The Remarks of the President of the College
William G. Durden '71
Ladies and Gentlemen, distinguished guests and members of the Class of 2006, welcome on such a beautiful morning to this grand old Dickinson tradition! Each year, we gather here before the stone steps of Old West to celebrate Dickinson's most important responsibility and its greatest accomplishment-you, our graduates. Today is a right of passage for 500 members of the Class of 2006. At the end of this ceremony, you, the Class of 2006, will cease to be Dickinson students. Within a mere moment-with a simple statement from me and a switch of the tassel on your cap-you will become alumni of Dickinson College and set forth into the wider world by exiting from within Old West and descending the Old Stone Steps-a path you are now symbolically reversing from your first day on campus four years ago.
Before proceeding, I would like to continue another important Dickinson tradition. All graduates owe significant gratitude to your families and friends-those who have made it possible through their love, guidance and support for you to be here today. Please rise and join me in giving them a round of well-deserved applause.
On perhaps just one or two occasions during the past four years, you may have heard me mention our founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush. His statue is appropriately joining you in commencement dress today. A dedicated revolutionary and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Rush established our College in the closing days of the American Revolution to prepare the citizen-leaders who would ensure the success of the new democracy in a greater world. We-the faculty and staff of Dickinson College -have worked closely with you these past your years to inspire and mature this noble ambition. Its complete embrace and fulfillment are now yours to own.
You are the beneficiaries of Dr. Rush's vision and foresight. He intended you to be here today. Over the past four years, you have received a liberal arts education that is highly regarded worldwide for its distinctiveness of mission and clarity of intent. You have been exposed repeatedly to a set of defining dispositions that will distinguish you as Dickinsonians. These are: possession of a global sensibility; appreciation of connectivity, interdisciplinarity and the profound recognition of the contextuality of all ideas and people and the flexibility to associate freely and confidently among them; a commitment to "engage the world" and to appreciate the ultimate usefulness of a liberal education to build a just, compassionate, economically viable society; a respect for civility in word and deed; and a resolute drive for economic, environmental and character sustainability. And, finally we take most seriously as a guide for an engaging life, our namesake-John Dickinson's motto-"To be rather than to seem."
We come by these defining impulses naturally from Dr. Rush and John Dickinson. Through your experiences at the College, you are now prepared to become the citizen leaders of your generation, if you so choose. You can start in a very simple but fundamental way. Be different from your peers-different from most Americans-vote in all public elections!
As graduates of one of the most globally connected campuses in the nation, you are prepared to face the daunting complexities of this rapidly changing society. And as the heirs to a proud revolutionary tradition, you are prepared to find strength in your own convictions and to act upon them so as to leave the world a better place than you found it. You are prepared to possess a voice and we all expect to hear it in the decades to come. We sincerely wish that these preparations translate into substantive quality of life and practice for you in the years to come.
You have spent the past four years learning and growing together. But, along this journey, the Class of 2006 has lost two classmates who entered Dickinson with you in the fall of 2002. The floral arrangements at the top of the stairs have been placed there to remember and honor Jeffrey Shank and Rudy Kelly. Although their experiences as Dickinsonians were cut far too short, I know that each of them contributed in their own way to the esprit de corps that has developed within your class.
In a few short moments, you will follow generations of Dickinsonians spanning four centuries who have preceded you down these stone steps. They include a president of the United States, a chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, associate justices, federal and Commonwealth judges, scholars, teachers, business leaders, entrepreneurs, research scientists, writers, lawyers, journalists, humanitarians, philanthropists, military leaders, religious leaders, diplomats, elected officials, and even a few college presidents. You join today a group of very talented and ambitious alumni whose achievements and connections encompass the globe.
These alumni care deeply about you and your future and some have even asked to communicate with you directly on this important day. I recently received a letter, which is really intended for you, from an English major who participated in our global program at the University of East Anglia . It reads as follows: "President Durden, I just wanted to write you a note on the eve of Commencement weekend. I graduated from Dickinson in 2002, and as I was surfing the [College] Website in some much-needed spring downtime, I noticed the transcript of your address at my graduation. The following is an excerpt from that address:
As you commence the next phase of your lives and begin to explore the full potential of your Dickinson education, you will soon discover what the phrase "Distinctively Dickinson " truly means. You will unequivocally reject mediocrity. You will not be afraid to speak out on controversial subjects. You will develop the tenacity and strength of spirit that was nurtured here and realize "the useful" in a liberal education. You will engage the world with revolutionary conviction. You will be extremely comfortable and fluent in a globally complex world, [yet, at once, appreciative] of the defining values that established this nation in all its complexity. You will live in the connective tissue and not 'solely in the bone.' You will live to 'connect the dots,' while others merely stare at the blank page. You appreciate that a college education is more than just a means to professional credentials or social advancement. You know that fundamentally it is a way of life. All this defines what "Distinctively Dickinson " now means to you.
"When you read those words," this alumnus continued, "I was listening . . . and they . . . have motivated me to strive for excellence..[I am actually accomplishing at a very young age what few of my contemporaries could even imagine. "]
And here are the words of a member of your class, although this student completed most of his coursework by May 2005 and has been out in the wider world with a degree for a year:
I have [just] completed my first year at NYU's Master of Public Health program. During this year, I have established myself as a hardworking and tenacious student and that has resulted in respect from my professors and a recommendation to sit on the executive board of the NYU Public Health Alliance . . . . I am also representing Dickinson as a research study assistant at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center , the global leader in cancer care, research and education. It's quite a formidable task to juggle all [this], but I consider myself lucky to be able to do so and even luckier to have had my four phenomenal years at Dickinson to encourage and prepare me to do so. . . . Perhaps I am feeling nostalgic as it is coming upon this year's graduation ceremony. If so, I am enjoying the feeling. I am very proud to say I am a graduate of Dickinson College and even prouder to be able to represent Dickinson at NYU and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Dickinson prepared me extremely well for the experiences that were and still are unfolding before my eyes and I wanted to extend my gracious appreciation to you and [others] at Dickinson-professors, students, administrators and support staff alike-for helping me become the learner I am today. I also want to wish the graduates of the class of 2006 all the luck they certainly deserve as Dickinson alumni. Their education and character will serve them well.
The letters exemplify the sincere concern other Dickinsonians have for you and your success. They typify the aspiration and motivation you can expect from Dickinson graduates. The collective achievements of your fellow alumni, to which your own accomplishments will soon be added, will be matched by the ever-rising reputation of our College. The prestige of Dickinson will continue to bring you heightened recognition and connection. As lifelong Dickinsonians, the rising reputation of your alma mater among the nation's premier liberal-arts colleges will continue to add value to your degree as you continue to nurture your college financially and intellectually.
As alumni of Dickinson College , it is now up to you to translate the attributes and defining dispositions of a Dickinson education to your generation, your communities, our nation and our world. Your ambitions are guided by noble purpose; they are high and uncompromising. Your civility, modesty and sense of community are acute. Your global sensibility and appreciation of the connectedness of all disciplines are poised for engagement. You have absorbed completely the charge of a distinctively American higher education-to be "useful." These precious qualities will carry you far.
As you make your mark beyond these limestone walls, remember the simple words Benjamin Rush once used to describe himself as a signer of the Declaration of Independence. While writing paragraphs about the founding fathers, of himself he said merely, "He aimed well."
You will, of course, make some mistakes along the way. Accept those for the learning value they provide. But, as true Dickinsonians, you should never stop striving for the same self-effacing, but powerfully effective perspective for the conduct of your own life as Dr. Rush. I ask that you, too, "aim well" just as your College will continue to "aim well" for our alumni for generations to come.
Engage the world. It lies directly before you as you descend the old stone steps in just a few minutes. In fact, you already carry it within you. It is of your making. But please remember that the self is an entirely inadequate support system. Only as you reach out beyond your self and appreciate-listen carefully-to the perspectives of others will you gain authenticity of self and a human purpose that is capable of growing with the inevitable changing circumstances of the world before you.
I congratulate you on the remarkable achievement you celebrate today and I wish you well as you embark on a life of fulfillment and reward as Dickinson alumni. I welcome you personally as a fellow graduate of our College.