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Dean’s 2015 Hooding Ceremony Remarks

Modified: June 23, 2015

Good afternoon! 

On behalf of the faculty of The Graduate School and the Northwestern University community, it is my pleasure to extend a very warm welcome to the 14th Annual MFA & PhD hooding ceremony to the families, friends, and guests of each of our graduating students!

I am privileged today also to introduce—a great friend graduate education and to me personally—the Provost of Northwestern University, who will bring words of welcome on behalf of the University—Provost Dan Linzer. 

{Provost's Remarks}

It is also my honor to recognize a few distinguished guests who are with us for today’s ceremony.  I’ll ask that each of them please rise to be recognized as I call his or her name.  Representing our partner schools and colleges are the following:

Mark Ratner, Interim Dean, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences

Jane Rankin, Associate Dean for Research, School of Communications

Robert McDonald, Senior Associate Dean for Faculty and Research, Kellogg School of Management


Rex L. Chisholm, Vice Dean for Scientific Affairs and Graduate Education, Feinberg School of Medicine

The work of The Graduate School would not be possible without the strong collaborations we enjoy with each of our partner schools.  So on behalf of our graduates and our faculty, I thank my colleagues for their presence here today and for all their good offices on our behalf. 

Today we are also honored to have a visiting dignitary from another university in attendance as a parent of one of our graduating doctoral students.  I’m pleased to recognize Joel Seligman, President of the University of Rochester. Welcome to you and your family!

We are pleased today also to have what is a rare occurrence at The Graduate School.  Today Eugénie and Benjamin Suter—brother and sister—will both receive their PhD’s in neuroscience.  It will be my pleasure to serve as their second hooder when they are called to the stage to receive their degrees.  My sincere congratulations to their family and friends.

And one final procedural note. The presidential fellowship is the highest honor that Northwestern University bestows upon a graduate student.  Those who are graduating today as presidential fellows, will receive from me—after they are hooded—a medallion that signifies their station as lifetime members of the Society of Presidential Fellows. They also have my congratulations!

Commencement season is the time on the academic calendar that I most look forward to each year. For on graduation days, the community of scholars celebrates in all its external splendor our monumental personal and educational achievements.  I hope that the ritual of this special occasion will bring a measure of closure to one period of your life, even as it represents the beginning of an important new phase in your journey—full of promise and possibility. 

Upon any oratory occasion, a speaker strives to inspire. Insight and motivational moments are culled together and unpacked with the proper grace and gravitas to prompt both reflection and action… at least, that’s always been my plan.

So on this moment of justly deserved celebration, I hope to inspire in the spirit of Demosthenes instead of Cicero.  For when the noble Roman politician Cicero spoke they all remarked, “How beautifully he has spoken.” But when the self-taught Grecian orator Demosthenes spoke the people all exclaimed, “Let us march!”

So as you take these final steps upon your academic journey, and march forth towards the promise and possibility you will create in the world, I would urge you to be marching towards inclusion.

During my time as Dean, I have advocated for diversity and inclusion as essential components of any truly excellent intellectual community. Diversity of people and of thought insures that we not only see the world from many different perspectives, but that we also ask the sometimes unusual questions that lead to the improbable discoveries. In addition to the intellectual reasons for my commitment to diversity and inclusion, I hope you might allow me for a moment to share some of my deeply seated personal ones as well. 

I confess that it still feels a bit odd—to me—invoking ancient Roman and Greek orators… Though the peculiar peacock splendor of commencement costume does help set the mood.

For I was not at all destined to become an academic.  Indeed, I am quite certain that growing up as I did—son of a sharecropper’s daughter and a laborer’s son in the small town of Belton, South Carolina—I had neither met any such people, nor understood it as a career to which one might even aspire.  But I was fortunate that even as textile workers in rural South Carolina, my parents understood well the significance of a college education for my younger sister and me. 

Though they themselves never had the opportunity to attend college, they worked tirelessly to make certain my sister and I both did.  To this day, I remain inspired by their uncommon sacrifice and their sense of purpose and conviction. And I remain dedicated to providing access to the same opportunity to all members of our society. 

Undoubtedly, my vision and values have been shaped by my experiences in South Carolina, in undergrad at Princeton, in graduate school at UCLA, and in teaching and research positions at half a dozen other institutions. I remain proud of the formal and informal education I received in each of these contexts.  And I am humbled by and indebted to the many teachers and mentors along the way—some who looked like me but even more who did not—who affirmed what native ability and talent I may have had, and nurtured it to become more than it would have been, left to the modest circumstances and devices of my birth. 

Indeed, I knew a number of talented young black kids in my school days who were smart, charismatic, and hopeful. The only difference between many of them and me was that I was fortunate enough to have family and mentors who pushed me in the right direction, supported me, expressed their belief in me at the right times, and provided information and guidance to me at critical milestones in my life. So as much as we celebrate individual achievement in the academy, I am keenly aware of the investments of the many who have contributed to my being in the place I am today.

I share these observations to remind us that we all have opportunities to play a role in developing and nurturing the next generation of diverse thought leaders.  Whether it’s in our personal lives, in our classrooms, in our laboratories, in our offices, in our applicant pools, in our recruitment efforts, we can all be alive and attuned not only just to demonstrated intellectual talent, but also to incredible intellectual potential, which can flower with the investment of the right mentoring, teaching, and a modicum of support.  So if my personal example stands for anything, let it be for the power and potential of the admixture of talent, good mentoring, and nurturing support.  As diversity and inclusion work does not happen by accident, but rather, through intention, it must be front-of-mind for us in order to create and sustain progress in this endeavor.

A rather poignant illustration of the complexities of this endeavor comes from a fable—a modern one—by R. Roosevelt Thomas, a champion of an inclusive vision of diversity within academic and corporate sectors until his death in 2013. It is—perhaps like all fables—a seemingly simple story with profound lessons to teach.

A giraffe builds a home perfect for his family of giraffes. It is such a marvelous home for giraffes, in fact, that he wins awards for it and his accomplishment as a woodworker spreads far and wide.  His neighbor, an elephant, happens to pass by this wonderful giraffe home one day while the giraffe is working in his woodshop. 

The elephant is also a woodworker of some renown with a special skillset that the giraffe cannot master (having something to do with a trunk and power tools). Though at this point in the story the two are only passing acquaintances, the giraffe has long wanted to build a friendship with the elephant and long dreamed of the things they could build working together; so he takes the opportunity to invite the elephant in for a tour of his woodshop.  Eager to accept both the promise of friendship and the possibility of collaboration within such an awe-inspiring woodshop, the elephant agrees to come in for a tour. 

Immediately, however, the two have a simple but very profound problem; a house built perfectly for giraffes is not very accommodating for an elephant. The elephant cannot even enter the building through the front door, for his girth can only be squeezed through the wider garage door. Once inside, the elephant can hardly navigate the exceedingly narrow giraffe hallways, and his bulk causes severe damage to the house’s foundation.  In short, the award winning giraffe house is now ruined, and the relationship between the giraffe and the elephant is at peril before it has hardly begun.

Not likely to modify his award winning design, the giraffe offers various solutions to the elephant so that he can continue to visit: the elephant can diet, or go to the gym, perhaps both, in order to considerably change so that he may better fit inside the giraffe’s house.  The elephant, however, is not entirely ready to change so drastically, is worried about losing his unique elephant woodworking skills in the process, and wonders whether a house made for giraffes will ever be able to include elephants. If the relationship remains one of accommodations and assimilation, each is likely to carry resentment towards the other and little work in that very fecund woodshop will ever be accomplished. The only way forward is for each of them to collaborate on a truly inclusive diversity. A house built with both giraffes and elephants front-of-mind.

While the lessons to be gleaned from the story about the giraffe and the elephant working together to overcome these obstacles are many, today I offer up the importance of each of us taking responsibility for inclusion in our lives, works, and legacies. Whether you find that you are the elephant or the giraffe, it is clear that progress and inclusion can only come from working together to bridge our differences in pursuit of higher goals. The gift of mentoring, fostering potential, and striving towards true inclusion is a responsibility that each and every one of us can take up within our respective spheres of influence.

I have always said that one of the most important functions of graduate education is to prepare its students for leadership in a variety of sectors of our ever-globalizing world. Within each of these sectors, you will surely find a diversity of people and thought.  How you approach this diversity will dictate in no small part your openness to change and innovation.

Today, as you end your role as Northwestern student, you take up another very important role as Northwestern and TGS alumni.  In this new role, remember your time of sustained reflection, investigation, and expression here. 

We need your talents that you will use throughout your lives to spread the good word and good works of this great university. 

We need your time.  I hope that each of you will take time to participate in the activities of the alumni association, and answer the call of your programs and of northwestern when we invite you back to campus for important events.  When you do, remember that seeing you and hearing your stories inspires our current students. 

And we need your commitment to support this institution so that it might continue to provide the incredible educational opportunities it has afforded to each of you today.  For your involvement and support are part of what sustains the work of this place.

As graduates of Northwestern, you are ready now to take your place as smart, critical, and contributing thought leaders.  And whether you stake your claim in the academy, in government service, in the corporate sector, in the non-profit world, in culture and & the arts—I very much look forward to bearing witness to the greatness of the achievements each of you will make in our time.

As you make these contributions, I urge you also to make space for the contributions of others, to make welcome, and engage meaningfully and with purpose the many different folks you will encounter along your life’s journey.  As you march toward inclusion and marshal change in your life and work, it may, finally, help to keep before you the words of Pulitzer Prize winner and poet laureate, Gwendolyn Brooks:

We are each other’s harvest:
We are each other’s business:
We are each other’s magnitude and bond. 

Once again, my deep and heartfelt congratulations to each and every one of you!

From the Dean