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Words of wisdom
Commencement speakers, from their podiums, challenge, cajole, entertain new Cal graduates

Flash slideshow

05 June 2003



Commencement speakers included, clockwise from top left, Professor Gabor Somorjai, addressing chemistry grads; writer Barbara Ehrenreich, Boalt Hall's invited speaker; and, at Commencement Convocation, keynote speaker Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff, and Professor of Economics Martha Olney.

It happens every spring — in May to be exact: caps, gowns, “Pomp and Circumstance,” photo ops, ovations, and words — many, many words — uttered by invited high-achievers and homegrown campus talent. Those gathered at the Greek Theatre May 15 for the campuswide Commencement Convocation heard keynote speaker Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff and member of Congress; faculty speaker Martha Olney, professor of economics; the top graduating senior, Ankur Luthra; and Ronald Ostrow, who graduated from Berkeley five decades ago. In more intimate ceremonies organized by some 50 individual colleges, departments, and units, luminaries offered words of reflection and encouragement to new Cal graduates, their friends, and families. Here is a sampling of what they had to say.

Professor Tom Campbell, dean, Haas School of Business
Because it has been such a useful discipline, some — even great — economists have forgotten that economics is only a discipline for analyzing the human condition, and not a prescription for moral behavior. This … is the most important part of an economics education, and I view this commencement speech as the very last chance I, or any of your professors, will have to teach before you receive a license to practice economics on a vulnerable and trusting public. The point is the limit of economic thinking, and the necessity for compassion. The point is humility, which is only necessary because our discipline is so powerful and has been so successful.

Theater, Dance and Performance Studies
Joe Spano, Emmy Award-winning actor
I started acting because I wanted to hear a roomful of people smack their hands for me in appreciation. Then one night [as a Berkeley student] I saw a Luigi Pirandello production. And the whole thing changed for me. I got it; I realized that theater could be so much more than what I could do alone. I saw that worlds could be made possible for people who didn’t see those worlds before….Of course, I still use praise to get myself through the rough patches.But I want to, dearly, at some point, get that from inside myself. And I think that acting, art, the things we’ve chosen to do, are a path on the journey to achieving that. So I want that for you, too.

Commencement Convocation
Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff, former U.S. Representative
At a recent lecture series at our Institute, we had Tom Brokaw talking about [his book], The Greatest Generation. And a student got up and basically asked: “Mr. Brokaw, how can we become the greatest generation?” And his answer was that it does not take the Depression or a World War. It takes a willingness to fight for what you believe is right. Your participation can make a difference….So I urge you to fight to always strengthen a government of, by, and for all people. And if you do engage in that fight, it will make a difference. You will not only have earned your degree, but you will have earned the right to be called the next “greatest generation.”

Professor of History Randy Starn
Sir Francis Bacon, in the 17th century, ranked what he called the “idol of the tribe” as the first of the idols that tempted humanity: seeing the world as a mirror of your own group, your own tribe. Dead White Male though he is, Bacon was right: people do take their identities from the past, from what it suits people in groups to remember and to forget, from the stories they tell and want to hear. In this country the melting pot of history has become a mosaic. This has been a source of empowerment, recovery, opening…. But memory has a wax nose easily bent to any shape. There’s not only something empowering but something diminishing, too, about the idea that our being is and ought to be defined by ethnicity, religion, sexual taste, nationality, or whatever niche you’re born into or take on…. It’s not a joke that identity politics and history play into the hands of the apologists of immense inequalities, powers, and privileges who proclaim that they stand for equality, open opportunity, the common good above squabbling special interests.

Professor Gabor Somorjai, National Medalist and University Professor
The technology content of a toy, a doll, or a video game that I buy for my grandchildren is mindboggling. We have pills that slowly release their active constituents in our body; we have artificial heart valves and kneecaps made from polymers that are biocompatible…. Times have never been brighter for science — and technology and chemistry is in the center of it all…. As G.N. Lewis wrote in the introduction to his book on chemical thermodynamics: “Science has its cathedrals, built by the efforts of a few architects and many workers.” Be an architect and put your stamp on the future and build a structure that benefits and enriches the lives of many.

Black Graduation/African American Studies
Cynthia McKinney, former five-term Representative from Georgia
Who among you will step forward and continue the struggle against injustice? And if no one here is willing to do it, what kind of America will you inherit?… You, the young graduates of Berkeley, must see the struggle of your parents, the commitment of our fallen leaders, the principles of dissent that characterize your wonderful institution. Don’t allow individual suffering to be a stumbling block that keeps you from doing what is right.

Commencement Convocation
Martha Olney, professor of economics
The states are facing the worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In California, the shortfall between tax revenues and spending is so large that even if we eliminate — eliminate — practically every dollar of spending for anything other than education, health, and human services, California will still have a deficit. But this means eliminating practically all spending on transportation, housing, commerce, courts, subsidies to counties and cities, environmental protection, consumer services, corrections, law enforcement, and more. Unless taxes are increased, we will have to make cuts to education, health, or human services. Hear me clearly: Children will suffer if we choose to avoid a tax increase.

Art History
Michael Roth, president, California College of Arts and Crafts
Many of you felt torn this year, I would imagine, between what you perceived as your civic or political responsibilities and what you felt as your academic or scholarly calling. What will be the fate of scholarly work in a context that seems antithetical to the spirit of art and the pursuit of truth through research and argument?.... Of course we must continue our work in the arts in this context. The alternatives that the arts make visible are the ones we need now to recollect. Your study of art and its history can make visible aspects of the world to which we need to attend.

Dean Kamen, entrepreneur, inventor of the Segway Human Transporter
Science, engineering, have, from the very beginning of society, been the engines that have created quality-of-life improvements, sustainable growth of the human endeavor and experience. In almost every way, we get an A+: we make the water drinkable; we keep the lights on. We get an A+ for keeping the world going. But we get a C, maybe a C-, for having a voice in an ever more complicated world. A homework assignment: you need to have a bigger voice. You owe it to your profession, you owe it to yourselves, you owe it to the next generation. There is so much noise and so little signal in the media signal in the media-driven world that most kids cannot separate fact from nonsense, important from unimportant. And the engineering and scientific community typically are busy — keeping the lights on, keeping the water safe. But you need to do more.

Political Science
Dana Bash, CNN White House correspondent
In my 10 years at CNN, covering the people elected to run our government, I’ve come to recognize the importance of healthy skepticism.… But I’ve also come to realize how imperative it is to not let skepticism turn into cynicism. In some respects, the most important job qualification for a journalist covering politics is robust skepticism. Cynicism is poison to the body politic. The skeptic asks questions, verifies the answers, and searches for the truth. The cynic throws up her hands and says “there’s no such thing as truth, so what’s the use in trying to find it?” The skeptic can serve as an effective check on government and power, while the cynic doesn’t believe it’s worth the effort.

Rhetoric/Film Studies
Candace Falk, director, Emma Goldman Papers Project
Go out into the mix with gratitude and humility, and without conceit. Honor those who may not have had the same privilege or stamina that has allowed you to succeed. And do not allow the harsh economic and political forces of this particular time undermine your vision of the possible. Give the life force your finest efforts.

Boalt Hall School of Law
Barbara Ehrenreich, journalist and activist
There appears to be a total double standard right now in this country about whether you obey the law or any rules of law.... At the bottom of the hierarchy, you have to be a perfect straight arrow — obeying all rules all the time, totally. But at the top, it’s beginning to look like anything goes. Here’s a nice illustration of that double standard: Before you start working at Wal-Mart, you’re shown a video in which a cashier reaches into the cash register and steals $400. At this point in the video, there’s drumbeats; it gets very scary. The voiceover says, “He was immediately arrested, and he served four years in prison for stealing that $400.” Meanwhile, at Tyco Corporation, the CEO and the CFO have been indicted for stealing $600,000,000. While he was under criminal investigation, Tyco offered one of these guys, the CFO, a $45-million cash severance package. Now what does that teach people about the rule of law? If you steal, steal a lot.

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