Commencement speeches invoke service and action
Since becoming dean in 2005, I have participated in many commencements. All were different, and I loved them all, especially those for the Gillings School.
UNC-Chapel Hill’s spring commencements are big, boisterous, exuberant affairs. Winter commencements are more intimate, if that can be said about a ceremony in a basketball arena.
Sunday was a lovely day for winter commencement, and I walked through the crowds to get a sense of how families were experiencing the day. I observed excitement, pride and some nervousness. One family was turning their car inside out to locate a missing graduation cap. If it hadn’t turned up, I was about to go over and tell them that the young man would be fine even without his cap. (I stopped wearing the cap years ago. It’s a medieval throwback that seems out of place today, especially in light of continuing etiquette rules that prescribe when men are to take off their hats and women are to leave theirs on.)
Kevin Guskiewicz, PhD, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Exercise and Sport Science, had been appointed chancellor Friday, December 13, and he still was listed as interim chancellor in the commencement program – that’s how new the appointment was. He was an excellent choice, and he did an excellent job presiding over the ceremony. Chancellors, like deans, have a challenging role at commencement ceremonies. They want to say something of substance but don’t want to upstage the invited speaker. The ceremony should be about the students and not about the chancellor or dean. In their remarks, leaders should reflect our values, enthusiasm about the graduates and respect for the event. In the era of selfies and social media, I prefer that the leader not get in the way.
Chancellor Guskiewicz did all the right things. When he spoke of his own childhood in Latrobe, PA, it was a lead-in to a message about Fred Rogers, creator of the children’s television program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, who had lived there. Today, with the callousness and meanness of many of the world’s leaders, Mr. Rogers’ example is well worth considering. “Drawing on the wisdom of the late Mr. Rogers, Chancellor Guskiewicz called on students to respond to the world’s challenges and to continue the Carolina tradition of serving those in need,” Emilie Poplett, of University Communications, wrote.
“Today as you graduate and leave a place that you call home, I urge you to be heroes,” Guskiewicz said. “To not just see and hear about the needs of our world, but to respond. To see the problems of others and make them your own. I know this is not easy, but I know you are up to the task.”
Keynote speaker Bill Ferris, PhD, the Joel R. Williamson eminent professor emeritus of history, senior director emeritus of the Center for the Study of the American South and adjunct professor emeritus in the folklore curriculum, encouraged graduates to seek out people who can inspire and teach them along the way, urging them to “never stop listening.” Ferris has written ten books and is a two-time Grammy award winner for “Voices of Mississippi,” his historical box set of music, stories, documentary film and photographs. He communicates tremendous empathy for the stories of the people he has met along the way, from his days growing up in Mississippi to the present. One of his most powerful statements was this: “Your Carolina education will help you face both your history and your future. You carry the tools to build a brighter future for our nation and world.” I took this to include, among other things, facing this university’s history of slavery, racism and inequities to reach a better future. It was an elegant way to make a point regarding something many of us feel strongly about.
There were 1500 graduates in all, including 234 from the Gillings School (includes August and December graduates), and I was excited to look out among them as I read our list of degrees. I was especially proud that one of our Health Policy and Management students, Lenore Hango, president of the class of 2020, introduced commencement speaker Bill Ferris. She did an excellent job.
My seat is always toward the back of the platform, so I mostly see the backs of platform party members, but I do get a nice view of the graduates processing and once seated (as in the photo). I appreciate the jumbotrons. The commencement ceremony, including Bill Ferris’s commencement address, is available to watch on YouTube. (Ferris’s speech starts about 41:42.)
Congratulations, graduates. I am proud of each of you!
The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.