Graduates, their families, and other members of the Wesleyan community who gathered for the 184th Commencement ceremony on May 22 were offered advice on how to change the world by Bryan Stevenson, this year’s Commencement speaker, a human rights lawyer and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative.
Weaving in stories from his decades of work fighting racial injustice and discrimination in the criminal justice system, Stevenson told the Class of 2016 that changing the world requires four things: Getting proximate to the places “where there’s suffering and abuse and neglect”; “changing the narrative” about race in this country; staying hopeful; and being willing to do uncomfortable things.
“I wish I didn’t have to say that because it’s so nice if you can only do the things that are comfortable,” he said. “But the truth is we can’t change the world by doing just what’s convenient and comfortable. I’ve looked for examples where things changed, where oppression was ended, where inequality was overcome, when people did only what was convenient and comfortable, and I can’t find any examples of that. To change the world, you’re going to sometimes have to make uncomfortable choices, to be in uncomfortable places, and be proximate and be hopeful and change narratives. But know that if you do it, there is some great reward, all of that knowledge that you have accumulated will resonate. You will have ideas in your mind that match the conviction in your heart.”
Stevenson concluded, “There is a different metric system for those of you who want to change the world.” Success won’t be measured by grades or by income. He recalled an older black man he met after giving a talk. The man showed him cuts, bruises and scars he got while working to register people of color to vote in the south in the 1960s.
“There aren’t my cuts, these aren’t my bruises, these aren’t my scars,” the man told Stevenson. “These are my medals.”
Wesleyan conferred an honorary doctor of humane letters degree upon Stevenson. Also recognized with honorary degrees were Kwame Anthony Appiah (doctor of letters)—a professor of philosophy and law at New York University who is renowned for his insights into moral theory and practice, racism and identity, cultural differences, and political development; and Patti Smith (doctor of fine arts)—a writer, performer, and visual artist whose recordings include her seminal album, Horses (1975), and whose books include Just Kids, winner of the 2010 National Book Award. Read more about the honorary degree recipients here.
This year, Wesleyan conferred 731 bachelor of arts degrees; 33 master of arts degrees, including 4 in the new master of arts in performance curation; 28 master of arts in liberal studies degrees; 2 master of philosophy in liberal arts; and 15 doctor of philosophy degrees.
Three faculty members were honored with the Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching: Sally Bachner, associate professor of English; Demetrius Eudell, professor of history; and James Lipton, professor of computer science. These prizes, made possible by gifts from the family of the late Frank G. Binswanger Sr. Hon. ’85, underscore Wesleyan’s commitment to its scholar-teachers, who are responsible for the university’s distinctive approach to liberal arts education.
In addition, John Lemberg Usdan ’80, P’15, P’18, P’18, was awarded the Raymond E. Baldwin Medal, the highest honor presented by Wesleyan’s alumni body for extraordinary service to Wesleyan or for careers or other activity which have contributed significantly to the public good. Usdan is president of Midwood, a New York-based real estate investment and development firm. His remarkable record of service to Wesleyan over more than three decades has included 12 years as a trustee as well as serving as chair of the THIS IS WHY campaign—the most successful fundraising effort in Wesleyan’s history. Read more about Usdan here.
Also recognized were four retiring faculty members who were given emiriti status. They are: Abraham K. Adzenyah, adjunct professor of music; Philip H. Bolton, professor of chemistry; Alex Dupuy, John E. Andrus Professor of Sociology; and Mark Slobin, Winslow-Kaplan Professor of Music.
In his remarks to the graduating class, President Michael Roth spoke about Wesleyan’s core values of justice, generosity, and care.
“Justice, generosity, and care—these are the core values at Wesleyan. Students at this university demand that their school stand for justice—in words and in actions—and over the past four years your demands have included making our academic core more diverse and our residential life free from sexual violence that has become a scourge on college campuses across America,” he said.
Roth added, “Just as the aspiration for justice has been a powerful feature of campus culture, so too has recognizing that not everyone has the same view as to what constitutes justice, which means that part of the work of political engagement includes discussions in which we can build on our commonalities and explore our differences without fear. A university is a place to have one’s opinions tested—not protected.”
Roth also acknowledged, “As loud as calls for justice sometimes are, the soft but persistent voice of generosity has also been a feature of the student culture that you have created. Many of you work in the community . . . . And a number of you gave your time and labor to ease the plight of refugees—helping those in camps in the Middle East and smoothing the way for refugee families settling here in the United States. I am inspired by all your efforts.
“Linked to these acts of generosity—and to the calls for justice—is, I think, a deep ethics of care. . . . I very much admire the ways in which you have looked after one another, inspired one another, or simply cheered each other on. It may well be that the quest for justice and the impulse for generosity depend on this ethics of care, this commitment to seeing those around you fulfill their potential, flourish. . . . It builds our community and makes the work we do relevant beyond the university.”
Roth challenged the graduates of the Class of 2016 to put what they’ve learned at Wesleyan to promote positive changes in the world. “We Wesleyans have used our education to mold the course of culture ourselves lest the future be shaped by those for whom justice and change, generosity and equality, diversity and tolerance, are much too threatening. Now we alumni are counting on you, Class of 2016, to join us in helping to shape this culture, so that it will not be shaped by the forces of violence, conformity, and elitism.”
In her Senior Class Welcome, Tahreem Khalied ’16, who came to the U.S. from Pakistan four and a half years ago, shared some of the many firsts she experienced at Wesleyan. She also spoke about how her experience at Wesleyan taught her about the beauty and power of diversity. “As a student studying race and ethnicity as part of my American studies major, I was introduced to the possibility that there can be more truths than the one I believe in. . . . I learned about colonialism, indigenous politics, queer politics, anarchy, racial and ethnic politics, latinidad, South-Asian diasporic writing, all as part of this one, very inclusive major. I was learning that diversity, whether in thought, or in person, is indeed beautiful.”
The full Reunion & Commencement Weekend photo gallery is here.
The Commencement gallery is here.
The text and video of Bryan A. Stevenson’s address is here.
The text of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s address is here.
The text and video of Patti Smith’s address is here.
The text and video of President Michael S. Roth’s address to the Class of 2016 is here.
The text and video of the senior class welcome by Tahreem Khalied ’16 is here.
Information on the Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching recipients is here.
Information on alumni receiving Distinguished Alumni, Outstanding Service, and McConaughy awards is here.