Wesleyan President Michael Roth ’78 made the following remarks (as prepared) during the 188th Commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 24. President Roth’s remarks were delivered live on campus to a virtual audience:
Members of the Board of Trustees, members of the faculty and staff, distinguished guests, new recipients of graduate degrees, and the mighty Class of 2020—I welcome you to the 188th annual Commencement of Wesleyan University! I am honored to present some remarks on this joyous occasion.
First, let us pause to recollect those members of our community who have passed away over the last year. We hold them in our thoughts because they are part of our family, part of a community that extends far beyond classes and diplomas. Our beloved teachers, our colleagues, and our fellow students—citizens and scholars, researchers and artists who have changed the world, and friends who have changed our lives. Let us pause also to acknowledge the death and devastation caused by the pandemic in our country and around the world. Wherever you are watching this, please join me in a moment of silence for those who are no longer with us.
It is Memorial Day Weekend, an occasion to remember the sacrifices of those who have protected our country against the scourge of deadly violence that plagues much of the world. Let us also hold in our thoughts the sacrifices of first responders, health care workers, and all those whose work supports the systems that help life continue for the rest of us.
For you who are receiving diplomas, today’s virtual ceremony marks a transition in your lives from students to alumni, closing out a memorable four years—and a final semester that will be indelibly stamped on our collective memory for its many difficulties and our uplifting response to them. Speaking of uplifting, please pause and give thanks to the faculty and staff of Wesleyan, all of whom continue to learn by being educators.
Do you recall the excitement, nervousness and anticipation you felt when you first arrived on campus? Meeting your roommates for the first time, getting your first pail from WesWings, discovering field hockey, or musical theater, advanced digital humanities or non-traditional burlesque? As your Wesleyan adventure was beginning and your life was changing, the political life of this nation was moving into a new, dangerous phase. As you were beginning your education, politicians were coming to national prominence who disparaged learning, who dismissed science. Attacks on outsiders, especially on immigrants, grew in intensity and were cynically used as tools to avoid dealing with social and economic problems. The sick political culture into which you graduate isn’t only plagued by pandemic. It is infected with contempt and corruption, with rage, magical thinking and a disregard for the most vulnerable. We need your help in social distancing, to be sure, but we more profoundly need your help in social knitting, reweaving a civic fabric that has been pulled apart in the defense of inequality and privilege.
I believe you CAN help, and that the country is at a critical inflection point. We need your participation in civic life, whether you choose to engage in your neighborhood, city, state or at the national level. Some of you will bring analytic skills to the public sphere so as to better understand patterns of change and inertia. Others will use your story-telling abilities to create narratives that help us better understand who we are and who we want to become. Some of you will collaborate in large teams of people from various backgrounds, using the skills of creatively leveraging diversity that you have developed in your co-curricular activities on campus, or perhaps in your design and engineering classes. I am hopeful that at Wesleyan we have cultivated with you an openness to being persuaded to change one’s mind—to seek out those from whom you can gain new perspectives and ideas precisely because they don’t share your point of view. I know we joke about a Wesleyan bubble, but we also should have learned how permeable the borders are between the campus and the world of which it is a part. A university is a place to have one’s ways of thinking tested—not just protected. If we are to repair our public life, we must develop habits of mind and spirit that allow us not just to celebrate our differences from mainstream culture but to learn how to positively impact it.
One of the reasons I love being president of our school is that I learn so much from the enthusiasms, the convictions, and the reasoned arguments of our students. Over the last four years, I have been schooled by students who have faced up to the immense challenges of combating climate change. I was slower to step up to this challenge than many of you. You were right, and I was wrong. I have learned from those of you for whom religious practice is fundamental, and I have listened carefully to conservative students who worry that personal freedom can be eroded by policies that seem to have the best of intentions. Sure, I have also seen stubborn close-mindedness, but on our best days, we are able to explore our differences without fear and work toward positive change with courage.
Now, as you take on new challenges beyond the University, we are counting on you—to reject the dismissal of norms for telling the truth and the labeling of anything one doesn’t like as fake or inappropriate; to protect the freedom to think for oneself and to speak one’s mind, especially in situations where people disagree; to show others the power of listening to those with whom you have conflicts. We are counting on you to move beyond accumulating online followers to earning the respect of strangers—turning them into neighbors, teammates, friends who can work together.
Over these four years, I have gotten to know many of you in my classes, in student government, and even in demonstrations. In your courageous company I feel we may well be able to reject the cynical status quo that mobilizes rage, that we may be able to build a politics and a culture of compassionate solidarity rather than of fear and divisiveness. After all, generations of Wesleyan alumni have benefited from this campus culture characterized by brave, practical idealism.
As I say each year, we Wesleyans have used our education for the ‘good of the world,’ lest the future be shaped by those for whom justice and change, generosity and equality, diversity and tolerance, are too threatening.
Class of 2020, we have already seen what you are capable of when you have the freedom and the tools, the mentors and the friendships, the insight and the affection to go beyond what others have defined as your limits. I have cheered you on as you won championships—from Little Three crowns to national tournaments. I have been awed by your creativity in song and science, technology and theater. We know that in the years ahead you will explore unfamiliar realms and see possibilities that others might not. We know that you will find new ways to make connections across cultural borders—new ways to build community. When this happens, you will feel the power and promise of your education. And we, your Wesleyan family, we will be proud of how you keep your education alive by making it effective in the world.
It’s been nearly four years since we unloaded cars together at the base of Foss Hill, four years since parents shed (or maybe hid) a tear as they drove away. It seems like such a short time ago. Now, wherever this message finds you, please remember that you will always be members of the Wesleyan family. Wherever your exciting pursuits take you, please come home to alma mater often to share your news, your memories and your dreams. Thank you and good luck!