getting to this day has been a truly heroic effort.

Now, on the day of your commencement, you must take what you have learned both inside and outside of the classroom and bring it to bear on the next chapter of your lives. As Berkeley graduates, you are as well-prepared as anyone to meet an uncertain future that is being transformed so quickly by new technology, expanding globalization, changing social and economic structures, new cultural and political challenges, and troubling environmental trends. Indeed, you will not just negotiate the challenges ahead, but like so many before you, you will be leaders and innovators in finding ways to negotiate and overcome those challenges.


Graduates, today marks the culmination of your years at the world’s finest public research university. I say “public” not to qualify Berkeley’s preeminence in any way, but because our public attributes, contributions and ethos are at the core of who we are, what we stand for and how you have been prepared for the world outside Sather Gate.

For much of Berkeley’s almost 150-year history, our university has been considered the embodiment of a public good, a part of society that makes the whole of society better. Since Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862, spurring the creation of universities of and for the people, Berkeley and other such universities have long been seen as great public benefits indispensable to the advancement of society, economy, and culture.

Unfortunately, it is clear that such a conviction is in decline. 

At a time when we are concerned with growing inequality, with the urgent need for new knowledge, with the paramount necessity of expanding rather than contracting the reality of social mobility, this is not a parochial issue just for us at Berkeley. As novelist Marilynn Robinson recently wrote about our public universities: “[they] emerged from a glorious sense of the possible and explored and enhanced the possible through the spread of learning… They are a tribute and an invitation to the young, who can and should make the world new, out of the unmapped and unbounded resource of their minds.”  In other words, our future depends in significant ways on the fate of our public universities,

Berkeley and its peers are priceless national assets in the effort to build a just society and true meritocracy, for we welcome and support the talented and eager regardless of their background. Berkeley and America’s top 20 public universities enroll three times as many students as the top 20 private universities.  At Berkeley, we educate nearly as many low-income students as the entire Ivy League. Forty percent of Berkeley students come from families earning less than $50,000 a year.

This commitment to access – this quest to bring up so many talented youth and set them on a path towards prosperity and fulfillment -- is matched by a commitment to excellence.  At Berkeley, we are ranked among the top ten universities in the world. We have produced more Nobel Prize winners than all but three countries.  We have played a pivotal role in making California’s now $2.3 trillion economy the most dynamic in the world.  Our researchers are extending human knowledge in domains ranging from precision medicine to smart city urban development.  Our professors are some of the most outspoken advocates in the country on issues like income inequality and gender equity in the workplace.  We are responsible for innovations as diverse as the cyclotron particle accelerator, the Free Speech Movement, the building blocks of the Internet, and a new early warning system that alerts Californians before an earthquake hits.

The farsighted statesmen who enacted the Morrill Act and the enterprising Californians who built our institution could not, in their brightest dreams of the future, have possibly imagined the greatness of Berkeley and the contributions to the state, the nation, and the world, it would go on to make.

And yet.

And yet, we are at a time of significant state disinvestment in public universities across the country. The leading public research universities in the US have seen their funding drop precipitously over the last 30 years. States used to spend on average 20% of their budgets on higher education. Now they spend ten percent.

In the 1980s, Berkeley received nearly 66 percent of our funding from the state of California. By the early 2000s, we received 33 percent of our funding from the state. Today, we receive 13 percent.

Despite the abundant evidence to the contrary, and in marked contrast to attitudes prevalent not so long ago, there has been a palpable decline in the collective confidence that public entities, including our universities, have the capacity or the inherent aptitude to deliver basic services and to meet emerging needs. It is a foolish and wrongheaded notion.

Faced with such a loss of faith, Berkeley is now in the midst of efforts to build a new, sustainable financial foundation for our university, one that will enable us to maintain undiminished our commitment both to academic excellence and to access and affordability. I am optimistic and confident that we can and will succeed in maintaining both our historic greatness in research and our unparalleled educational offerings. There is, however, much work ahead of us.

I share these sober thoughts on a joyous day only to suggest that you, as graduates and beneficiaries of this uniquely American system of public higher education, all have a significant stake in the success of our work to preserve the Berkeley that history has known. 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 the private sector, as well of course as with the public at large and our political representatives, to help us marshal the full range of intellectual, political and financial resources required to continue our mission and to ensure that the University of California at Berkeley remains not just among a handful of leading institutions of higher education and research across the world, but one that is also profoundly committed to the public good 

I would also hope that you stay involved with our university itself as we all begin to navigate the new waters of tomorrow.  As you leave campus today and become Berkeley alumni, I ask that you not only remember the lessons of your time at Cal, but that you carry Cal with you, and carry on the debates – and your dreams – about how our university can best serve the public, even as we ask the public to help support 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 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. May your years ahead be richly rewarding and fulfilling, and may you enjoy much happiness. Congratulations, and good luck.