2005 Commencement Address
Tuesday, May 24, 2005
Radio City Music Hall
Congratulations, class of 2005.
This is your own very glorious day.
As I look around you—and into the distance of this great hall—I see the beaming faces of your families and friends, and members of our faculty—all of whom share in this special moment, all of whom take pride in your accomplishments.
I want to welcome all of you: families, friends, our faculty and administration, trustees and distinguished guests, especially those alumni who have returned to help us mark our 60th anniversary.
Your presence here today adds to the joy of this moment for our graduates.
You know, one of my constant messages to you, from the moment you arrived on campus, has been a simple one: give back.
One way or another, even in the midst of your busy lives as students, between the pressures of projects, deadlines, exams, work —even play— find a way to make a difference— in the classroom, in the college, in the community in which you live— give back.
It is, as they say, the rent we pay for having a room here on this earth.
Now that sounds fairly simple.
But, in fact, it is not.
The nature and spirit of generosity, and the endless ways in which it can be expressed—and denied— are as vast and complex as humanity itself.
Like many college presidents, I spend a lot of time—probably far too much of my time—trying to tap into that spirit, convincing people, foundations, corporations—to give to fit.
So the complexities of generosity, of gift giving, are often on my mind.
In recent years, the world has witnessed acts of mass and spectacular generosity—acts that match the horrific and spectacular events that prompted them: the billions of dollars that flowed into New York City following 9/11, and the vast outpouring of helping hands that arrived, as if by impulse, at Ground Zero the billions of dollars more that rushed to relief efforts following the tsunami late last year.
For some, it takes a cataclysmic event to be jolted into action.
And then, once the emergency has subsided and faded from the headlines, they revert to their more insular, self-involved lives.
Indeed, generosity does not come naturally to everyone, nor should we expect that it would.
Yet, believe it or not, science tells us that despite the alienation and greed that is so much a part of our world—despite humanity's awful history of violence and selfishness and destruction—we may actually be wired to be nice, to cooperate, to be generous.
In neurological studies based at Emory University not long ago, scientists—using MRI technology—found that the pleasure centers of our brains, the so-called reward centers—light up when people cooperate and are generous with each other even when it is not in their best financial interests to do so.
And the longer they cooperate, the happier they become.
Yet long before the advent of x-rays and MRIs—about 1000 years before—another scientist with the odd nickname of Rambam was also studying generosity and human behavior.
He was deeply concerned about the social fabric of society and the achievement of a just world.
Consumed with questions of righteousness and obligation, he explored the development of the charitable heart, and its moral and spiritual consequences.
Rambam is actually the acronym for Moses Maimonides, the renowned 12th century rabbi, philosopher and physician.
In his studies, he devised a ladder of charity—a very contemporary 8-step program for giving, with rungs in descending order of worthiness.
At its top is responsibility: to give the transformative gift of self-reliance so that the recipient will never have to beg again.
At its bottom is reluctance to give grudgingly—perhaps judgmentally—as we sometimes do when we hand change over to a panhandler in the street, certain he is lazy or worse.
In between are rungs that analyze amount, motivation, when, to whom, and under what conditions one gives.
I got considerable insight into Rambam's ladder from a book of the same name written by Julie Salamon, a reporter for the new york times.
As Ms. Salamon points out, giving can be full of paradoxes and problems for even the most altruistic among us.
We can be simultaneously selfish and generous, suspicious and open.
And Rambam's ladder can be like a children's slide or teeter-totter: once on, you go up or down, or perhaps straddle between rungs—depending on the moment or the mood, the person or the cause confronting you.
In doing her research, Ms. Salamon found stories of pain and triumph, and the many ways the act of giving breaks through life's anonymity to redeem the human spirit.
I would like to share one such story that I found particularly compelling—one that took place in the wake of 9/11, at that time when all of us were still in the midst of that immediate shock and fear.
On that very morning, prior to the attack, at a crisis center that serves the homeless located on the Bowery—just north of the financial district—the staff was gearing up for a busy day.
It was already quite hectic and crowded, with many clients being admitted and discharged.
Then the planes struck and soon after, the endless parade of escaping people started to stream past the crisis center—covered in dust, debris, some in blood.
Instantaneously, and without anyone asking, the homeless men and women went to work: they organized, set out chairs, provided water, helped to hose off debris and generally provided care—as if they were actual members of the crisis center staff.
All day they worked, all day they maintained this remarkable role reversal. As the centers director put it, they were glad to be part of something, to be doing something they were there.
Indeed, no more were they anonymous victims, the recipients of charity invisible.
Through their own giving acts, they broke through that anonymity and isolation, and became a vibrant part of a community.
When one of the women they helped brought in a tray of cookies a few days later, it was not as a favor bestowed—but rather a gesture to say thank you for all they had contributed.
It is not surprising to learn that in the weeks and months that followed, as life returned to normal, these men and women began to experience long bouts of depression once again.
Once again, they were uninvolved, unconnected, anonymous.
But for that one galvanizing day, the anonymity of their lives was lifted.
They felt the regenerative power of giving —and by their own generosity, their humanity was validated and affirmed.
I think many of you have started to learn that lesson in your years here at fit and in that, you make us quite hopeful and proud.
You have learned to identify with the fate of others.
Student volunteer activity keeps growing—and in impressive numbers and ways.
Food drives, blood drives, fundraising drives—you have helped at homes for battered women and HIV positive children served at soup kitchens—played bingo at senior centers.
You have learned, to quote another observer, that gifts attach us and when we connect we prosper. All of us do.
When we send you out into the larger world today, I hope you will build on what you have learned.
Make the spirit of giving a guiding principle of your day-to-day life.
This may not be easy; you will, like all of us, slide up and down Rambam's ladder.
But as fit students, you have a very special gift—the gift of creativity and imagination.
Without it, you would not have been admitted to fit.
With it, you have the inherent power—the capacity —to grasp, with great compassion, the human predicament.
When we send you out into the larger world today, we know you will succeed. But as I think you have already learned, success—real success—is measured by more than just the bottom line.
As we learn from Rambam's ladder, in the end, we are not measured by what we have, but from what we give to each other.
So in the years ahead choose generosity over selfishness, participation over alienation.
Hang onto Rambam's ladder and let your neurons jump with joy.
I wish you god speed.
Now, for another jolt of joy, I am very pleased to introduce you to our guest speaker, Charles Osgood.
Every Sunday morning, for years now, he has been bringing light into our lives as the host of the CBS-TV news program Sunday Morning.
And when, at the close of each of those shows, he tells us Ill see you on the radio, we know just exactly what he means.
Because as anchor and writer of the Osgood file, which is broadcast daily on CBS radio, his commentary is so lucid that we can indeed see just exactly his point.
Mr. Osgood has been with CBS for almost 40 years and with his perceptive, broad ranging reports, he has greatly influenced our culture.
Indeed, he has tallied up a huge audience of listeners and admirers, as well as almost every broadcast journalism honor on the books, including three Emmys and three Peabodys.
In this particular fit audience, he might be best recognized for his trademark bow-tie.
However, he is also known as the CBS poet-in-residence for his occasional versifying and he is, in addition, a humorist, author, and even a musician, who has played piano and banjo with the new york and Boston Pops orchestras.
A true renaissance man.
It is our great honor to have him with us.
Please join me in welcoming Charles Osgood.