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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Bial advocates equal opportunity in America

Published: May 20, 2012
Section: Front Page, News

Deborah Bial ’87 urged graduates to confront economic, gender and racial inequalities in America; President Fred Lawrence defended the value and cost of a liberal arts education; and guests including Honduran President Porfirio Lobo and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft arrived to celebrate Brandeis University’s 61st commencement ceremonies on Sunday morning inside the Gosman Sports and Convocation Center.

Bial, who launched the Posse Foundation in 1989, which recruits diverse groups of talented public high school students traditionally overlooked by the nation’s elite colleges, challenged graduates to use their passion and Brandeis education to remedy societal issues, including high unemployment for veterans returning from Afghanistan, unequal access for minority students to higher education, and pay discrepancies between men and women in the workplace.

“We can’t deny that the United States has made great progress in terms of civil rights and women’s rights,” Bial said. “But the progress that we’ve made has been too slow. This country is forgetting its way. Where are the leaders?”

Bial advised the class of 2012 to observe the severity and urgency of issues in American economic, social and political life.

“The issues are right in front of us. They’re stark, obvious, maybe even mocking. If the issues could speak they might say, ‘How far can we push them before they do something?’ Pretty far, it seems,” she said.

Receiving honorary degrees in addition to Bial were Sydney Brenner, a leading molecular biologist and geneticist; Joseph Polisi, president of The Juilliard School; Amartya Sen, a Nobel Memorial Prize-winning economist and philosopher; and trustee and philanthropist Myra Kraft ’64, who served as president of the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation. The university awarded the degree to Kraft, who passed away last July, posthumously. Her husband and Patriots owner Robert Kraft accepted it on her behalf.

An emotional Lawrence and Kraft stood before the university community to present the degree, praising her devotion to students and her accomplishments in philanthropy. Students then performed the song “Seasons of Love” from the musical “Rent” in her honor.

“Students were her priority and they knew it,” Associate Vice President for University Affairs John Hose said. “She did not help people from a distance. She wanted to know them and she did.”

Echoing the themes from his inauguration speech last March and first commencement address last May, Lawrence explained that despite rising college tuition costs and job shortages, a liberal arts education—particularly one from Brandeis—is a worthwhile investment.
He first cited studies proving that college graduates in the United States earn lifetime incomes 70 to 80 percent higher than non-college graduates. But the message of his address centered on the intangible tools and results from a liberal arts degree.

“Mental agility and creativity will be in their highest demand in the decades to come,” Lawrence said. “The liberal arts training that you have received shapes more than your value in the market place; it shapes your even more important value as a citizen.”

After discussing the relevance of critical thinking, and analytical, communication and problem-solving skills in any profession, Lawrence asked students to reflect on their learning experiences outside of the classroom.

“The willingness to engage in real relationships and build real communities is in many ways the real hallmark of a Brandeis education,” Lawrence said.

He also called on students to embrace the uncertainty of their futures.

“As for risk taking, is there any greater risk to take in this society than the sheer risk of being yourself, of trying approaches to life without certainty of success or outcome,” Lawrence said.

Bial’s address began with a comical tone as she recounted her days as a Brandeis student against the backdrop of change in American society.

“The year I enrolled, they were still passing out joints in Levin ballroom at the dances. I am totally serious,” Bial said. “I know they don’t do that anymore.”

Her remarks concluded with a wish for students to embrace the present and accept the responsibility of graduating.

“The responsibility to do something now lies with you—whether it’s fair or not,” Bial said, later adding, “Just remember to let yourself be with the world. And when you get ready to walk across this stage be in the moment.”

The university awarded 834 undergraduate and 883 graduate degrees and certificates, according to the Office of the Registrar. Lawrence told graduating students to combine their skill development with passion for change.

“You have been trained to solve problems creatively—may you always find ways to use your skills for the betterment of a world so desperately needing repair, personally, locally, nationally and globally,” he said.