President Mark D. Gearan
Commencement Valedictory Remarks
May 17, 2015
I will remember this April 15th for some time.
“Your tax forms have been rejected,” I was told. “Someone else has filed his taxes under your name. Mark, it’s identity theft.”
Identity theft. Like many of you, I had read articles about it over the years, felt badly for the people involved and, frankly, moved on. But now it was me. Identity theft.
In many ways, it strikes me as an odd phrase. After all, how can someone steal one’s identity?
Is it just a Social Security number? A street address? An Instagram handle? Growing up I loved the Greek myths and how they wonderfully employed what I suppose was the original handle with appositive phrases: Hermes, fleet of foot; Cupid, God of desire.
What would mine be? Mark Gearan, bad keyboard player for a garage band?
My thinking about identity led me to my favorite philosopher – and fellow garage band member – Dean Eugen Baer.
As a Philosophy Professor Dean Baer has thought about, taught and written a great deal about identity. In a recent talk he noted that in the 21st century he sees personal identity “in plural modalities and in perpetual flux in ways that was not the case in earlier centuries” due to “the internet, global communication and migration.” He notes that Freud and Goffman could never have foreseen “that in 2015 there would be between 600 and 700 million active Facebook users who create and maintain their Facebook identity with their likes and dislikes 24/7. Many protect their identity with special software.”
Dean Baer observes that for some, personal identity is “Personality, for others it has a lot to do with ethnicity….for others still, identity is an underlying sense of self which endures through various changes.”
For Dean Baer, the Buddhist construction of identity as ‘interdependent origination’ is appealing: “The concept…emphasizes the mutual enrichment of the parties involved.”
So with this construction of identity – as I look out at all of you newly minted college graduates – you have another part of your identity: Hobart and William Smith graduate. And Hobart and William Smith have a new part of their identities thanks to all you have done and accomplished here. As you have been transformed, so have we. And as Dean Baer notes – “that mutuality will continue as you begin your lives as alums.”
What will it mean to you? How will you relate to it? How will you employ it?
During your four years here, we’ve asked you to think about a life of consequence, to interrogate yourself as to what that might mean for you. Einstein would urge you to become a ‘person of value’ and not just a ‘person of success.’ And we hope your experiences here in the classroom, outside the classroom, in Geneva – and around the world – have fostered that inquiry and reflection.
You will live and work in an exciting and dynamic century – filled with opportunities and promise, as well as challenges and conflict.
It is a time marked by fast paced change and innovation.
Our hope is that this new part of your identity as an HWS alum will provide you with the skills to navigate these changes, to analyze issues with care and empathy, to think critically about the challenges ahead and to actively engage in solutions.
We all know that we are living in a time of rapid change. And while change is inevitable – progress is not.
You will live in a time when there are many more democracies around the world – yet face challenges caused by growing economic disparities and conflict.
You will live in a time where access to education is expanding – yet you now have what only 1% of the world enjoys: a college degree.
You will benefit from advances in technology – yet be challenged by a social media world with ‘outrage addicts’ who transform the medium into rant filled, anonymous rages.
The futurologist David Brin notes that “feelings of righteous indignation can give people a drug-like high. Ordinary internet users can take comfort themselves after such postings believing ‘I am so much smarter and better than my enemies!’”
Theunis Bates likens those posting these rants to “pitchfork wielding villagers: Everyone can now get an instant, ego boosting high by opening their computer or smartphone and joining in the online shaming of a perceived offender. But they haven’t made the world any better. All they’ve done is made a stranger’s life a little worse.”
So how will you make the world better? How will you insure that as change is inevitable, progress should be, too? Bob Marley put it simply: “People who are trying to make the world worse are not taking the day off.”
I submit to you that on our platform today are five women and men who offer different pathways to making the world a better place. Five individuals who have not taken a day off in their work to make our Colleges, our community and our nation better.
Let’s start with Chaplain Adams — heck, as a minister she can’t even take the Sabbath off! But with her calling to the ministry, she has called all of us in the HWS community to be our better selves. In word and action, she has modeled a life of service.
Alan Khazei took his idea from his college dorm room and through risk and hard work provides significant service opportunities nationally. His life shows the power of an idea – entrepreneurship combined with persistence and effort.
Lucile Mallard brought her focus locally: Geneva, New York, 14456. And with courage and leadership showed us all the power of love, employing the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and modeling the real spirit of community.
David Gergen blended his passion for public policy, service and writing to foster national conversations on important topics as he trains and inspires a new generation of leaders.
And Louise Slaughter who takes her considerable talents and courageous stands to work toward a more perfect union, a woman who blazed trails for women as she has fought for their safety.
Five individuals with five identities that define them and who offer lessons from local to national, from non-profit to government to academia.
So with this new part of your identity as an HWS alum, I urge you to go forth and to do good.
To truly lead a life of consequence and to be a person of value.
With the confidence of our faculty and the support of this entire community – we believe you are well prepared to follow generations of other Hobart and William Smith graduates who have preceded you.
We will miss you.
But be bold. Be compassionate. Be engaged. Be kind.
And be well. Godspeed.