Ruth J. Simmons - 2016 Commencement Address
To the Chairman of the Regents of this famed institution of higher learning; to my good friend and colleague President David Lyle Boren, to the esteemed faculty who offered these and graduates before them not only excellent instruction but also lofty inspiration; to an administration and staff who bear proudly the legacy of a territorial university that has been borne to the height of American higher education; to the coaches, mentors and volunteers who have steadied these graduates’ steps from orientation to this glorious day of completion; to the family and friends of these graduates who sacrificed for, loved, and alternately lectured, wept for, or cheered them for so very many years; and, finally, to the magnificent class of 2016, in honor of whose accomplishments we gather, I congratulate you. Let nothing we say or do this evening distract us from this important sentiment: having arrived at this moment, these graduates are to be admired and honored for the success of their efforts.
I would say that honoring such achievements is even more important in view of the pressing ethical, social, political and cultural realities of these times. That broader reality to which you will now turn a greater share of your attention is far from the uniformly well-ordered life and landscape of the Norman campus whose ovals bespeak an esthetic of reason. That external realm about which I speak lacks the certainty that you have found in the academic calendar or the Red River Showdown. Most observers of current developments both here and around the world confess to feeling off-kilter about the parlous state of the world. Listening to the multifarious commentaries about the current state of affairs, one gets the distinct impression that we are living in a dystopian world.
In that context, it is no wonder that we feel unadulterated joy in the face of what you have accomplished today. And by what this institution accomplishes on an on-going basis. Year after year OU welcomes fresh young scholars, prepares them for a life of meaning and usefulness, and sends them out as leaders. Soon, as the newest graduates, you will continue the drive to inform and reform the world; to innovate and heal; to pass on to succeeding generations a better world than the one you may have inherited. Based on all that you have witnessed and experienced here, you are well equipped for the challenges and opportunities no matter how one characterizes the times in which we live. That Sooner strength will serve you well for the rest of your lives.
You are right to feel victorious and strong as an individual but, when I look out over this class, I do not see one image of Sooner strength; I see a richly variegated group schooled in and capable of a wide range of endeavors. In fact, it is likely the strengths and differences of others that have played a considerable role in building and fortifying your intelligence and confidence. For such a community as this is forged through robust dissent and agreement; mutual respect and forgiveness; openness and participatory engagement; helping hands and caring hearts; and boundless hope and idealism. So, let us thank heaven for the fact that, fortified by these elements, you are capable of going forward to build a stronger future for us all.
Just remember that the various elements of campus life from which you have benefited derive from a long evolution. It took many decades of trial and error along with wise stewardship to arrive at the campus model you see at OU today. Central to that model is the insistence on high standards of achievement in the context of equally high moral principles. Time has proven that the two must go hand in hand for a life well lived.
Many perceive those standards to be lacking from too much of our daily lives. Indeed, there is a growing outcry in this country for a change in the very order of things. In my view, this dissatisfaction is not altogether unseemly as it suggests that we are still prepared to hold our nation, our communities and leaders to a similarly high standard. We may disagree about how high, it is true, but we generally agree that government, institutions and leaders should be ethical and serve the broader public good over personal interests. The moment that we cease setting high expectations and standards is the moment we can expect an ever more rapid deterioration in the quality of our cherished national and community life.
So do not be quick to shed the very high expectations and standards set for you here at OU. By that, I do not mean simply the expectation for high grades or the expectation that you will succeed in every conventional sense. I mean that this community has modeled for you the many ways to imagine your ultimate place in the world.
You may never again be a part of a community so strong in its values, so intentionally diverse in its makeup and its interactions, so extensively beloved by its supporters; so forthright in its insistence on doing good; so capable of further heights of accomplishment in the service of mankind. This is the place you prepare to leave but if you are fortunate and wise, you will take the heart and soul of this community ethos with you.
Be careful that you do not later turn to patterns of thought and behavior that are antithetical to what has earned you this university’s stamp of approval. Continue to value the fearless pursuit of truth. Keep forging commonalities among people. Recognize and commit unabashedly to learning as a lifelong endeavor. Most of all, don’t just laminate or hang your diploma as proof of your studies here; persistent fidelity to its values is the best proof of your success as an OU alumnus.
It is a very special honor to stand in for beloved Oklahoma alumna Elizabeth Garrett who was to have given your commencement address today. President Garrett’s life and career are emblematic of the ideals of which I speak. The few sentiments I offer you today are set in the context of her example, an example of diligence, faithfulness, caring and integrity. As a Sooner, she no doubt wondered where her OU education would take her. I am certain that she dared not think it could carry her to clerking for a Supreme Court justice, a senior academic career and the leadership of an Ivy League university. But the values she lived here clung to her when she left and took her to these heights and more. While moving gracefully from one accomplishment to the next, she never shed the values and standards that kept her focused on doing good while doing well.
Your experience at OU has enabled these same kinds of possibilities for you. It has given you an engine powerful enough for your take off and reliable enough to keep you aloft for the rest of your life. But one doesn’t have to be an engineer or a mechanic to know that the inner workings of an engine left un-attended can falter with disastrous consequences. Keep your engine tuned. You have had proximity to individuals so different from you in background and outlook that you need never feel the temptation to disparage, dismiss or isolate others because they are different. You have been surrounded by those who provide the criticism needed for your ongoing improvement. Continue to look for interlocutors who are honest and candid in their interactions. You have been cared for by groundskeepers and cooks and janitors and others who have made your life comfortable. Cultivate a respect for others and remember that “thank you” are two of the most important words in your vocabulary. Use them often. You have been fortunate to have access to an advanced education. Treat your knowledge as an advantage but never use it as a weapon against those who have not been similarly blessed.
It is simply not possible for you to know where life will ultimately take you. Growing up in a small east Texas town with no resources and on the margin of society, I could not imagine going to college, let alone becoming a college president. The day that I was sworn in as president, I thought of my parents who for most of their lives had no civil rights and just an eighth grade education. I learned eventually that, although highly educated, I could never be better than they were because in spite of what they had endured, they had faithfully followed their beliefs. Principal among those beliefs was that a person’s worth is neither determined by the recognition they receive from others nor granted by the possessions they amass. They believed worth was determined by character and by how we treat and care for others. You will go far in life but never so far, I hope, that you lose sight of the intrinsic value of human beings whatever their state.
I hope you will all go forth with the determination to emulate your compatriot Elizabeth Garrett who is recognized widely not merely for what she accomplished but for how beautifully and wisely she lived her life and reflected the Sooner spirit. Let the lessons of the OU community cling to you as they did to her and you will surely thrive.
Congratulations again and God speed.
Ruth J. Simmons