2006 Commencement Address
Today we convene with ceremony and joy for a moment – meaningful personally for each graduate and collectively for the NYU community over time - a rite of passage celebrating the next infusion of talent, knowledge, commitment and energy from NYU into the world – a priceless gift from our university to the future. Ladies and gentlemen, the Class of 2006.
Graduates, you and your loved ones experience this day in traditional linear time. You see a past that has brought you here, and a present that is the lens through which you look toward the unknown and exciting years ahead, a future that is full of promise. But those of us who will remain here to serve your successors experience this day in a different way: even as we share your proud moment in linear time, we also feel a deep sense of the cyclical life of the university – a life which renews and rededicates itself class after class and decade after decade. Thus, even as we gather to say “well done” and “farewell” at commencement, we prepare to greet your successors, just as we welcomed you a very short time ago. On such occasions we are reminded that you, our students, are a large part of what brings value to our vocation. Such is the life of a university.
The rich history of NYU now stretches back 175 years to the day Albert Gallatin and eight others founded a university that would be "in and of the city."
In 1831, New York was a relatively small town. With a population of 200,000, it had just passed Philadelphia to become the largest city in the country. The United States was still an agrarian society, and the land just a little north of this park was dedicated to farming.
The park itself looked very different then. A vast field, with neither fountain nor arch, it was a military parade ground. Elegant Greek Revival homes like the ones you see today to the north flanked its borders, making Greenwich Village the first fashionable residential area in New York.
In its first decade, NYU was small. There were only three graduates at the first commencement in 1833; five years later, the number had risen, but only to 27.
Tuition. Brace yourself. Tuition was $80 a year. Though we were $10 cheaper than Columbia, NYU, as usual, charged an additional $10 for library and incidental fees.
The university provided no housing. For those who came from a distance, "boarding" could be obtained with "respectable private families" for $3 per week.
There was no student newspaper. That’s sad. But Greek letter fraternities and debating societies were an important part of student life.
And, get this: students were required to attend daily chapel services each morning at 8:00 AM – and to do so in academic gowns.
Members of each class followed exactly the same schedule of lectures, recitations and exams. 20 courses were required for the B.A. degree. There were no electives and no cuts were allowed.
Great events were the backdrop for those first commencements. In 1831, Nat Turner led a slave revolt in Virginia. The following year Britain enfranchised its middle class for the first time, and in 1833 it abolished slavery. A Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville began his tour of the United States in an effort to understand our democracy. And the naturalist Charles Darwin set sail for South America to continue his studies into the origin of species.
Different from Day One, NYU’s story over the decades has been one of continuous redefinition—of constant aspiration, and of persistent integration with the city that has become the center of the world. Gallatin and our founders designed a university to capture the fullness of human experience by integrating itself into our city, a city vitalized by unmatched opportunity and hope. That revolutionary notion defines and inspires the NYU of today. And the singular city we embrace imbues us with special capacities and a special mission.
There are other world cities, but New York is also the world’s first “glocal” city – global and local simultaneously. Consider this – of the 202 countries at the Athens Olympics, 199 are represented in the New York City public school system by children born in those countries; 140 languages are spoken in New York as the first language of the people speaking them; 40% of the citizens of New York City were born in other countries. No other city so represents the cosmos and the human condition, its diversity, its complexity, and its array of aspirations.
Not surprisingly, the distinct opportunities available here attract the extraordinary collection of talents and interests incarnated in the Class of 2006. You number 15,000 from all 14 of our schools and colleges. You range in age from 18 to 78. You hail from all 50 states and the 165 nations represented in the flags that encircle the platform from which I speak.
You have won some of the most prestigious fellowships and scholarships available — the Marshall, the Fulbright, the National Science Foundation Fellowship, to name a few. Over two thousand two hundred of you are Founders Day Scholars, graduating with grade point averages 3.5 or higher, and 140 of you have been elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Moreover, you are earning your degrees in fields that span the magnificent spectrum of human inquiry—from molecular oncology to folk art studies; from biomechanics to Jewish history; from ocean science to film and drama; from communications studies to geriatric nursing; from early childhood education to prosthodontics.
Sharply focused on your academic endeavors, you have nonetheless deeply engaged in volunteer activities. You are active in the over 400 student clubs at NYU that reflect the diversity and depth of your interests in politics, the arts, religion, student governance, recreation, debate, public policy, technology—the list that goes on and on. A remarkable 80% of you have worked in internships; and, many of you have worked in two or even three jobs, even as you carried magnificently the burdens of being full time students.
To round off your collective portrait, last evening in the street fair we call Grad Alley, you consumed 7,000 hot dogs, 10,000 servings of cotton candy, 6,000 bags of peanuts, and, this being New York, 4,000 knishes!
True to Gallatin’s vision, as you leave us you already have experienced and participated in the world you are about to enter; you have learned on one of the greatest human stages available – in a city that is a life force, an incomparable resource, and a constant source of learning. As you left our buildings, you did not pass through a gate or walk on the grass; you touched the city and entered the global village. And you have incorporated that village into your very being.
Our university – the education it provides and the students it produces – holds a distinctive place in higher education, and you, its graduates must see this day and yourselves in that light. We live in an era when the great world has grown small. What happens in distant places is known, and more importantly, experienced almost everywhere, by almost everybody, immediately and unavoidably. The central challenge of your collective lives will be developing ways to manage in this miniaturized world of immediacy a vast richness of race, of faith, of culture, of thought. If you are to avoid the kind of destructive balkanization that can threaten to shred the fabric of civility on a global scale, you will be forced to create pathways of comprehension and communication across traditional divisions.
The very concept of New York City and the life of our university stand as a rebuke to those who say that balkanization and fragmentation is inevitable. In your years here you have lived in a community that foreshadows the best of the world to come. You have developed capacities of openness and curiosity; you have forged relationships that have forced you far beyond yourselves and the comforts and limits of your backgrounds; and you have experienced the intellectual richness and the personal growth that can come only in a university which is the world in microcosm.
The NYU world in which you have lived these past few years is a version of the larger world you now inherit – a highly diverse and complex community, in truth an aggregation of micro-communities.
As you enter that world, take with you what I call NYU’s attitudinal endowment – the central importance of encouraging a spirit of creativity and innovation, a capacity for boldness, a disdain for hidebound thinking, and a taste for complexity and the wonderful joy of discovering the unknown other.
Our university and this great place called Greenwich Village have always been as much about a spirit and habit of mind as about a physical place. I thought about that as the procession moved through Washington Square today. As I walked, I remembered a time 100 years before when a group of young artists and poets gathered together one evening at the base of the arch. On its western side there was a small door. One of the artists turned the knob, and to everyone’s surprise it was unlocked. They ascended the arch, armed with Chinese lanterns, balloons, noisemakers, and a healthy supply of food and strong drink. They conversed, partied, and sang through the night – as many of you will tonight. And the next morning, as dawn broke, those artists and poets issued from the top of the arch a boisterous declaration of independence by which Greenwich Village seceded from the physical union of the United States to form its own state of mind.
In a way, by virtue of your participation in our community and your graduation today, you are citizens of the state that was created that night – which now more than ever, bravely looks into the face of our time and its challenges, daring us to declare both our independence and our interdependence. Such is the NYU that is part of your past, your present, and your future.
We foresee your achievements, your honors, your contributions and the difference you will make. We also realize that sometimes there will be defeats and setbacks along the way. But either way, we hope that you will carry within you the indomitable spirit of NYU – that affirmative spirit of dissatisfaction, an openness and restless quest for excellence, encoded in our institutional DNA as a great university in the greatest of cities – the New York University.
We want you to know that you are always part of this community, even when not physically present in it. And in those inevitable moments when the spirit flags, we invite you to come home to NYU – to return to this place, to touch its grounds and sense its soul – and in so doing, recharge what it has meant to you.
Know as well the importance to us of your returning again and again – the role you play in renewing and sustaining our vitality. You are, as I have said, the pride of our vocation. In your years here, you gave so much of mind and spirit and heart to this university, in happy times and on the hardest of days. I hope we have given you an education worthy of your talents and your aspirations.
Congratulations to you and your loved ones from the NYU family – that other family to which you now indelibly belong.