Greetings at University Commencement 2018

May 13, 2018

Good morning. Let me add my personal congratulations to all our Rutgers graduates. This morning we honor you—the largest and the most accomplished graduating class in the history of the university—the Class of 2018!

Even the weather can’t dampen our enthusiasm today.

I also want to welcome the families who have supported you … the faculty who educated and inspired you … the friends and partners who have stood by you. And a special word of appreciation to all the mothers who are here today, in person or in spirit: Happy Mother’s Day! What better Mother’s Day gift can there be than seeing your son or your daughter receive their Rutgers diploma—finally!

But now to the stars of the show:  the Class of 2018!  You’ve earned the right to celebrate.

Some of you have won prestigious scholarships.  Others have achieved incredible success in international academic competitions, in the sports arena, on the stage, and in student leadership. But every one of you has successfully completed a rigorous course of study at Rutgers, one of the finest public universities in America.  As your faculty and now your colleagues, we could not be prouder of you.

Yes, today is a time to celebrate.  But it’s also a time to pause for a moment and reflect on what you have experienced in the larger context of your lives. 

You have seen our nation’s first African-American president, Secretary of State, and Attorney General. You have seen universities like ours acknowledge and honor the enslaved people who contributed to our early history. That’s progress.

But you have also witnessed the killings of Travon Martin and Eric Garner, the murders in a Charleston church, and the hate-filled white supremacist march in Charlottesville. You know better than anyone how much work remains to be done to fulfill the promise of equality in America. We need your hearts and your minds to lead us to a better place.

You have seen the first female four-star general in the U.S. Armed Forces, and the first female candidate for U.S. President. Of the four women ever to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, three of them are serving there now. And here, because of the legacy of Mabel Smith Douglass, we celebrate 100 years of women at Rutgers. Now that’s progress, too.

But in the past year alone you have also seen the MeToo movement bring to light sexual abuse, harassment, and discrimination in every industry in the country. We still have a gender gap in pay that hovers around 18 cents on the dollar. And while record numbers are running for Congress this year, currently fewer than one in five elected leaders on Capitol Hill are female.

We need you to challenge old assumptions about genders, and to show us the path forward.

You have seen the incredible power of human genius in technologies only dreamed about 50 years ago. The smart phone in your pocket right now has more computer power than a warehouse of computers when I was your age. 

But in your lifetime, you have also seen the negative aspects of human activity on our environment—from global warming to rising sea levels to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that’s now twice the size of Texas.

We need you, with your fresh thinking about our planet, to lead our efforts to make the world a cleaner and healthier place than it was before.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Charles Dickens wrote about the best of times and the worst of times. This apparent contradiction is as true today as it was then.  In your time at Rutgers you have seen our world at its best—and at its worst. Across the nation, you have seen incredible social progress, but also intolerance, fear, and cynicism. You know the world you are entering is a complicated mix of endless possibilities and seemingly intractable problems. But here’s where you come in.

So here’s the deal. We are confident that Rutgers has prepared you well. You understand what it is like to work hard for what you have achieved. You have acquired the knowledge and the critical thinking skills to master a career. You have learned that success comes from looking at the world with an open mind and learning from others. 

But we hope that in the process, you have also developed the sense of responsibility and civic purpose to work for a better world. For a safer and more inclusive community. For social and economic justice. For a more sustainable environment. For a more just society. We need your energy, compassion, and initiative. We need you out there, putting your ideas to work for the common good, accomplishing the things that we—the generation before you—did not get done.

So this morning, as you begin this next phase of your life’s journey, I leave you with this challenge. Don’t accept the status quo. Don’t just change your communities—change lives. Don’t just go out and make a fortune. Make a difference. And I am confident that you will.

Again, to the Class of 2018, I offer my personal congratulations and Godspeed.