Commencement Address by Ruth Simmons
Thank you. Chairman of the Board Manatt, President Trachtenberg,
Trustees, faculty, staff, honored guests, family, friends, and of
course graduates of 2002: Good morning.
That was pretty sad. OK, lets try again.
Graduates of 2002: Good morning.
Thats better. I have to tell you that I felt a bit apprehensive
coming to the podium this morning. After reading some of the student
comments from the GW Hatchet about my selection as commencement
speaker, I worried about giving this speech. With all the hype surrounding
commencement speakers these days, its small wonder that so
many were disappointed at having only a university president as
One student wrote: I wonder who backed out.
Another said: I am not impressed. One senior, adding
an interesting twist, said: Well, at least its not Tony
Well, let me tell you, I love Tony Bennett, so I am in good company.
But when I arrived this morning and saw the magnificence of this
setting and the exuberance of this occasion, I have to say I started
feeling just fine. I should say that theres a student on my
campus there are probably many students on my campus like
this, but I was journeying recently to give a commencement address
in another part of the country and on the plane was a student from
Brown. The student came to me at the baggage carousel and said:
President Simmons, Im one of your students.
Im always happy to see my students and so I said: Oh,
Im delighted to see you. What are you doing here?
He said: Im on my way to see my brother graduate, and
I saw that you were going to be the commencement speaker and Im
so delighted to have an opportunity to hear you speak, because I've
never heard you speak before.
I was startled, of course, because presidents love to speak and
they speak all the time on their campuses. So I said: But
how can it be that you have never heard me speak?
He looked at me without missing a beat and said: Well, Im
a computer science major.
Oh, boy. What is up with that?
Well, I agreed to be commencement speaker because of the decisive
year that I was privileged to spend at GW. In 1968 when I was here,
American universities were on the verge of tremendous change. I
had just returned from a year in France during which the student
revolution of 1968 was transforming that nations vision of
access to education.
Here at GW, a somewhat less radical transition was in progress.
The university was beginning to admit more students of color. There
werent many of us in those days. The State Department was
seeking to expand the participation of US minorities in the Foreign
Service. It was a quieter revolution than was under way in France,
but it was a revolution nonetheless. GW had invited visiting scholars
at that moment from historically black colleges to teach here and
through these efforts I encountered a visiting professor who pointed
me in the right direction and inspired me to remain in higher education.
Professor Sterling Browns inspired teaching has remained with
me all of these years. So I owe a special debt to GW for launching
me onto a path that led me to the role I now play.
As I look back over my career, I can think of nothing better than
to have spent these 30 years working with students aspiring to learn.
Nothing could have been more thrilling than that. So I am pleased
to be here finally receiving my degree with the Class of 2002.
Now, what can one say about a graduation such as this? Youre
not just privileged because you mark this moment in your lives with
such a beautiful, poignant, and dramatic backdrop. You are graduating
from a university that will launch you in the way it launched me
so many years ago.
I had a novel experience here that shaped my thinking about how
to contribute to society. Of course, many of you, whether sitting
in the audience while Crossfire was broadcast live from
the campus, or seeing your teachers quoted in public policy debates
about trade reforms or tax cuts, or whether combining your classes
with internships at the White House, the World Bank, or on the Hill,
youve gotten the kind of education available to few in the
You deserve credit for your efforts to take full advantage of all
that GW and Washington have offered you. For four years youve
gotten up early for class without your parents having to wake you.
Youve resisted going to TGIFridays to stay in Gelman
another hour, right? OK. Youve worked as waiters at Bertuccis,
smiling at diners so that their tips can help pay for your books.
So youve done your share.
But GW is an expensive school. I know that. With what they spent
to send you here, your parents could have put another wing on the
house, bought a couple of BMWs, taken lots of cruises to the
Caribbean. Seriously, some of them no doubt worked second jobs or
went into debt and reduced their savings for retirement to put you
through college, and you were able to see this day because they
tortured you by making sure that you did your homework and refusing
to accept your decision, as grave as it was, to backpack around
Europe for four years instead of going to college, and by loving
you the whole time, the whole time right down to this moment, when
you dont have any idea of what youre going to be doing
next. So you must be grateful to them.
Now, I grew up, as Darrell (Green) said, in Texas and I remain a
proud Texan today. I hope some of you are from Texas. Texas is known
for colorful public figures, some of whom you have no doubt heard
of. But in particular theres a story about Ma Ferguson. Ma
Ferguson succeeded her husband as governor down there in the 1920s
when her husband died. Ma Ferguson, like most Texans, was known
for not being shy about her opinions. Once someone suggested that
the new Spanish-speaking immigrants to Texas might benefit by having
classes taught in their native language. Ma Ferguson was furious
about such a notion, furious.
She picked up her copy of the King James Version of the New Testament
and shouted: If English was good enough for Jesus, its
good enough for Texas.
Texas has come a long way since then and this country has come a
long way since then, but we have a long way to go.
This final college year, believe me, you will forever associate
your year with the destruction of Sept. 11, 2001, in which so many
innocently lost their lives. On that day classes had barely begun
when all of us in our offices in our dorm rooms, in hallways watching
TV monitors, watched events that left us bereft, angry, confused,
Right here in Washington, those events were especially heart-wrenching
with so many lost. But out of the smoke and the flames, the grief
and the horror, the fear and loss, a cruel and yet merciful clarity
emerged. The world we were watching unfold that day was far from
the world that Ma Ferguson saw, in which one religion, one culture,
one language, one law, dominated our vision. Today we can see that
it is not difference itself that endangers the future, for difference
as old as the ages is one of our most enduring and greatest natural
resources as human beings. It is to difference that we owe the fitness
of our civilization, for as we advance, absorbing the robust elements
of different cultures, we make our own better and stronger.
No, its not difference itself that is the problem. It is the
consequence of not understanding and managing that difference that
can lead to conflict and profoundly consequential loss. There are
thousands of contrasting views and perspectives in which the seeds
of conflict can find fertile ground. Whether these seeds grow, fed
by ignorance and suspicion, or whether we nurture them so that they
lead to ever-expanding understanding that can solve age-old animosities,
is really up to us. In our continuing grief and fear, our education
and that of those who do not know us can provide a different answer.
You know, recently I was in a meeting in New York listening to Bill
Gates and Bono, of all people, opine about how to build support
for global development. Suddenly, there was a tremendous amount
of noise outside on Park Avenue. On the street, hundreds of protesters
opposing globalization were shouting, The people united will
never be defeated.
Whatever the definition of globalism, we know that we are irrevocably
affected by the startling changes now shaping the world, made real
to us by the instantaneous response of so many media relaying in
real time what is taking place. This affects world markets, the
speed of knowledge transfer, the shaping of public opinion in hundreds
of world capitals at precisely the same moment. A comment made by
a public official in the United States plays one way in our country,
but reverberates around the world with an echo that each time it
reverberates produces a distant and sometimes distorted version
You have to work hard to avoid the incredible tensions created by
the transparency and the proximity of contrasting perspectives,
needs, and political agendas. In short, we have to act like we know
the were living in a world in which our audience today is
just different. Its bigger, its wider, its closer.
When you came here, you joined a campus with an astonishingly large
international population. Thats one of the things I remembered
most fondly about GW, was the international dimension of the campus
and this wonderful city. You studied with teachers here who had
been intensely involved with the agonizing issues of public life.
You maybe got credit for working on the Senate Finance Committee
and were able to hear Alan Greenspan analyze monetary policy, and
But remember that sometimes education involves more than dazzling
theorists and renowned professionals. Sometimes education arrives
at your door in unrecognizable adornment. You must be watchful and
open-minded if you are to excel in lifelong, deep, transforming
learning, learning that delivers you from the mistake of overlooking
how diversity is affecting your life.
I realize these days that as I reflect on my own upbringing, I learned
from great scholars here at GW and at Harvard. Since those days
as a student, Ive met many of the leading figures of our time.
Its always a great pleasure for a citizen of this country
to come to Washington to be honored, to be in the White House for
special occasions, to meet the great figures of our time.
But let me tell you, I learned most in my life from a woman with
an eighth grade education. My mother was a domestic worker and I
had a chance to accompany her to the homes that she cleaned on weekends.
By watching her work and having the benefit of her teaching, I learned
about the variety of work that human beings can do with great honor
and credit. I learned about the importance of everyday courage.
I learned about the importance of respect for others. I learned
about the need to treat even those who hate you with kindness.
I hope youre fortunate to have such people in your life. But
more importantly, I hope you have the good sense to recognize them,
the good sense to recognize the uncommon teachers and the unrecognized
heroes who are the bedrock of our society.
Yes, remember your classes and your professors here at GW. Remember
your concerts at Lisner. Remember watching great basketball here.
Remember listening to jazz on Sunday on GWs radio station
and getting a pizza at midnight. But work hard at remembering also
the quiet, unheralded moments of learning. Remember the staff members,
the janitor who cleaned up your building, the students that you
met who were different from you.
Being in the presence of so much diversity, hearing uncommon perspectives,
debating peers about international politics, its the fusion
of all these experiences that creates a true lasting education.
As a college student, I was an ardent opponent of apartheid in South
Africa. One day in a Greek philosophy class that I was in the discussion
turned to the moral dilemma of apartheid. Like you, when I was your
age I was supremely confident that I had all the answers, that I
knew everything. In this class there was heated debate, as one would
expect, with the entire class taking the position that apartheid
was a bankrupt, immoral, and untenable practice.
But suddenly in the middle of the discussion a quiet girl, speaking
very softly, who was a white South African, spoke up defending the
rights of white South Africans. She ended her comments by saying:
Its our country, too.
There was stunned silence in the classroom and my own silence was
the loudest of all. Today I cannot recall the names or words of
any of the students who held views similar to my own, but this young
woman and her words have haunted my memory since that vivid day
over 30 years ago. I still dont agree with her point, but
I know she forced me to dig deeper and to test more rigorously my
So my advice to you is to remember that some of the most salient
moments of learning take place in the presence of difference, for
it is difference itself that highlights truly what we know and what
we do not know.
I wish I had taken advantage of the opportunity to speak with her
about her views. She wouldnt have changed my mind, but I would
have learned more if I had been willing to understand the opportunity
for learning posed by her presence. Such opportunities abound in
this diverse world and it is through the artful combination of serendipity,
deliberate strategies of encountering diversity, utility, enlightenment,
information, that we will be able to cope in this global world.
In such a year as this, which will haunt our days for the rest of
our life, it is important to remember how regenerative and vital
life is. No matter what befalls us, our intrinsic humanity, if we
focus on its continuous development, draws us ever forward, allowing
us to rebuild broken lives, re-cement broken trust, regenerate broken
faith, re-awaken lost love, rebuild failed enterprises.
Yes, ours is a fragile, but steely, humanity. Your lives, believe
me, will reflect that fragility. We look to you to understand and
assert with exuberance the joy and purpose of living and the possibilities
of using this excellent education to the best advantage. Go into
your communities and fight for the things we will need to secure
When Wall Street firms struggled to recover from the destruction
of 9-11, the leadership of those companies learned something about
But heres what the leaders of those Wall Street firms learned.
They learned that it was not their MBAs from prestigious schools
that helped them at that moment, when so many of their peers were
lost. What helped them even more was their willingness to embrace
workers, to weep for their loss, to pray with them after the manner
of their particular faith, to express honestly their own pain and
In that moment, when the human arts were needed more than ever,
these leaders had to call on a broader set of skills and on a sensitivity
to difference. If you practice the human arts, reaching out to people
across boundaries, standing up for justice and fair play in the
service of our democracy, showing kindness and forgiveness, you
will enjoy more success than any good lyricist can ever adequately
convey in a song, even if sung by the great Tony Bennett.
Now, my soon to be fellow alumni, I wish you contentment and enduring
peace, the deep satisfaction that accompanies a life honorably,
courageously, and joyously lived, and success in the human arts.
Congratulations and good luck.
©2002 The George Washington University Office of University Relations, Washington, D.C.
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