I was thinking about UMass Lowell’s Commencement the day after and made myself step back from the scene I was in to get a better sense of what was going on. The Tsongas Center on Saturday was a magnificent setting. When the pipes and drums started up, everyone in the place experienced a group shiver. A colleague leaned toward me and said, What would we do if we didn’t have this arena?
Aside from hailing the completion of degree requirements by more than 3,000 women and men, the traditional exercises included special addresses from the platform upon which sit the Chancellor and his cabinet, faculty, honored students, and guests like the local Sheriff. The platform is a physical structure, true enough, but it is also a figurative construction on a day like this because it is an opportunity for the university to shape the local conversation. The people put forward by the university as Commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients are themselves statements of beliefs and values, elevated, literally, in this public event. In choosing to present popular and innovative science educator Bill Nye and the noteworthy Dr. Howard K. Koh, appointed by President Obama to be the assistant secretary for health, the university called us to pay attention to their messages. Bill Nye challenged the graduates to “Change the world!”—and he said it a few times to be sure they got it. With climate change upon us, the imperative to change the way we live and produce energy could not be more serious. Dr. Koh talked about our personal health being a gift that we should cherish and spoke about the importance of civic engagement, which he exemplifies through his work in Washington, D.C., and past service as commissioner of public health in our state. They both gave substantive speeches befitting the occasion.
These speakers and all the esteemed honorary degree recipients inspire us through their own journeys. They enrich the dialogue. And we need that because everyday noise and distractions can cause us to lose perspective, to get caught up in the small stuff. It’s good to be reminded to “go big” and not apologize for striving to be high-minded. Bill Nye urged the graduates to be tough-minded and to avoid lame answers to complex questions. I’ve been to more than 20 Commencements at the university since my own at Cawley Stadium in 1976. I can’t remember the speaker at my Commencement, but I guarantee the 2014 graduates will remember their speakers (Nye did the undergraduate ceremony, and Koh spoke at the afternoon ceremony for the College of Health Sciences and master’s and doctoral programs). Each time an extraordinary person speaks from the university’s platform, at Commencement or at another event during the academic year, the community conversation changes—and elevates.