President Adams, Provost Mace, Dean Grasso, distinguished vice-presidents, deans, and faculty, and most importantly those of you who may find it hard to believe that graduation is finally here, and those who, in love and affection, join you here to bear witness to that fact:
Graduation speakers often give you answers. Instead I want to pose the question — Why are we here? Let me ask you to think about it in three different ways.
First – why are we HERE — by that, I mean why is the University of Georgia here in the first place? Just down the hill from us lies the North Oconee River. Merton Coulter, the great UGA historian, wrote the following about the process of choosing the site for the university:
Here … they began the intensive search for the inevitable hill from which knowledge should go out to the people. After debating various eminences, they agreed on a small plateau high above the Oconee River where it swirled down over some rocks near a clump of cedar trees…. [T]his region was unquestionably beautiful in all its primeval glory, and its streams of cool, clear water. Abraham Baldwin had long held that just such scenes should surround a college….
Or if you head north from here to the intersection of Spring Street and Fulton Street, you’ll find a remnant of what the Augusta Chronicle described on July 25, 1801:
“[A]t least three hundred feet above the level of the river, in the midst of an extensive bed of rocks, issues a copious spring of excellent water;”
Merton Coulter also relates how the springs became part of campus:
“John Milledge, one of the committeemen, who must have been particularly pleased with the hill and especially with the fine spring of water flowing out of the side, bought the land and presented it to the University.”
The springs also became the source of scientific inquiry. Coulter writes:
“[President Josiah] Meigs seemed never to be quite content unless he were measuring something or seeking an explanation for some force of nature. He found out that the campus spring would flow 9,000 gallons of sparkling water in twenty-fours hours in May or only 7,700 gallons in January….”
So we are here in part because of the way nature sustains us, not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually. This University was set up to provide for the acquisition of knowledge in the broadest sense – book-learning and self-knowledge – and to be aware, each day, of our intimate connection to the natural world. So promise me that either when you leave here this evening or some time soon, certainly before you leave Athens, that you will look around yourself at your place in nature, in the world that has made us what we are, the answer to why are we here.
The next way to ask the question is WHY are we here? A flip answer might be “I couldn’t get a job.” No doubt graduate education contributes to public goods in the narrow sense of economics, whether it’s personal finances or across the economic base. But I suspect that for you, there’s more to it than money, more to it than simply adding value to the economy. No one puts in the grinding hours of sitting still doing tedious things – in my case, counting microfossils or reading law texts – only because of some future monetary payoff. You are people who are deeply curious about how the world works, how to hone your talent to move others with your music or art or words, how to feed people, how to heal people and the world.
This ceremony signifies that you have mastered your field in great depth. But hold yourself open to broadening the reach of your mind as your path crosses that of other people in ways you could never plan or explain. They’ll help answer that question “why are we here?” Let me give you three examples from my own life.
· When I began my masters program in geology studying deep-sea foraminifera from the eastern Caribbean, my major professor Barun Sen Gupta didn’t send me off on some tropical cruise in turquoise waters. Instead I went to Halifax, Nova Scotia in January to sample cores that were archived in a freezer! My long hours of microscope work revealed that the relative abundance of different species of these small, one-celled organisms changed depending on glacial cycles, that the deep tropical ocean was affected by what happened at the poles. This may have seemed esoteric at the time, but 30 years later, there’s hardly anyone who is not familiar with global climate change. That’s part of why.
· The year that I entered the UGA School of Law, Louis Sohn joined its faculty, after 38 years of teaching international law at Harvard. Professor Sohn also was one of the lead negotiators for United States at the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea. Here was someone who could help me combine my knowledge of marine science with international law. For Louis Sohn, his students were paramount. This man, the only member of his family in Poland to survive the Holocaust, gave himself so abundantly to us. That’s part of why.
· I also had the great privilege to work with Dean Rusk at the law school. We had things in common we enjoyed talking about, especially having spent our childhood on dirt roads in rural Georgia. Mr. Rusk made the most of his intellect and love of learning to become one of the pivotal figures in American history. Yet after he left government, he placed himself at the service of his students, the university, Athens, and this state, setting an indelible example for us to follow. That’s part of why.
So we come to the question, why are WE here? When the original trustees established the University on a hill by the Oconee River in 1785, they must have seemed like dreamers. One-hundred-twenty-five years later in 1910 when our graduate school was established, less than 10 percent of the U.S. population graduated from high school. The graduate school’s founders were dreamers, too. WE are here because of their dreams.
As Georgia author Harry Stillwell Edwards advised “The value of money is not an inherent element; the value lies in the handling of it. Give and give and give to the cause of education. Here is your field, the workshop of your dollars.” Think on that phrase — “the workshop of your dollars.”
All of us who hold graduate degrees from the University of Georgia have been molded in that workshop. I was the first person in my family to receive a college degree, and the University has nurtured me across decades as a professional. I know what a difference graduate education has made in my life, the debt I owe to the people who were my mentors, and the debt I owe to people I never met. Some were great philanthropists whose names adorn buildings; others gave what they could, anonymous but just as vital. As you begin this new phase of your lives, I encourage you to begin to give back, as part of your answer to the question “Why are we here?”
Congratulations to you all on this signal event in your lives. Thank you.