University of Rochester

Commencement Speaker Ruth Simmons Urges Graduates to Value Human Dignity for All, Not the Privileged Few

May 20, 2012


Commencement Speaker and Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons receives an honorary degree from President Joel Seligman, left, and Grand Marshal Jesse T. Moore.

Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons knows the glory of college graduations and what she believes should be a heavy burden placed on graduates to use their knowledge to serve society.

"[And] that burden is not limited to what you do in your laboratory or in your practice, in the classroom or in the boardroom," she said Sunday in her commencement address to the College of Arts, Sciences & Engineering graduates at the University of Rochester. "It extends to where you are at every moment of your life. Your education benefits society only if you are a drum major for human dignity."

Applause resounded and about 1,200 graduates of the Class of 2012 stood to acknowledge her vision of the challenges ahead as well as her concerns about America's future. "I believe that today our country may be at a turning point," she warned. "Many are of a view that too many of our institutions, too many leaders, and too many national policies are failing to observe and respect a vital truth: the overall health of our nation relies on respect and regard for all. Not the few. Not the privileged. But all."

The sunny, warm morning ceremony brought more than 6,000 people—graduates, their families, friends, dignitaries, and University faculty and staff—to the Eastman Quadrangle to witness the 162nd commencement with its presentation of honors, formal remarks, and conferring of bachelor's and master's degrees.

Simmons, who is stepping down after 11 years as Brown University's president, received an honorary degree Doctor of Humane Letters. The Most Rev. Matthew H. Clark, Roman Catholic Bishop of Rochester, was awarded an honorary degree Doctor of Divinity at the ceremony. In his greetings to graduates, Clark wished for them the opportunity "to learn and serve and grow all the days of your lives. Keep the Meliora of this great University before you."

At a time of accelerating change around the world, University of Rochester President Joel Seligman told graduates that there is no reason to be fearful. "You are unusually well-prepared for it. You have already illustrated your sense of initiative and ability to make fundamental decisions by designing your own curriculum. You possess unusually refined senses of self-reliance and often creativity. That is the Rochester Way."

During his remarks, Seligman asked for a moment of silence to remember Jeffrey Bordeaux Jr., a student in the Class of 2012 who died on campus last year. Just a few hours later, those attending the Eastman School of Music commencement in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre paused for a silent tribute to student Shibai (Victor) Jia and faculty member Zvi Zeitlin, who died during the current academic year.

Composer George Walker '56 (DMA) received the honorary degree Doctor of Music at the Eastman School commencement and shared his perspective from a multifaceted career as a musician, pianist, and educator. In his view, careers can appear to follow a twisting path or display as "a mosaic where some colors will be brighter than others." Persistence and resilience are essential for survival, Walker said. Frustrations are inevitable, but they can be overcome with focus and determination.

On the Eastman Quadrangle, the celebratory balloons and beach balls were tossed among the graduating seniors throughout the ceremony. Lucas Piazza, president of the Senior Class Council from Averill Park, N.Y., who majored in cultural consumerism, spoke on behalf of the class. He reminisced about their first candlelight gathering as freshmen, the best party site at Riverview, and the national news events they shared—from the presidential election of Barack Obama to the death of Steve Jobs of Apple.

Piazza's excitement in his closing remark of "Let's go tackle the world" was tempered by President Simmons's description of reality once students leave the university community. "There are differences that will challenge you every day as you make choices in your personal and professional lives," she cautioned in her address. "I urge you not to retreat into groups of like-minded privileged individuals, but to use your voice in the service of those whose rights are trampled."

Other awardees at the College and Eastman commencements included:

  • Roger Friedlander '56, retired business executive, civic leader, and University trustee; Charles Force Hutchison and Marjorie Smith Hutchison Medal
  • Lane A. Hemaspaandra, professor of computer science; Edward Peck Curtis Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching
  • Carol Webber, professor of voice; Eastman School's Eisenhart Award for Excellence in Teaching

During the University's 2012 commencement season, 3,092 bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees will be conferred. Photos and videos of the weekend's ceremonies can be found at