Congratulations to the Graduate School Class of 2017! The successful completion of your graduate degree is an extraordinary achievement, and one that you should be extremely proud of. I know how much work and sacrifice has gone into you achieving this important academic milestone, and you should take this moment to look back on what you have accomplished. Along with recognizing your achievements, however, I also want to recognize those who helped you along this path. First, to your faculty mentor(s), many of whom were with you at graduation, for the contributions that they have made to making you the scholar that you are today. Second, to your friends who provided a support structure that enabled your success. And finally, to your family, who, intentionally or not, set you along this path, and who were unwavering in their confidence in you and your abilities and in the pride that they feel for your accomplishments.
A special congratulations to Dr. Emily Alden Hennessey, the Graduate School Founder’s Medalist. And a special thank you to our banner bearers: Dr. Myra Harbin, Candace Carducci, and Anjali Kulkarni; our student marshals: Dr. Kelsey Beavers, Dr. Jane Hirtle, Dr. Nicole Sexton, Dr. Matthew Varga, Kofi Christie, and Tenele Dlamini; and our faculty marshals: Dr. Stephen Camarata, Dr. Steven Townsend, Dr. James Byrd, Dr. Sarah Igo, Dr. Dana Nelson, Dr. James Patton, Dr. Bridget Rogers, Dr. Daniel Ashmead, Dr. Steven Goodbred, and Dr. Velma Murry.
Now to the challenge.
Regardless of where you sit on the ideological and political spectrum, I think we can all agree that this has been an incredibly tumultuous year. Of particular note for me has been the volume of the voices at the extremes, and how polarized and polarizing the opinions and perspectives are on either side of any given debate. Don’t get me wrong—extreme views are invariably a part of any substantive issue, and these views need to be articulated and heard. However, and this is where the challenge lies, they cannot be the only perspectives that are voiced. And more importantly, they should simply represent the fodder for a good discussion and debate of the issues. To me, this is where the chasm now lies, in that the extremes often represent the only views espoused, and are so strongly held and so forcefully articulated that there is no middle ground for informed discussion and debate. As disturbing as the polarization is the lack of respect for differences of opinion, and the frequent ad hominum attacks that seem to represent the new mode of argumentation. University campuses are not immune to this phenomenon, as illustrated by recent high-profile events.
One of the most important skills you hone during your experience in Graduate School is the synthesis of ideas and opinions. Indeed, I would argue that the new knowledge that you have generated during your graduate career is largely a product of this synthesis. A synthesis that almost undoubtedly entailed the incorporation of opposing views, perspectives and hypotheses. To create this new knowledge, you did not ignore the polar extremes, but rather weighted these differing views into your body of work. I would also imagine that a component of your academic coursework was focused on discussion and debate as this is the core of a graduate curriculum. Indeed, one huge differentiator as one moves from an undergraduate learning experience to graduate school is less emphasis on facts and a greater emphasis on the synthesis of those facts.
My challenge to you today is to take this approach learned during your graduate work and extend it to wherever you go. A number of you will end up back here in academia, where you will become the torch bearers for the next generation of open-minded scholars. A number of you will move outside of academia, where my plea to you is to spread some of the values that were reinforced during your graduate tenure here at Vanderbilt and where you are champions for civil discourse and tolerance of alternative views.
To reinforce this message, I want to take a quotation from one of my personal heros, Benjamin Franklin: “Be civil to all, sociable to many, familiar with few, friend to one, enemy to none.”
So in closing, congratulations on this spectacular achievement. You have attained one of the highest academic degrees at one of the country’s most prestigious institutions. Go out now and spread Vanderbilt values by making the world a better—and more civil—place to live and work.