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Commencement 2005

UC Berkeley Web Feature

Graduates at the Greek Theatre Berkeley grads dressed for the occasion, at the Greek Theatre. (Steve McConnell photo)

At Convocation 2005, the spirit is public

  Here's looking at you: A slide show of Convocation images

– Under cloudless skies and a brilliant sun that hovered just behind the stage of the century-old Greek Theatre — a blue-and-gold setting for the ages — Berkeley's Class of '05 on Wednesday began its slow, ceremonial march to whatever comes next.

Robert Birgeneau, leading his first Commencement Convocation as Berkeley's ninth chancellor, assured the graduating students in attendance that, imminent departures notwithstanding, they were joining a proud, enduring community of more than 400,000 alums. "You may not know where the future will take you," Birgeneau said, "but as you go, know that we will be there with you."

And on a day when programs were more useful as makeshift fans and umbrellas than as guides to the festivities, speaker after speaker stressed the importance of keeping Berkeley in graduates' minds as well as their hearts.

A degree from the world's No. 1 public university, all agreed, confers a responsibility to care about the world and its people. For Benjamin Barber, who delivered the sobering keynote address, the key to democracy is committing to what he called "public liberty" — and avoiding the temptation to become "private solitaries, lonely shoppers, [and] personal choosers."

The Gershon and Carrol Kekst Professor of Civil Society at the University of Maryland and the author of 17 books — including the 1994 best-seller Jihad vs. McWorld: Terrorism's Challenge to Democracy — Barber offered regrets that he was not as famous as Warren Beatty, who is scheduled to give a commencement address next week at the Goldman School of Public Policy. He also joked that "I feared for my life briefly" as he entered the arena wearing a red-hued gown. "It's not from a certain university down the Peninsula," he explained, "but is rather the crimson gown of Harvard University, which as many of you know is the Berkeley of the east."

But he soon got down to more serious matters: "I want to talk to you today, on this day that signals your liberation from school, your stepping stone into the responsibilities of freedom, about the meaning of that word ‘free,' used so confidently on the steps of Sproul Hall 40 years ago, thrown around today by President Bush and Pepsi-Cola and President Putin and John Kerry, and the endless marketers and merchandisers trying to sell you on the virtues of the consumer republic and the ‘freedom for you to be you.'"

"Freedom, in fact, has become the great American virtue, the great American boast, the great American cliché," Barber said. "And today marks your passage into the world of goods and opportunities that supposedly define that cliché."

"Who are your real tutors?" he asked. "The professors you had in class, or the filmmakers whose tutorials you take at the multiplex? The books you've read, or the video games you play? The lessons you learn or the branded goods you buy?"

Barber urged his attentive listeners not to confuse the personal freedom to consume with the ability to make "public choices that really matter," warning that "the source of manipulation and coercion is not so much the state but the market."

Observing that the term "liberal arts" refers to the "arts of liberty," he said: "As you graduate from one of America's great public universities, the character and quality of our democracy and the possibilities for justice here and abroad are likely to depend on how you choose to exercise your freedom — whether you take the arts of liberty to be the arts of citizenship, or are content to think of them as the arts of shopping."

As for exercising their citizenship, he urged the students not to rely on politicians, but to keep in mind a line from an old gospel song, "We are the ones we've been waiting for."

"When it comes to putting our country on the right course and fixing the mess my generation has left behind," he told them, "there can be no waiting for others. We are the ones we've been waiting for. You are the ones you've been waiting for."

Birgeneau, in his opening remarks, sounded a similar theme. "A Berkeley education is both an honor and a privilege," he said, adding that "privileges have their consequences — they bring the obligation to give back."

"Now," he said, "as you complete your formal studies, you have an obligation to use your talents, and all that you have learned, to make your personal contribution to the betterment of our society, and the public who have helped support your education."

To judge from the students and alums who shared the stage with him, the chancellor need not worry.

Birgeneau presented the Elise and Walter A. Haas International Award to 2000 alum David Harrison, now chief executive officer of loveLife, which the chancellor called "South Africa's national HIV prevention program for youth and the largest youth HIV program in the world."

This year's University Medal, given to the class's most distinguished graduating senior, went to Alejandra Dubcovsky, a history major who plans to earn her Ph.D. at Berkeley beginning next fall. In addition to her stellar academic work, Dubcovsky, a native of Argentina who came to the United States when she was in the ninth grade, has devoted long hours to such volunteer activities as tutoring elementary-school students in Spanish and working with the homeless in People's Park.

"We live in a cynical world," she said in accepting the award, which includes a $2,500 scholarship. "But it is our task to take an interest in that world. To pursue that interest, and push it with all our might. To care. … We are entering the world as Berkeley graduates. This is not a world we are just inheriting; this is a world we are helping to create. Be part of that world."

Birgeneau also acknowledged five finalists for the University Medal: Kelly Fong, Denise Grab, Nathaniel Singer, David Sontag, and Tanguy Chau. He presented other major campus awards to Rica Azarcon (the Kenneth Priestley Leadership Award), Ryan Houk (the Mather Good Citizen Award), and Christine Abouzeid (the Ina K. and Roy B. Christie Award).

Other speakers included ASUC President Misha Leybovich, Class of 2005 President Camille Erin Llanes, and Nadesan Permaul, making his final Convocation appearance as president of the California Alumni Association.

"You are the gift of Californians to themselves," said Permaul. "Love this golden place."

As if on cue, Class of 2005 co-chairs Rica Azarcon and Casey Lary then presented Birgeneau with an oversized check for $39,000, representing the contributions of some 1,200 graduating seniors for academic programs and undergraduate student services. Doubled by a challenge match from ‘ 58 alum, UC Regent Richard Blum, this year's contributions total $78,000 — in Birgeneau's words, "a wonderful new record for senior class giving."


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