Spring Commencement Address - May 12, 2018

Chancellor Christ delivered the following address on May 12, 2018:

Thank you, Jessica, for that kind introduction.

It was not my intention to be your class’ commencement speaker this morning, and you were no doubt looking forward to having one of California’s brightest legal and political minds, United States Senator Kamala Harris, share her wisdom with you today. I am sorry that she could not be here, but I understand her decision not to attend this ceremony as the University of California system continues important contract negotiations with one of its labor unions. The staff that this union represents are essential to student life and to the operation of the university, and I very much hope that the negotiations may yet be fruitful.

In Senator Harris’ stead, as your chancellor, it is my great honor to formally address the UC Berkeley graduating class of 2018.

Graduates, today is both an ending and a great beginning. The two names often given to this morning’s ceremony, commencement and graduation, capture its Janus-like quality. As you may recall, the ancient Roman god—god of gates, transitions, and passages—is often portrayed with two faces, looking backward and forward…just as you do at this moment. Your future—and the promise, the potential, the different trajectories, the many storylines that will come with it—lies open ahead of you. At the same time, today also marks a conclusion to one dominant arc of your life. For most of you, this is the end of your time in a system of education that has set the rhythm of your days and years for nearly two decades. More immediately, it marks the end of a period of your life tied so intimately to Berkeley.

The college years, in contrast to many other periods of our lives, have a special self-contained quality: You share a distinctive place with your classmates for a set number of years, marked by rituals as minor as morning study sessions in Doe Library or afternoon coffee dates at Caffe Strada, or as consuming as the weekend’s worth of festivities that surround the annual Big Game. You share these rituals with generations of students who have graduated before you…but for all the similarity that this gives your college experience to that of previous students, your Berkeley is also colored by the particular events that took place both here and in the world during your time on campus – events that guided your class discussions, that you and your friends debated late into the night, that may have shaped the decisions you made with regard to coursework, internships, or even your major.

Your Berkeley – the years that you have been on campus – has been marked by momentous change in the world. You saw the rise of the strongest woman candidate for president in U.S. history ultimately delivered a stunning defeat, in an election that upended American politics. You saw important strides towards justice and equality in society as the Black Lives Matter movement challenged institutional racism in law enforcement, and as the #metoo movement toppled abusive men in positions of power, and looked to right historical wrongs. Yet you also saw major setbacks, as disdain for immigrants and refugees took hold here and around the world, and as fear and hatred of “the other” became a dominant theme in many countries’ national politics. In your time, catastrophic natural disasters—from monsoons in South Asia, to a hurricane in Puerto Rico, to wildfires up and down the California coast—have motivated national discussions about wealth, privilege, and our country’s responsibility to aid victims and help rebuild their communities…not to mention debates about science and climate change. A host of manmade disasters, too—including acts of terror and numerous mass shootings—have renewed disputes about gun rights and seen thousands take to the streets in protest of standing laws. While you’ve been at Berkeley, concerns about cybersecurity, changes in the media we consume, and questions about privacy rights have asked us to reconsider our relationships to now-ubiquitous new technology and modes of communication.

Many of these historic events—and the intense discussions about rights, responsibilities, and privileges that come with them—have had analogues here on our campus. It is a defining quality of those at Berkeley that you do not sit idly by when you see injustice, whether in the larger world or more locally. You reflect on the issue at hand, consider solutions, and confront problems in all their complexity, and with all their deep and enduring difficulty.

As surely as this institution has left its mark you, you have left your mark on Berkeley. When you saw the need for change at our institution, you seized it – and our university is richer and better for your efforts. It was your classmates in the Black Student Union who were behind the creation of the Fannie Lou Hamer Resource Center and the ones who helped craft the African American Initiative, which is now working to improve our campus climate for black students at Berkeley. It was the work of survivors and student advocates among you who in 2016 and 2017 helped this university critically examine its policies and procedures for handling cases of sexual assault and harassment, and take up the process of improving them. You modeled strength and resolve in support of our undocumented student population, even as these students were villainized by the leaders of our country and threatened by anonymous chalkings and posters on campus. In 2014, you celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, then this past year saw Berkeley cast in the national spotlight as we endeavored to navigate a new free speech debate – about how best to reconcile maintaining a sense of community alongside a belief in the university’s role as a public forum, open to speakers even whose views we may find abhorrent. Last February, you helped to clean up the mess, literally, left by rioters in the wake of Milo Yiannopoulos’ appearance …as well as joined us this past fall in efforts to use dialogue, not violence, to bridge the partisan divide.

As raw and difficult as these processes have sometimes felt, they vividly show how social change happens. I do not believe that Berkeley is truly a bubble, as it is often called, but I do feel that in this campus we share a small and bounded world that each of us can influence, shape, and make different by what we do and say…just as we are influenced, shaped, and made different by the words and deeds of others. Complex and thorny issues are not solved by dictate, they reach conclusions through the willing engagement of a diverse, thoughtful, and open-minded community.

Now, however, at this point of transition, what has been your Berkeley becomes part of your history. Now, you find yourselves on the cusp of Life After College—a phrase I often imagine in all capital letters—at a time when much of broader society seems to be broken down by mistrust, resentment, and fear. As I have seen in working with members of your class, though, you are already exercising your capacity to make a difference. And even as some of you will want to pursue lives of large public ambition…others may not. Remember that the cumulative power of unhistoric acts can still strongly shape the world we inhabit.

In 2002, after spending my entire academic career as a professor of English and administrator at Berkeley, I underwent one of the most significant transitions of my own when I moved to Massachusetts to become president of Smith College. As I was preparing for that move, I spent weeks physically packing thirty years of my life into boxes, but I also thought a lot about what essential learnings and knowledge I would bring to Smith, and what in my experience I would leave behind in my past.

As you walk through campus for your last time as a student, as you take a well-deserved post-commencement toast, and as you pack away your clothes into suitcases …I would like you to think about what lessons, experiences, and memories you will take, and what you will leave here. I hope you will leave behind mid-terms, paper deadlines, finals, and anxiety about grades. You may wish to leave behind 8 a.m. classes, and the jittery feeling of too little sleep and too much coffee. I imagine that you will happily leave behind the many Cal Messages you receive in your inbox, and I wonder how many among you will sigh at the thought of not being approached by flyering students on Sproul. I’m afraid that you’ll have to abandon the notion that arriving ten minutes after the hour is considered on time, so prepare yourself for that adjustment.

But what will you take from Berkeley? What are the great lessons, the qualities of character, that you wish to carry forwards in your life? I have a list of hopes for you myself.

I hope you will take with you the capacity for empathy, for understanding perspectives different from your own, which Berkeley has tried to instill in you through its liberal arts curriculum. Especially now, we all need the humility that helps us realize that things may look different through the lens of a different experience, as well as the willingness to learn from that difference.

I hope you will take the ability to voice what it is you believe, even when you know others may not share your perspective. Do this without wedding disagreement to disrespect, on your own part or that of others.

I hope you will take with you a sense of confidence in your own abilities and powers. In whatever sphere you choose to live and work, you have much to contribute. Belief in yourself is the foundation of leadership.

I hope you will take with you the capacity for moral reasoning, the ethical judgment that you will need to exercise in many areas of your life. Let it become your lodestar as you navigate a tumultuous time.

Finally, I hope you take from Berkeley a sense of public responsibility. I am immensely proud and grateful for the hard work and sacrifices that you, and your families, have made to bring you to this moment. Yet a Berkeley degree is also a privilege, and with it comes the responsibility of using your education to contribute to a society that needs your energy, your intelligence, and your help.

Today, as generations in your family come together, you will be the center, the pivot point of it all, as you look back at the experiences you have had, as you reflect on the ways in which you and others have shaped your world and your worldview, and as you look forward to what the bright, breathtaking, and sometimes daunting future will hold.

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. Though I will not say that this is your world to save, it is yours to shape alongside many others in the long but persistent march towards progress.

Congratulations, and good luck. Fiat Lux, and Go Bears!