Spring is a time of hope and new beginnings for the thousands of graduates who grace college and university commencement celebrations. This year, artists, politicians, journalists and philanthropists took to the stage to speak not only about new beginnings but about some of the most pressing issues of our time — from women’s rights and civil rights to widening inequality and climate change. A common theme throughout has been of encouraging new graduates to stand up to resist the powers that be and become part of movements fighting those powers. And whether intentional or not, this year’s speakers have sparked not only our sense of hope but also of the critical role of citizens in America’s democracy.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, Morgan State University
Former Vice President Joe Biden delivered the commencement address at Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore, on May 20. Biden lit up the auditorium with his contagious sense of humor, including jokes about the bromance between him and former President Barack Obama. But he did not let the opportunity pass without reminding the new graduates of the social challenges they have ahead:
“I thought we had passed the days when it was acceptable for politicians to bestow legitimacy on hate speech – playing with people’s fears, appealing to their baser instincts. Populism seeking to blame troubles of a changing world on the other, the outsider, the immigrant, minority, transgender. Anyone not like you became the scapegoat. ‘It’s the reason I am failing, the reason I’m falling behind, the reason I can’t compete, the reason I lost my job.’ None of it is true!
“I assure you [the turmoil is] temporary and transitory. It will not be sustained. The American people will not tolerate it… [We need to] change the culture of how we treat black lives, because black lives do matter! Racism is still embedded in our culture.”
Sen. Kamala D. Harris, Howard University
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-CA), a Howard University alumna who in 2016 became the first black politician ever to represent California in the Senate, gave the convocation speech at her alma mater’s graduation ceremony on May 13. Harris praised the graduates for their social activism and urged them to continue their fight:
“You students have joined the fight for justice — you protested… From the streets of Ferguson to the halls of the United States Congress, you have lived the words of James Baldwin, ‘There is never a time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.'[W]e have a fight ahead. And it’s not a fight between Democrats and Republicans. It’s not rich versus poor; or urban versus rural. This is a fight to define what kind of country we are. And it’s a fight to determine what kind of country we will be. And it’s a fight to determine whether we are willing to stand up for our deepest values.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Wheelock College
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) gave the commencement speech at Boston’s Wheelock College on May 19. Warren has never been shy about her criticism of the current administration, and her speech at Wheelock College was no exception. During her address, Warren asked the graduates to become more politically involved because the future of the country is at stake.
“I’d like to get all of you more directly involved in policy work. The decisions the government makes will profoundly affect you and everyone you try to help. Policies matter enormously in our lives. Start with education… The interest rate on your federal student loans was set by your elected officials. And how much funding goes to support kids in public schools is determined by officials in Washington, and here in the commonwealth. These decisions are made by a handful of people who, in a democracy, are supposed to report directly to you. And in the case of student loans, your voice is not being heard in Washington. And I want to change that.”
Sally Yates, Harvard Law School
The former acting attorney general spoke at the Harvard Law School commencement ceremony on May 24. Yates was fired by the Trump administration after ordering the Justice Department to not enforce Trump’s travel ban in January. During her speech, Yates spoke about what firing has meant for her career, and for the reputation of the Justice Department, where she served for 27 years. Referring to this moment as an “unexpected moment when law and conscience intersected,” Yates stated:
“You never know when you’re going to have to decide who you are and what you stand for… On Jan. 27 I learned from media reports that the president had signed an executive order restricting travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries. Defending the constitutionality of the travel ban would require the Department of Justice to prove it wasn’t a Muslim ban…. This would require us to advance a pretext — a defense not grounded in truth. So I directed the Department of Justice not to defend the ban. I believed then and believe now that resigning would have protected my personal integrity but it would not have protected the integrity of the Department of Justice.”
Robert Mueller, Tabor Academy
The former FBI director and special counsel investigating possible ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government in the 2016 election delivered the commencement speech at Tabor Academy on May 29. His remarks offer a glimpse of the type of investigation Muller may conduct:
“When given the opportunity to address students I always mention integrity, because it is so essential to who and what you ultimately will become. In the end, it is not only what we do but how we do it. Whatever we do, we must act with honesty and with integrity and regardless of your chosen career, you’re only as good as your word. If you are not honest, your reputation will suffer. And once lost, a good reputation can never ever be regained.”
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Hampshire College
Princeton University Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor delivered the speech at the Hampshire College commencement ceremony on May 20. She was highly passionate about the powerful consequences of the 2016 presidential election:
“You are graduating into a world of uncertainty and one that is increasingly dangerous. Perhaps the most extreme illustration of this now resides in the White House. The president of the United States — the most powerful politician in the world — is a racist, sexist megalomaniac. It is not a benign observation but has meant tragic consequences for many people in this country… Our reality becomes more surreal with each passing day. This is the time for defiance, not by voting for a different party. I mean a refusal to accept the world how it is and demand the world we want.”
Following her commencement speech, Taylor cancelled a scheduled appearance in Seattle after receiving death threats linked to her remarks.
Mark Zuckerberg, Harvard University
In his May 25 Harvard University commencement speech, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg showed a side of himself not commonly seen, and confirmed his commitment to help others when he pledged to donate 99 percent of his Facebook stock to charity:
“You are part of something bigger than yourself. Purpose creates true happiness… [We must] redefine our idea of equality so everyone has the freedom to fulfill their purpose. We have a level of wealth inequality that hurts everyone. There is something wrong with our system, when I can leave here and make billions of dollars in 10 years, while millions of students can’t even afford to pay off their loans, let alone start a business. We need a society that is less focused on locking us up and stigmatizing us when we do. We need a society more focused on providing continuous education through our lives. [And] people like me should pay for these changes.”
Brooke Baldwin, University of North Carolina
CNN news anchor Brooke Baldwin delivered the commencement address at the University of North Carolina on May 14. Baldwin spoke about the long-fought battle women at Fox suffered during the tenures of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly:
“Being a woman in journalism… Well, the good news? There are lots of women in journalism… We have seen courageous women at another network stand up to their leader and all out injustice and sexism. A titan fell. And this spring, a female journalist spent tireless hours on a piece about that network — a piece that triggered the end of a powerful cable news host. A host that was called untouchable. Emily Steel of The New York Times had been openly threatened by this host in the past. He said to her, and I quote: ‘I’m coming after you with everything I have.’ But she didn’t budge. She didn’t back down. Her journalistic voice was heard and that network is still feeling the aftershock.”
Helen Mirren, Tulane University
In her commencement address at Tulane University on May 20, award-winning actress Helen Mirren spoke about the importance of feminism, as well as the injustices done to women by the Trump administration:
“Whether you are in Tipitina’s, the French Quarter or the Oval Office, no good can ever come from tweeting at 3 a.m. No matter what sex you are, be a feminist… When women are given respect and the ability and the freedom to pursue their personal dreams and ambitions, life improves for everyone. Feminism is a necessity if we are to move us forward and not backward into ignorance and fearful jealousy. Never again allow a group of old, rich, white men define the health care of a country that is 50.8 percent women and 37 percent other races.”
Pharrell Williams, New York University
Singer Pharrell Williams dedicated his May 17 address to uplifting women and talking about the discrimination suffered by women everywhere. Williams told NYU graduates:
“It gives me great comfort knowing that this generation is the first to understand that we need to lift up our women. Imagine the possibilities when we remove imbalance from the ether, because it’s unbalanced right now. Imagine the possibilities when women are not held back. Your generation is unraveling deeply entrenched laws, principles and misguided values that have held women back for far too long. And therefore, have held us all back, the human race. The world that you live in, will be a lot better for it. This is the first generation that navigates the world with the security and the confidence to treat women as equal… And it makes some people uncomfortable. Just imagine the possibilities.”