All University Commencement – Fall, 2020

An Appeal to Kindness

Before we begin the conferring of degrees, I’d like to share a few brief thoughts with you. First, congratulations. This is a big deal. Today is the culmination of years of hard work and dedication to a goal. You’re getting a degree from a great university, which means you’re well on your way to a healthier, wealthier and happier life. In short, you’ve done something extraordinary and positioned yourself for lifelong success. I hope the time and effort it took to earn your degree has instilled in you the confidence to attempt still bigger things in the years ahead. I know you will.

I regret that this year’s commencement is a bit strange and bizarre as it had to be designed in accordance with our state health department’s guidelines. In fact, it’s safe to say the better part of this year has been an extraordinary challenge: for our country, for our state, for our university, and for each and every one of us as individuals. We’ve all been touched in some way by this pandemic – even today, as we find ourselves socially distanced here at this ceremony.

The least affected of us have been working from home since last spring, but working nevertheless, and for that privilege we must be extremely thankful. The worst affected have experienced job losses, inability to pay bills, mental health complications, hospitalization, and, of course, the loss of life and loved ones. The pandemic has also had a disproportionate impact on people of color while deepening political polarization in this country. We are increasingly being advised to avoid politics when we go home to visit family for the holidays – though, in fairness, we are also advised not to go home at all!

The good news is that for the recent elections we had the highest voter turnout in a century. People are passionate about our country—that’s good. The bad news is that much of this voting was fueled by fear, anger and resentment, regardless of what part of the political spectrum you find yourself on. I mention this today not because I want to depress everyone or reduce your enthusiasm and the joy of your celebration today.

But I feel we should acknowledge the unique context in which this otherwise triumphant ceremony is occurring. While a vaccine is on the horizon, it’s likely going to take us some time to work through the other consequences of this period – political consequences, economic consequences, and yes, social consequences. Central to recovering from this is something I want you to think about today.

And that’s remembering to show some basic kindness. Yes, some basic kindness. We have to figure out a way to talk to each other, and treat each other, with more kindness. Frustration with the pandemic seems to have heightened growing antagonisms, whether its conservatives versus liberals, old versus young, rich versus poor, or some other false dichotomy. While I have my own opinions – science is real, folks! - I’m not here to take sides. I’d rather try to find some common ground. Because no matter how certain one side is that they are right, the other is equally certain that they are wrong. More importantly, this is not Lord of the Rings. One side is not going to vanquish the other in some final battle of good and evil. At least I hope not!

Each side needs the other to question its dogma and check its more excessive actions. And really I don’t believe there are just two sides to anything – most of our beliefs are complex and reside on a continuum ranging from strong to weak. It’s just that it increasingly feels like we have to pick a side – that it is all or nothing. More importantly, I believe we are all stuck in this together... so we’ve got to figure out a way to understand each other better. We’ve got to better understand each other’s fears. Each other’s anxieties. Frustrations. Values. The things that drive our choices. We’ve got to stop demonizing each other and understand that we all have similar hopes and dreams.

We all want our families to be happy.
We want good jobs.
We want a better future for our children.
We want to love and be loved.
We want to pursue our passions.
We want to be healthy, enjoy relaxing vacations, and host a backyard barbecue now and then with family or friends.

We just seem to disagree right now on the best way to achieve and sustain these things. Kindness means we try to see opposing views, and the people who hold them, with understanding and empathy. Kindness means we have to take the temperature down a notch and listen sympathetically to each other’s views – some of which, yes, may sound crazy, but some of which are perfectly rationale if only we take the time to listen. Kindness allows us to see each other as real people – people who may be struggling, who may be in pain, who may be fearful of what the future will bring.

So please, please, as college graduates, as future leaders who are inevitably going to rise higher, go farther, and have more and better opportunities, try to have a little kindness for those who aren’t. Have a little kindness for those struggling to make ends meet. Have a little kindness for those who aren’t as educated and haven’t had the opportunities that you have had. Have a little kindness for those who hold what you believe are outdated or old-fashioned views. Maybe we can turn the tide if we can get enough people to believe in each other. It’s got to start somewhere.

I can think of no better place than with our hardest working, our best educated, our most talented and our brightest citizens leading the way. And that’s who you are. With that, congratulations to all of you. You have my best wishes. Thank you for being part of the U of A community. You have enriched everyone here.