AIC Hon. Board Member Amb. Tom Pickering addresses need for public service at Brandeis University

Originally Published in the Justice

By Mihir Khanna

The University held its 64th annual commencement ceremony on Sunday, in which 956 students were awarded bachelor’s degrees, 756 students were awarded master's degrees and 100 students were awarded doctoral degrees, according to an email to the Justice from University Registrar Mark Hewitt. Commencement Speaker and Honorary Degree Recipient Ambassador Thomas Pickering spoke on the importance and appeal of public service, while University President Frederick Lawrence reflected on his time at the University and with the class of 2015.

Vice Provost, Chief Information Officer and University Librarian John Unsworth opened the exercises and served as master of ceremonies. Profs. emeritus Raymond Knight (PSYC) and Barry Friedman (Heller) entered first as the grand marshals of the ceremony. Following them were the president’s councillors and fellows, the degree candidates for the graduate school of arts and sciences and the degree candidates for the International Business School—who chanted “IBS! IBS!” as they entered. The candidates for the Heller School followed, then the candidates for the Rabb School of Continuing Studies, the Brandeis faculty, the class of 2015 bachelor’s degree candidates, the Board of Trustees and the honorary degree candidates and the presidential party.  

Protestant Reverend Matthew Carriker delivered an invocation where he urged the graduating class to “seek to live with justice, compassion, humility and love” and noted that “knowledge without love is bankrupt.” Leila May Pascual ’15 then sang the national anthem to thunderous applause. After Unsworth announced several faculty awards, Chairman of the Board of Trustees Perry Traquina ’78 welcomed the attendees to the ceremony, telling the graduating class that commencement is “a day of celebration and transitions, … one of the most significant transitions you will ever make.” Traquina noted Lawrence’s transition out of the presidency and particularly noted the Light of Reason art installation outside of the Rose Art Museum as an achievement of Lawrence’s tenure. Traquina said that the Light of Reason “symbolizes what Brandeis holds dear: the guiding light of knowledge, being bold and our dedication to making the world a better place.” Traquina then asked the attendees to thank Lawrence and his wife Kathy “for all they have done for Brandeis,” which led to an almost 40-second-long standing ovation. 

Lawrence then addressed the graduating class. “Presidents are not supposed to have favorite classes,” he started, “but that said, how can I not feel a special connection to the class of 2015? ... In many ways, I feel I am a member of the class of 2015.” He recounted the class of 2015’s move-in during Hurricane Irene in 2011 and said he knew “the message was clear: your flexibility, your teamwork and your optimism could bring glorious results.” 

Lawrence then noted that both he and the class of 2015 are facing transitions—Lawrence’s term as University president ends next month. “Change is ... above all, about beginnings,” Lawrence said. “After all, today is not called conclusions, or even transitions. It is called commencement.”

Lawrence then spoke on the challenges of the presidential role, including fundraising and political polarization on campus. He noted his pride in the “stunning renaissance and revitalization of the Rose Art Museum,” the increased budgets for campus maintenance and renovations, the elimination of the University’s budget deficit, a “renewed network of alumni and connections across the globe” and devoting $9 million toward financial aid, which is “the highest in the University’s history,” according to Lawrence. 

“I think I am most proud that our rearticulation of the message of what is special about Brandeis and the Brandeis education has borne fruit,” said Lawrence, citing that applications have increased over 35 percent over the past five years. 

Lawrence then reflected that the University was founded as an institution that “would reject all forms of discrimination” including that based on race, creed, color, national origin, gender and religion. “Today,” Lawrence said. “We add sexual orientation.” Lawrence argued that the University’s mission reflected the Constitution’s message that “all men—today, we would also say women—are created equal.” He cited that the end of Yom Kippur break-the-fast showcases the diversity of the student body and proves that “our deep roots do not narrow us; they broaden us … none of us is as smart, or as good, or as important as all of us.” 

According to Lawrence, Brandeis’ balance between being a small liberal arts university and a research university creates something “special” which “cannot be replaced or undermined by proliferating online degrees. What we have is essential to maintaining a just and essential society.” Lawrence defended liberal arts education, stating that “Brandeis can and must resist this trend [of making American higher education more technical] and remain an archetype of the liberal arts model.” 

Lawrence finally addressed questions of free speech and civility on college campuses. Noting Justice Louis Brandeis’ historic opinions defending the right to free speech, Lawrence added that a right to speech does not offer guidance as to how speech should be used. “An expression that may not be prohibited may certainly be criticized  … [and] need not always be honored,” Lawrence said. He stressed that debaters should look for common ground, assume the best in each other and disagree without attacking each other personally.

Lawrence then presented the honorary degrees. Suzanne Farrell, ballerina and founder of the Suzanne Farrell ballet, received a doctorate of arts, honoris causa. She was followed by writer and novelist Jamaica Kincaid who received a doctorate of humane letters, honoris causa; chef and food writer Yotam Ottolenghi who received a doctorate of humane letters, honoris causa; and Pickering, who was a United States ambassador for forty years and received a doctorate of laws, honoris causa. Finally, Helen Henessy Vendler, a literary critic and professor at Harvard University, received a doctorate of arts, honoris causa. 

Pickering began the commencement address by joking that “commencement speeches, like a strong arrow, should be short and sharply pointed.” 

Pickering spoke about the importance of public service to the communities and the world, whether through government, a nongovernmental organization, a religious community or some other format. “I believe that the opportunity for such service is something that all college graduates—all university graduates—should consider and adopt at some time in their lives,” Pickering said.

“We are now engaged in an election process—indeed, it is rare in this country to find that we are not so,” Pickering continued to chuckles from the audience. He noted that public servants are occasionally called corrupt or inefficient by politicians, but that this does not match his experience after a lifetime of public service. 

He then discussed his time as an ambassador, calling the Foreign Service “an important service” and noting that he “was lucky to have the opportunity to contribute in many ways to the future of our country.” He discussed his service in El Salvador, saying he had “the unique opportunity of taking a policy which was overly mesmerized by the threat of Communism ... [and] turning that policy around so that it focused on the people of the country, their survival, their prosperity and their future governance.” He also noted his role in “working on processes and activities” that led up to the ongoing peace between Israel and Jordan and his role in bringing judicial reform to Columbia. Pickering said that a life of public service will not provide “a lavish living” but does provide a life that is “both interesting and rewarding.”

“In public service, you have one of those opportunities to serve the values you honor and cherish: integrity, honesty, self-sacrifice, knowledge,” said Pickering. 

Pickering was followed by the conferring of degrees. Graduates of the Rabb School of Continuing Studies, followed by graduates from Heller, IBS, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the College of Arts and Sciences were conferred degrees by Lawrence en masse. 

Bethany Adam ’15 then delivered the student address, in which she recalled advice Lawrence offered the class of 2015 during their orientation. 

She said that deep friendships “are not about convenience. These relationships are about the people you want by your side when life becomes inconvenient.” 

She also urged the class of 2015 to follow their ambitions, saying “there will be people telling us we can’t, and it’s now our job to prove them wrong.” 

Allysha Gayle Roth MPP ’15 then delivered the graduate student address, stating her belief that education is the key to alleviating poverty and solving problems and that Brandeis students “seek truth, share their knowledge and dream of leadership.” 

President of the Alumni Association Adam Rifkin ’97 then welcomed the class of 2015 to the alumni association, and Rabbi Elyse Winick ’86 delivered a closing benediction.