2004 Commencement Remarks

President Scott S. Cowen
Tulane University
May 22, 2004

The Responsibilities of Privilege

On behalf of the entire Tulane University community, it gives me pleasure to welcome our graduates, and their families and friends, to the 170th commencement exercise of this great university.

Let me take a moment to tell you all about the class of 2004.

  • There are 2,397 of you--1,167 women and 1,230 men, representing all 50 states as well as 52 countries.
  • The top five states represented, after Louisiana, are New York, California, Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania.
  • The top five countries, behind the United States, are Taiwan, China, Honduras, India and Japan.
  • The youngest member of your graduating class will turn 20 in August; your "most well-seasoned"--I won't say "oldest"--is 71 years old.
  • Of the degrees being awarded today, 50% are bachelor's degrees; 27% are master's, 2% are doctorates; 14.5% are in law; and 6.5% are in medicine.
  • And, finally, 12 of you are celebrating birthdays today. I hope you'll always remember this as one of your biggest and best birthday parties ever, with a few thousand of your closest friends and family.

There are also some who aren't here today--students, family members and friends--because of a tragic circumstance, accident or illness. I ask that we pause for a moment to honor their memories.

Today, you graduates become part of a worldwide network of Tulane alumni who have distinguished themselves in every field imaginable and made their mark on our country and the world. You will follow in their footsteps and, I hope, exceed their accomplishments for, on paper, you are the most talented graduates to ever leave this university.

As I look at you today, full of hope and promise, I am reminded of the response I got to one of my recent e-mail letters, which I send weekly to the Tulane community. In it, I talked about how I strongly disagree with those who believe today's young people are not of the caliber and fiber of those in decades past. I believe in today's youth because of you and the many other talented, motivated and selfless Tulane students I encounter every day. I have seen you volunteer thousands of hours in the community to those in need; you have embraced and enhanced the local arts community; you have achieved both in the classroom and on the athletics field. In fact, just this past week, we dedicated a special "Wall of Student Scholars" on campus honoring the many of you and your fellow students who have been recognized in the past with prestigious and highly competitive national and international scholarships to further your study. This Wall will be a constant reminder of your talent and extraordinary talent.

I also look at you today, and hope you realize how very privileged you are. I don't mean to suggest that you necessarily come from wealth or have had an easy life. I know this is not the case for many of you who have struggled and worked very hard for everything you've achieved. You should be proud of those achievements, as I am.

Instead, I refer to you as privileged in a much more important and profound sense in that you have been given the greatest opportunity one can ask for in life--an education at one of the finest universities in the world. The gift of education is what 18th-century educator Horace Mann called "the greatest equalizer in the conditions of men." Education allows people to overcome what sometimes seem like insurmountable obstacles and barriers to reach their fullest potential and to achieve at levels otherwise unthinkable. Education provides the foundation of knowledge, insight, and reflection that allows the impossible to become the possible that puts whatever is in your dreams within your reach. Anyone with an education is indeed privileged. Education is a gift that will serve you the rest of your life and, if you are wise, you will both use it well and continually add to it, making learning a lifelong pursuit.

I was in the first generation of my family to graduate from college. That education led me to a life that neither my parents nor I could ever have imagined. I can only wonder what my mother would be saying if she were alive today!

After college, I served in the military in the 1960s and made a pledge during my time in service to continue my education, if given the opportunity. Thanks to the GI Bill and a university scholarship, I was able to continue the educational journey that eventually brought me here today.

There is not a day that I do not think about those who made my education possible. I also mourn those who never had the chance to get such an education, and am perplexed by those who squandered their opportunity. I also promised myself that I would find a way to make what I was given possible for others, which is why I chose a life of learning.

As I look at our graduates today, I am extraordinarily proud to say proclaim that you are among the "best and brightest" students to graduate from any college or university this spring. Think about that statement again--you are among the VERY BEST of those privileged enough to earn a college degree this year. I wonder: How will you use this privilege, understanding that privilege carries with it awesome responsibilities? In my view, privilege carries with it an enormous price, and that price is responsibility.

I have no doubt that your education will lead you into successful careers in all walks of life, and I wish nothing less for you than success and joy, both professionally and personally.

At the same time, I want to ask you to think about whether professional and personal success is enough. Is this a high enough expectation and standard for those who are privileged by an education such as yours? I believe it is not.

You, my friends, have added responsibilities, even though today they may seem remote and the way to meet them ill-defined. You must find a way to use your talents, energy and education to forge a path for others less fortunate so our world does not continually implode and divide itself between the "haves" and "have-nots" to the ultimate detriment of society. I offer you no prescription of how, when, or where to exercise these responsibilities. Like me and those of my generation, you will have to find your own answers. These issues are profoundly personal, guided by one's life experiences and preferences.

I have no doubts you will meet these responsibilities. After all, you've already used much of this talent and energy in helping create the vitality of the communities in which you have studied, lived and worked. You are intellectually and academically gifted, curious, full of energy and wonderment, and sensitive to people and the world that surround you. You are our hope, you are our future, and I quite honestly find that a reassuring prospect.

Thank you.

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