In the end, Skidmore College's 102nd Commencement went pretty much as planned. Despite flight cancellations that turned her return to her alma mater into an arduous two-day ordeal, Cynthia Carroll '78 arrived just in time to receive her honorary degree. Despite a small silent protest by seniors opposed to the College's choice of Carroll, the ceremony went on without interruption.
Most importantly, the sun was shining and 605 members of the Class of '13 and seven candidates for the master of arts in liberal studies received their diplomas and headed out into the world to meet their destinies.
Morever, the speeches were memorably provocative and entertaining. Following are highlights.
President Philip A. Glotzbach
Noting that "over the past few months, students have prompted numerous important conversations about our values and how we do or do not live up to them," President Philip A. Glotzabach praised the graduates for "reminding us that, at a school such as Skidmore, teaching is not just a one-way transaction through which faculty members simply pour information into the empty vessels that are their students."
"Here, teaching and learning occur in the context of rich relationships, based on mutual respect, in which we expect students to be active participants claiming their own education and in which professors are ultimately expected to learn from their students," he continued. "Indeed, our goal is to create an educational environment that fosters the freedom and capacity of students to expect that their ideas, questions and reflections – including those that break against the tide of convention – will be respected and interrogated with as much force, passion, and excitement as the ideas that come from a book or the mind of a faculty member."
"We value diversity and inclusion. But are we as inclusive a community as we wish to be? No, we are not – not yet. We are working on it. We have invested considerable time and resources to improve our institutional practices and attitudes. We have made progress. But there is more to be done, and you can be assured that work will continue."
Glotzbach told the graduates "we are proud of you, not just because of your accomplishments in the classroom, the laboratory, the studio, or in your co-curricular activities, but also because you have pushed us to consider where the College stands as an institution. In doing so, you have demonstrated the independent intellectual spirit that, above all, we aim to cultivate in a liberal education. And as a result, the College is a better place because when you graduates entered this community you were not satisfied with how it felt, and you have pushed us to make a change."
Emilee Bell '13
"No one here is the same as when they started at Skidmore," said Emilee Bell '13, president of the Senior Class. "Today is not the day you transformed into a skillful young adult, it has been your time as a Skidmore student, whether that has been travelling around the world, staying off campus as much as possible, or completely engulfing yourself in the Skidmore culture."
"I have been lucky enough to experience all of those," she continued. "We have to remember where we all started to remind us of how we have grown in these years. I had just turned 18 when I started at Skidmore, a spunky confident oddball off on a conquest to the East Coast from the West Coast. I did not have my past following me and the idea of a fresh future made my mouth water, I wanted it. I shipped my entire life over to little ol’ Saratoga Springs, my new home. I was off on my adventure. That adventure has led me into experiences that we all now share together."
She concluded: "I charge you all to hold your head high for successfully completing college, to celebrate these past four years of being a Skidmore student, and to celebrate with those around you today and at reunions to come."
Stating at the outset that she had just eight minutes to speak, Rebecca "Beck" Krefting, assistant professor of American studies, wryly observed that that should be "just enough time to tell you everything I know, probably with a few minutes to spare."
"If there is any time remaining I’ll use it to lip sync a song that prognosticates your future—an original score from the 1970s Broadway hit Annie but more recently popularized when Jay Z released a remake in 2007; that song is, of course, "It’s a Hard Knock Life."
"Make no mistake about it," she continued. "It is a hard knock life. You will see people treated unfairly based on sex, race, ethnicity, creed, sexuality, gender expression, ability, class, nationality and any other identity category that differentiates us from the dominant culture. You will see people continue to degrade this earth, squandering non-renewable fossil fuels and resources, polluting our precious water and making unsustainable energy and food choices all in the name of commerce. You will see people exploited for labor, sex and services, and you will witness profiteering firsthand. You will see loved ones stricken by illness and injury, some temporary, some terminal. You might be the one with such a diagnosis. You will see the people that mean the most to you exit this world and you will sit shiva, comfort the bereaved, and attend memorial services. You will cry; you will feel pain.
"It is a hard knock life," she noted, "but what you do have, what we all have, is each other."
"There are two paths ahead of you,"New York Times columnist David Brooks told the graduates in remarks generously sprinkled with laugh lines. "One leads to a soul-crushing job as a cog in the corporate machine. The other leads to a permanent residence in your parents' basement. I'm here to help you navigate between these exciting opportunities."
Turning serious, he referenced the writings of the late American Orthodox rabbi and philosopher Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who posited that we all have two sides to our nature: a majestic "Adam 1," which wants to build and create and have a great career and win great victories, and a humble "Adam 2," which wants to be "enveloped in love and security, to radiate joy, and to have an inner soul that honors God and Creation."
"Soloveitchik said we are great because we live in the contradiction between these two Adams," Brooks said. "They are not reconcilable, and so we are forever caught in a self-confrontation. These days, we happen to live in a culture that celebrates Adam 1, the external Adam, and neglects Adam 2, the internal one. We live in a meritocratic society that teaches us how to have a great career, how to win the admiration of others, and to create and discover. But if you are only Adam 1, you will turn into a shrewd animal, a crafty creature that is adept at playing the game and turns everything into a game."
If that's all you have, Brooks warned, "you lose the ability to speak in a sophisticated moral language or to experience the inner joy without which life becomes unsupportable."
The hard part of this confrontation, Brooks noted, is that Adam 1 and Adam 2 live by different logics. "Adam 1 lives by a straight-forward logic which is the language of economics: input leads to output, effort leads to reward, practice makes perfect. Adam 2 lives by a moral logic, not an economic one. You have to give to receive, you have to be lost to be saved, and success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride, and failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning."
"As you leave Skidmore," Brooks concluded, "I hope you build, explore and make tons of money, but I also hope you lug your books around and, at the end of your life, I hope you have the awesome ability to not create, to not discover, but to just enjoy the satisfaction of an Adam 2 life well lived."
Cynthia Carroll '78
Reflecting on the challenge of managing of Anglo American, a 100-year-old company that had always been led by men promoted from within and had been steeped in the practices of an old-school industry, Cynthia Caroll ’78 pointed to values as a key factor in effecting change.
"More than anything, keep to the courage of your convictions," she said. "Know your values and adhere to them, no matter what the temptation. Corruption, kickbacks, compromising standards, looking the other way, is the norm in some countries, and I never succumbed to this kind of pressure, no matter what the cost. I met with prime ministers, presidents, and even police forces to explain how we do business. In effecting change, one must know what one stands for, and be transparent in keeping to your values. Effecting change will ignite controversy and debate, and you will get pushback from people who support the status quo."
She advised the graduates to learn from mistakes and "don’t worry too much about them."
"And listen to others, no matter what their backgrounds, or positions, or perspectives. Change can’t be made in a vacuum. Making change happen on a sustainable basis requires buy-in into an idea."
"Also, seek input from those with lots of experience. Some of the best advice I received came from those who were much more senior than me, who were wise and willing to offer a different theory. Be flexible, and seek these people out."
"The world needs good ideas and capable people to make those ideas a reality," she told the graduates. "With optimism and determination, you can achieve great things. Above all, be yourselves and have fun on the journey."