College of Liberal Arts Commencement
May 16, 2009
Interim President Anthony A. Frank
As I began to prepare for this speech, I mentioned to the people I work with in administrative communications that my graduation speech material was getting stale and that I was struggling to find something fresh to work from and one of them advised, “You have college-age daughters — just say what you’d tell your own kids.”
But “Clean out your car and pay those blasted parking tickets” somehow just didn’t seem like an appropriate graduation message.
In fact, if my kids were here, they’d say they wouldn’t put it past me to include that message at their graduation. They tell me that I’m never satisfied with them. That I have a habit of hearing some accomplishment of theirs and then saying, “That’s great, now what are you going to do to build on that?” — or something to that effect. And they’re probably right; I probably take success too much for granted and look to the next challenge too readily. And it’s probably unfair not to pause and celebrate the sense of accomplishment that comes at the end of a period of sustained effort toward a goal.
And so we pause tonight, as an academic community and with your family and friends, to acknowledge your accomplishments and to celebrate your success. And we offer you our heartfelt congratulations.
And we mean it — sincerely.
And I really ought to stop this speech there. To be ‘fair,’ I should end with the celebration — I should just stop.
But I can’t. Because we need to get tarted. This is called “commencement” and not “concludement” for a reason. [Just a side note: By using ‘concludement’ in this speech, I won a bet with one of my staff that I wouldn’t dare use a phony word at the Liberal Arts graduation ceremony. Someone’s getting free Starbucks on Monday….] It’s called ‘commencement’ precisely because you are now ready to commence, to really get started.
And if not stopping with the celebration wasn’t unfair enough, here’s an even more unfair part — it’s not just that you ought to get started — you owe it to others to get started. You’ve worked very hard and sacrificed for what you’ve accomplished, but so have many others — people you don’t even know.
How many of our graduates have held a job?
How many of you have complained to a friend or yourself about the with-holding?
That with-holding allowed the citizens of our country and, for many of you, the state of Colorado, to invest over $150M in your graduating class. And they did it, some consciously, some indirectly via their elected representatives, for exactly the same reason that Lincoln — during a devastating war and with an economy who’s problems make those of today look simple — launched America’s public higher education system: because we need educated citizens for a democratic government, because we need ideas and an educated workforce for our economy, and because America is first and foremost a meritocracy — where we believe that anyone with the ability to earn that college degree should have that chance. Not simply the children of the wealthy, but the children of immigrants. Not simply the son of an urban industrialist, but also the daughter of an eastern plains farmer. And mostly because what all of you collectively provide to us as teachers, doctors, lawyers, writers, historians, economists, musicians, philosophers, and economists (is there a difference between those 2 these days??) — is worth far more than what we as individuals pay toward it in our taxes. In subsidizing your education, we all chipped in to buy a public good. It’s group buying power — plain and simple. Sam’s Club isn’t new — Abraham Lincoln understood the concept a century and a half before we applied it to Wii’s and flat screen TV’s.
And so it turns out you owe something back. And this gets worse: we don’t simply need it paid back someday — we need it paid back now.
I know the job market is tough. But none of us gets to choose the time when we are called on to make a difference. I wouldn’t mind seeing what it’s like to be a university President under different circumstances and I don’t know a single elected official who is excited about the hand they’ve been dealt as we ask them to balance the state budget on our behalf. But — and there’s really no way around this — we can only play the cards we’ve been dealt.
We need you — and we need you in the game now. We need your passion, your energy, your ideas. There is much my generation got right — much I’m proud of to leave to my children. But you do not need a Ph.D. to see we didn’t crack the codes on everything. There’s work to do — and some of it is some very heavy lifting. And each time we admit and graduate one of you — wait. Let’s make this a specific example. Is Levi Putnam here? Stand up, Levi. There he is. When we — as a public university — admitted Levi, we effectively said to our shareholders — the citizens of Colorado and the United States — that we think making a matching investment in Levi will pay off. And not just with interest, but over and above the opportunity costs. We said we’d rather invest in Levi than in roads, prisons or health care. That’s how much we value all of you. So, Levi (and all the rest of you), there it is: unfair or not, the people who invested in you are calling in the marker.
If my daughters were here, they’d say, “OK, dad, you made your point; in fact, you made it 10 minutes ago — let it go.” And they’d be giving me good advice.
So — enjoy this moment — your moment. You’ve earned it. Even take tomorrow off. Know that we are proud of you. But then get in the game. Make a difference. Make big differences — and make small ones — and know that the countless opportunities to make a small difference may be the biggest difference any of us can make with our lives (but that’s another speech).
Make a difference. And for heaven’s sake, clean out your car and pay those parking tickets!