University of Rochester

'Sobering Challenges, Awesome Opportunities' Face Graduates, Says Xerox CEO Ursula Burns at University of Rochester

May 15, 2011

At a time of war and economic struggles worldwide, "the only thing I can predict about your lives with any certainty is that change will be a constant," said Ursula M. Burns, the leader of Xerox Corporation. In a commencement message to graduates in the University of Rochester's College of Arts, Sciences and Engineering, she advised them to avoid the negative and learn a particular lesson from their alma mater.

"We live in a world of both sobering challenges and awesome opportunities," declared Burns, chairman and chief operating officer of the corporation that began in Rochester. "I would encourage all of you to follow the example of the University and embrace change and learning. Do it willingly and with a sense of excitement and wonder. At 161 years old, the University has survived and excelled for nearly two centuries because it has evolved and changed."

Burns, who serves as a University trustee, was honored at the ceremony with the George Eastman Medal for outstanding achievement and dedicated service. The audience responded with enthusiastic applause.

Today's rainy and windy commencement morning was described as "entirely too cold" by Burns and as "non-cooperative" by Chairman of the Board of Trustees Edmund Hajim. Surprisingly, the weather failed to dampen the enthusiasm of almost 1,500 graduates receiving bachelor's and master's degrees, their families, and friends.

Senior Class Council President J. J. Gonzalez of McAllen, Texas, traded his rain-soaked mortarboard for a yellow baseball cap from his first day of Freshman Orientation as he spoke. He took a mandatory iPhone photo of his classmates sitting before him and traveled back in time with highlights of the past four years.

After enumerating his classmates' academic and social successes, Gonzalez, a political science major, proclaimed about the Class of 2011: "We're nerds who like to party, and all we do is win" to laughs and howls from the graduates.

Words of pride and triumph of the day came from University President Joel Seligman. But his comments turned sober when he asked for a moment of silence in memory of student Jeffrey Bordeaux Jr., who died in January after a fight on campus. Seligman went on to read from the poem "Desiderata" by Max Erhmann.

After the conferring of academic degrees, the sea of umbrellas held by many graduates made way for confetti, bubbles, and bouncing beach balls. The River Campus ceremony, which was shortened because of the weather, ended in about an hour with the singing of "The Genesee," the University's alma mater.

Following the commencement on the Eastman Quadrangle, Eastman School of Music graduates heard Emmy Award-winning composer and alumnus Jeffrey Beal speak in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. Beal talked about the importance of learning and growing from adversity, which graduates may face at times.

"The arts are the social and spiritual glue that holds society together—they give us joy, transcendence, and catharsis," said Beal '85E, who received Eastman's Distinguished Alumnus Award and delivered the commencement address. "And while society may not seem to need the arts, in reality we need them more than ever."

Other awardees at today's College and Eastman commencements included:

  • Jonathan Baldo, associate professor of English, Humanities Department, Eastman School of Music; Edward Peck Curtis Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching
  • John H. Bruning, former president and CEO, Corning Tropel Corporation; George Eastman Medal
  • Esther M. Conwell '45 (MS), research professor, Departments of Chemistry and Physics; Honorary Doctor of Science
  • Eleana Kim, assistant professor, Department of Anthropology; G. Graydon Curtis and Jane W. Curtis Award for Nontenured Faculty Teaching
  • Jay T. Last '51, entrepreneur and former vice president of Teledyne; Honorary Doctor of Science

During the University's 2011 commencement season, 3,126 bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees will be conferred.