Community and the Courage to Act
Skidmore College Commencement Remarks
21 May 2011
Philip A. Glotzbach
Good morning. Let me add my own greetings and welcome to parents, honored
guests, and everyone in attendance at this historic event: the College's 100th
Commencement Above all, to the members of the Skidmore College Class of 2011,
congratulations. You are the largest graduating class in Skidmore's history. You are
energetic and most accomplished class, and we are very proud of you!
Today also marks another important College milestone: it is the final
Commencement for Skidmore‟s external degree program, the University Without Walls
or UWW, as it is affectionately known. For forty years, UWW has pioneered in creating
innovative ways for non-traditional students to earn a Skidmore undergraduate degree,
while still fulfilling their responsibilities at work and at home. Skidmore takes
pride in the 1,500 alumni who have completed the UWW program, sixteen of whom will
march across this stage today, and one of whom will receive an honorary degree. Our
UWW students brought to their liberal arts education a rich tapestry of life experiences,
they were well positioned to appreciate the value of what they learned, and in the
they transformed both their own lives and some portion of the world. We salute the
UWW graduates with us here today, and with them all the UWW graduates from times
Next, let me draw your attention to the 23 national flags arrayed on the stage
today that represent the homelands of those graduating seniors who have journeyed
learn with us and who, in turn, have enriched the Skidmore community.
Graduates, this ceremony and, in a more concrete sense, this stage symbolically
represent a bridge you will traverse later on this morning from your college years
beginning of your future life. As the economy remains unsettled (to say the least),
opportunities to make use of what you have learned here may not present themselves
an obvious way. And even if you have identified your next steps after graduating –
perhaps you have secured a job, a place in a professional school, a fellowship for
graduate study, Teach for America, or a position in the Peace Corps – you still face
moment of transition from a life that has grown familiar to one that, by contrast,
The good news is that those who have supported you in your journey to this point
– your family, your friends, and more recently the members of the Skidmore faculty
staff who have meant so much to you during your college years – remain committed to
your success. They are your safety net, and they will still be there for you, even
take flight to the next stage of your life.
In fact, this would be a most appropriate moment for you graduates to stand and
give a heartfelt round of applause to thank the members of your family, as well as
on the Skidmore faculty and staff, who are here with you today.
But even as you focus on your transition to the next moment in your life, I ask that
you also remain mindful of another value we emphasize at the College: informed,
responsible citizenship. Or, if you are tired of hearing this phrase, feel free to replace it
with the word: 'community' – denoting a human social context in which individuals
acknowledge that they each have a fundamental interest in one another‟s wellbeing.
speak about community quite a bit at Skidmore, and by doing so we affirm that the
objective of a liberal education – which is to prepare you to live a life of true
a reflective and self-aware individual – can be realized only within the context of
and just society. Hence our expectation that a Skidmore education prepares you not
make a place for yourself in the world but also to leave the world itself a better
This expectation was expressed powerfully by the 19th Century American education
reformer Horace Mann who enjoined all of us to be "ashamed to die" until we had “won
some victory for humanity” – a charge I presented to you in the opening Convocation
your first year at Skidmore.
Most of you who are graduating today began your Skidmore careers in the
summer of 2007 reading that year's common text: Mountains Beyond Mountains, by
Tracy Kidder. As you will recall, this book tells the story of Dr. Paul Farmer who
out, at a very early point in his life, to change the way medical services were provided
some of the neediest human beings on earth: the citizens of rural Haiti. Over time,
organization he went on to found, Partners in Health, has extended its work beyond
to many other countries around the globe. It played an especially important role
following Haiti's catastrophic earthquake in January 2010.
Although few of us will effect change on the scale of Paul Farmer's
accomplishments, I do hope that his story will continue to inspire you to pursue your
personal cause that you either found or reaffirmed during your time at Skidmore –
in which you will win your personal “victory for humanity.” If you are to do so, chances
are you will need to put to good use the creativity you developed in a school that
that aspect of human accomplishment. But you also will need to call upon another
crucial human trait that we tend to talk about less often: courage – the virtue mentioned
in the quotation from Skidmore's first President, Charles Henry Keyes that opened
ceremony today. Let me suggest why that virtue will be important.
Janet Whitman earlier reminded us that the United States and, indeed, most of the
countries of the world now confront a roster of profoundly challenging issues too
and daunting to list here – and after all, this is supposed to be a day of celebration.
will say that to address those issues will require all of us – and most especially
political leaders – to become more courageous. We need to find the courage,
collectively, to name our problems and face them head-on, as opposed to pretending
they do not exist and hoping they will go away. And we need to find the courage to
engage in actual, serious conversations regarding those issues – as opposed to separating
into ideologically defined camps and shouting at one another from the safety of our
Unfortunately, it is far too easy for leaders to enjoy short-term success by
dividing communities and nations. By contrast, to be a leader who brings people together
in genuine dialog requires far more skill and, again, much greater courage. As citizens
this democratic republic, all of us have a role in demanding – of both ourselves and
political leaders – the courage to replace acrimonious debate with fierce but genuine
conversation. Doing so, I believe, is the only way for us to make smarter political
decisions in the future than we have in the past.
But there is another, more personal, way in which you can help leave the world a
better place than you found it, one that may well require the most courage of all
takes us back to the commitment to the concept of community as we try to live it at
Skidmore College. Over this past year, we have dealt with a number of issues that
brought home the unfortunate truth that we are not yet where we wish to be as a diverse
and fully inclusive educational community. I assure you that, as we go forward, we
redouble our efforts to realize this ideal.
But what about you graduates? Though it is very important to us that you remain
deeply connected to the College, you will no longer be part of the Skidmore campus
community on a day-to-day basis. Even so, as you disperse across the much larger
community of communities that constitutes this or any other nation you too will face
issues of diversity and inclusion in your daily life. You will encounter difference
work place, in your community life, and in your social relations. At those intersection
points – when you meet with someone whose race, religion, national origin, sexual
orientation, political views, some other characteristic that can divide us one from
– you will confront your own, very personal, choice about how to react.
Such a choice can become even more acute when you witness something that
someone else says or does that reflects bias or dismisses others based not on the
of their character but rather on, for example, their choice of a life-partner or the
their skin. These are moments in which we are forced to choose whether to leave the
world a better or worse place, whether to win some small victory for humanity by
speaking up and intervening – or, by remaining silent, to let the opportunity pass.
Mohandas Gandhi challenged his followers to “be the change” they hoped to see
in the world, and he understood very well that doing so required considerable courage.
Sometimes the most difficult challenge we face is to speak up and object to a statement
or action by one of our closest associates or friends. It can be so easy simply to
silent; and it can be so difficult to take an individual stand that might place at
personal relationship we consider important. But again, that is where we must find
courage to act, if we truly are to embody the change we all hope to see.
You graduates are the recipients of a great gift – you have been given the
opportunity to spend four years interrogating the accumulated wisdom of humankind,
best of what our species has learned over seven millennia of recorded history. Through
your own hard work, you have become a very different person from the one who entered
the College at the beginning of this journey. As you go forward, please continue to
broaden and deepen your liberal education; you are by no means finished with this
process. But as you do, please also find in yourself the courage necessary to take
advantage of those everyday moments that occur in all of our lives to prove that you
understand – and can put to use – just what these four years have been all about.