2003 Commencement Address

A USC Education: Fitness for Anxious Times
Delivered by Ruth J. Simmons

Friday, May 16, 2003

President Sample, members of the Board of Trustees, fellow honorands, faculty, staff and guests, I am honored to be among you today to celebrate and honor these magnificent graduates. To the graduate and professional school candidates, I salute you for your worthy achievements. To the undergraduate Class of 2003, I extend to you the warmest wishes. You are all, I understand, the most illustrious graduates in the history of this great university – unmatched for your brilliance, virtue, daring and devotion to USC.

I am as overwhelmed as you to be here on this occasion. This is very much a homecoming for me, having spent an important part of my career here as a graduate dean. It was during those pivotal years that I honed the skills that led me to the presidency of Brown. It was here that Charles Oxnard, Bill May and other colleagues in the Graduate School first made me aware that I had promise as a university leader. To know that this university takes pride in what I have accomplished is immensely meaningful to me.

I have such fond memories of my time at USC. Remembering the picnics on the lawn before football games and all the pageantry associated with ceremonies here, I thought every campus was like this. Imagine my expecting football games in the Ivy League to be just as exciting as a Saturday in the Coliseum! But USC is more than pomp and pageantry, it is also academic excellence and individual personal striving. As one of the leading universities in the country (and, certainly, the most exciting university in California) USC has justifiably high aspirations. I trust that you have all absorbed this same outlook as you take the next step in a continuous journey of achievement. The world never needed your aspirations more.

Whether one is in Riyadh or Rochester, Seoul or Seattle, Latvia or Los Angeles, this moment is one of remarkable volatility. During the time of your studies here, you have borne witness to a potent concatenation of events. So unrelentingly have these occurrences struck at our sense of assurance, purpose and well-being, that we now grow accustomed to a perpetual state of uncertainty. However, this moment, this very moment, celebrates an antidote to what ails us. We are celebrating more than just a stage in your learning. We are celebrating more than the completion of courses and the awarding of diplomas. We are celebrating some of the most intrinsic elements of human resilience: the constant striving for enlightenment, the noble longing for community, and the steadfast hope in the improvement that the future can bring. That we can in the midst of this troubled time, stand together in this space and affirm that we have a collective purpose – greater than these recent events, greater than fear, greater than loss, greater than any one moment in time – is a victory for all of us.

I suspect that you have come through this succession of events with a renewed sense of our frailty and strength and a renewed attentiveness to the need for wisdom, patience and understanding. Your striving for enlightenment at a difficult moment in history, and your success on this day is evidence that the work of learning is most important and bracing when the outlook is cloudy, the problems greatest, and the solutions most distant.

For a number of years I sat in audiences like this, watching my students prepare to leave USC, wondering what their lives would hold and how they would make use of what they had learned here. USC wasn’t always easy for them or for me. I often felt inadequate for the task and deeply troubled by how little I had to offer. I suspect that many of you have come to this day having experienced similar doubts. Universities do their greatest work when they test us, inspire us to do more than we think we can, and imbue in us the certainty that our failures will make us stronger. I return with gratitude that I learned that lesson well. People make much of the fact that one is the first to accomplish something. In truth, it is nothing to be the first to play a role. It is far more meaningful to know whether one carries out that role in the full context of how one was shaped as a human being. The spirit that infuses USC gave me the courage to embrace and use, rather than shed and disdain what is unique to my world.

It is a glorious thing to be nurtured and respected when the world brands you a problem. In my early life, I was fortunate to encounter teachers of incomparable enthusiasm and patience who created for me a sphere of hope. They believed that the legacy of discrimination in this country would be lifted one day and that, when it lifted, I should be ready to make a contribution. Your professors have doubtless done the same for you.

You have changed in your time at USC whether you can see that now or not, for it is impossible to endure learning and not be changed by it. I thought that the changes that I saw in myself under the tutelage of teachers, advisers and mentors were precious gifts for me alone to enjoy. I was wrong. In every moment and every era, learners are called upon to apply with vigor the knowledge they have gained to address the difficulties and challenges of their time. It is this duty to what we have learned and to who we have become as learners that heightens and reveals the true power and value of the learning process. At all times, learning is vital to society’s interests. In these times, it is life-giving.

As I stand here today, I must acknowledge that no one could have predicted my path if they had looked only to the past or the present. History teaches us, it is true and present events edify, without doubt. But neither what we have known nor how we respond today need foreshadow what we and the world we shape can become together. I was all potential as a child. Learning developed that potential, shaping something of value for a different time. That is why I support potential as a vital component of college admission review. We can change and improve society far more effectively if we apply the elixir of education to the extraordinary wealth of human potential around the world.

My home campus is rich in history. Founded in 1764, prior to the birth of our nation, Brown is proud of its colonial past. That legacy is a rich and complex one. The portraits that look down upon me in my office depict men who would never have imagined descendants of slaves having the potential to study at or lead their glorious university. When people ask me if I have any discomfort in having these portraits in my office, I respond that I have absolutely none. Their presence affirms mightily for me the power of the future to be different from the past. Their presence speaks to the ways in which broad access to education transforms the nature of learning, broadens access to power, accelerates the pace of human progress, and deepens the impact of knowledge on society.

John Adams, traveling to Philadelphia in 1774 for the first Continental Congress, ruminated about the dearth of knowledge and experience in that dangerous time. He wrote, “We have not men fit for the times. We are deficient in genius, education, in travel, … – in everything. I feel unutterable anxiety.”

Some of you may at times in the future feel the same unutterable anxiety. About the economy. About world affairs. About the growing income disparity and social problems in our nation. About the rise of intolerance around the world. About the continuing threat of war. Unutterable anxiety. It is very telling that what Adams longed for at that critical moment in the founding of the nation was genius, intellect, breadth of knowledge, ingenuity, know-how. He did not see the future clearly but he knew that what would save this incipient democracy was individuals of broad knowledge and ability. My teachers in my segregated schools knew that too. The faculty and board here know that as well. And what they are hoping is that you are the “men and women of genius” that the world needs for these unutterably difficult times. As Adams also remarked, “Great things are want to be done.”

There are great and worthy things awaiting you. When I graduated from college, my family thought I had squandered my time there. I didn’t have a job. It was unclear what specifically I was fit to do. Whatever your major, your degree, your job status at this moment, in these times of unutterable anxiety, you are bringing to your moment in history, that which is most needed. Not simply the ability to earn money but the ability to inspire in others the desire to prepare themselves well for the “great things” to be done. Not simply the determination to heal but the ability to inspire others to heal. Not merely the talent to make a name for yourself but the talent to make others see the value in who they are.

What is needed most in this time of unutterable anxiety is the fitness of your intellect and the robustness of your spirit. You have triumphed in completing your studies. Your ongoing fitness however will depend on your commitment to continue the course that you have started here. On whether you return to the restrictive social and intellectual enclaves that characterize much of society. On whether you take your education off the shelf and use it for the challenging interactions that will allow you further growth. On whether you look for and support potential in others. On whether you see your obligation to respect others as a mark of insight rather than a weakness.

Our world today is always a hair trigger away from turmoil and destruction. A delicate equilibrium is required to stay that destruction: acting quickly and yet with restraint, listening intently and yet speaking with reason, reconciling differences and yet courageously advancing justice. If you have used your time here well, you will, like Adams’ men of genius, change as the times require, leading the world wisely both in times of woe and in times of well-being. You will lead justly, transforming what the future brings. If you would be fit as the times require, you will especially pay attention to the opportunity for personal happiness. That happiness stems from living openly and freely; feeling pride in who you are; loving with constancy and truth; serving others with conviction and modesty; and remaining faithful to the ideals of learning.

I would never have dreamed a life such as the one that I have been blessed to live. The unutterable anxiety that has been a part of my time has presented me with opportunities for learning, achievement and happiness. Do not fear. It will be the same for you.

May you face this bravely, in the USC spirit. May you seize the opportunities presented to you to make a difference in what the future can bring. May you bring out the potential in others and always find the best within you!

Good luck and God speed.