Commencement Weekend May 15-17, 2009 - William G. Durden
The Remarks of the President of the College
William G. Durden '71
Ladies and Gentlemen, distinguished guests and members of the Class of 2009, welcome on such a beautiful morning to this grand old Dickinson tradition! Each year, we gather here before the stone steps of Old West to celebrate Dickinson’s most important responsibility and its greatest accomplishment—you, our graduates.
Today is a rite of passage for 578 members of the Class of 2009. Before proceeding, I would like us to continue an important Dickinson tradition. All graduates owe significant gratitude to your families and friends—those who have made it possible through their love, guidance and support for you to be here today. Please rise and join me in giving them a round of well-deserved applause.
At the end of this ceremony, you, the Class of 2009, will cease to be Dickinson students. The procedure is straightforward, yet profound. There is first a simple, formal statement from me indicating that upon the recommendation of the faculty to the Board of Trustees, I confer upon you your degrees. This is followed by the peal of a very special bell marking the exact moment that you cease being a student and become alumni of Dickinson College. And finally you are asked to switch the tassel on your cap to the other side to indicate symbolically that you are a graduate and not a student.
The bell is a small replica of the Liberty Bell and is one of a very limited edition that was cast in the same foundry as the original bell. It is significant to Dickinson College for a number of reasons. The bell was originally commissioned by the Pennsylvania General Assembly. The Speaker, Isaac Norris, was given oversight of its casting and the selection of the bell’s inscription to “proclaim liberty throughout the land.” Norris was to become John Dickinson’s father-in-law, the individual for whom, of course, our College was named.
Equally important, this replica of the Liberty Bell symbolizes our revolutionary heritage and our commitment to democracy. It reminds us that our founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush, and many of our earliest supporters were signers of the Declaration of Independence, and drafters of the US Constitution. As such, the ringing of the bell serves as an inspiration to all of you to become the active citizens and leaders of your generation.
Dr. Benjamin Rush is symbolically here with us today for this important occasion. His statue, which stands to my left, is appropriately attired for today’s ceremony. This year, we honored Rush’s extraordinary vision as we celebrated the 225th anniversary of the enactment of the charter that established Dickinson College. It was written by another Pennsylvania signer of the Declaration of Independence and an original trustee of the College, James Wilson. Remarkable in their brevity, the first two paragraphs of the charter explicitly reference the responsibility of the rising generation to lead the nation to preeminence and prosperity. Equally important, the charter specifically acknowledges the indispensable role the promotion and dissemination of useful knowledge would play in the advancement of the new nation.
Dr. Rush, in short, established our College in the closing days of the American Revolution to provide students with a useful liberal arts education. This was an activist and not a passive notion of education. And upon graduation, he fully expected Dickinsonians—you now—to become engaged citizens who would ensure the success of the new democracy through knowledge, advocacy and employment.
Rush’s vision is every bit as relevant today as it was 225 years ago. We—the faculty and staff of Dickinson College—have worked closely with you these past years to act upon this noble ambition. It is now up to you to embrace and fulfill it.
Over the past years, you have received a liberal arts education that is distinctive to Dickinson. You have been given full opportunity to follow your intellectual passion by identifying and pursuing a particular course of study. You have become involved in those campus groups and activities that sparked your interest. And you have formed a network of friends that will surround you for a lifetime.
Your experience at Dickinson has been uniquely your own. But through the course of your individual journeys, you have also engaged in a set of shared experiences. As an active participant in our community of inquiry, you have absorbed and begun to develop those qualities and habits of mind—those dimensions—that will forever distinguish you as a Dickinsonian.
You have, for example, pursued a global sensibility far deeper than that achieved at other colleges and universities. You now know what it means to “engage the world” in every sense of the phrase—academic, intellectual and social. You have been challenged to acquire an intellectual flexibility and nimbleness that allow you to make meaningful connections among people, ideas and disciplines. You have been encouraged to find your voice in a responsible and civil manner and to seize opportunities to speak out passionately on issues of importance to you and society. And finally, you have come to realize that you must always be accountable for your own actions to others beyond yourself as you work in partnership to build an ecologically, financially and socially sustainable society.
Imparted to us by Dr. Rush, these five dimensions are the defining characteristics of a Dickinson education. They are your guideposts for a lifetime of personal and professional fulfillment. Through your experiences at Dickinson College—many, I trust pleasurable and some highly demanding which tested you—you are now prepared to become the enlightened leaders and informed participants of your generation, if you so choose. As graduates of one of the most globally connected campuses in the nation, you are prepared to confront the daunting complexities of our rapidly changing and economically challenged society. And, as the heirs to a proud revolutionary tradition, you are prepared to find strength in your own convictions and act upon them responsibly so you may leave the world a better place than you found it.
In a few short moments, you will follow generations of Dickinsonians spanning four centuries who have preceded you down these stone steps. They include a president of the United States, a chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, associate justices, federal and Commonwealth judges, scholars, teachers, business leaders, entrepreneurs, research scientists, writers, artists, lawyers, journalists, humanitarians, philanthropists, military leaders, religious leaders, diplomats, elected officials and even a few college presidents.
You will also be guided in one last “teaching moment” by the distinguished individuals and an organization selected to receive honorary degrees from Dickinson today. Each recipient has exhibited the qualities of a true Dickinsonian through professional commitment and accomplishments, and each should serve as an inspiration to you.
As you make your mark beyond these limestone walls, remember the simple words Benjamin Rush once used to describe himself as a signer of the Declaration of Independence. While writing eloquent and long paragraphs about his fellow founding fathers, of himself he simply wrote, “He aimed well.”
Your life will inevitably take some twists and turns and you will undoubtedly make some mistakes along the way. Accept these for the learning value they provide. And, as true Dickinsonians, never lose the same self-effacing but powerfully effective perspective that guided Dr. Rush. I ask that you, too, “aim well.”
Class of 2009, go forth and engage the world. It lies directly before you. In fact, you already carry it within you. It is of your making. But please remember that the self is an entirely inadequate support system. Reach out beyond yourself. Appreciate and listen carefully to the perspectives of others. By so doing, you will gain an authenticity of self and a human purpose that is capable of growing and blossoming with the inevitable changing circumstances of the world before you.
I congratulate you on the remarkable achievement you celebrate today. At the close of this ceremony, you will join a group of talented and ambitious alumni whose achievements and connections encompass the globe. As a fellow graduate of our College, I welcome you personally to this extraordinary group of individuals. We all have earned the privilege to call ourselves Dickinsonians.
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