2009 Commencement Address

Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Radio City Music Hall

Congratulations, Class of 2009!

This is your own very glorious day. As I look around you—even into the distance of this great hall—I see only beaming faces, the happy faces of your families, friends and members of our faculty and administration—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 administrators, SUNY and FIT trustees, honorees and distinguished guests. I want to offer a special welcome to Professor Dr. Muhammed Sahin, (Shah-heen) Rector of Istanbul Technical University, who joins us on our podium to celebrate the 20 students who graduate as part of FIT's dual degree program with ITU. Each person who is here today adds to the joy of this moment for our graduates.

And I suspect that shortly—with degrees conferred and the doors of Radio City Music Hall wide open—these graduates will be giddy with joy. Free and eager at last to demonstrate their talent in the wider world eager to embrace their future.

But the future is an uncertain place—it always is, and perhaps this year, this moment, more than ever. I speak, of course, of the economic landscape—whose turbulent shifts have so dramatically changed the world as we know it. After all, just two or four short years ago, when you arrived at FIT, this country was living at the height of what is now being called America's second gilded age. By most accounts, we were prospering. With the stock market still booming, we were living large, living lavishly: more than a million for a walk-up in Williamsburg$100 million for a Picasso$2000 for a designer bag or a ticket to a ballgame$500 for a fancy plate of sushi. And we paid it, happily, willingly, driven by a hyperventilating culture that worshiped consumption.

As the Dow Jones rose, and prices ever-escalated, how often did we say to ourselves—and to one another—this cannot last. And indeed, we knew it could not. The coming crash of 2008 was, as one observer said, a secret hiding in plain sight. It seems unfair—doesn't it—that you, our bright, hard-working and deeply motivated students, should be entering the workforce just as the economy imploded, just as we are being castigated for our greed and cautioned to restrain. You, especially, who have been prepared—let me say, superbly prepared—to be contributors to a consumer society, to be leading designers of handbags and restaurants, leading retailers and advertisers of the very goods that we have now placed on the shelf goods we can no longer afford.

I want to say, however, that although it may seem that way the world has not come to an end. We are, of course, in the midst of a terrible recession. I do not mean to discount that, or the very real hardship that it has caused to so many of us and our neighbors in the form of foreclosures and job losses and depleted bank accounts. But the pain and fears of this moment have led some people to worry that you, our young graduates, will never be able to enjoy the kind of comfort or standard of living in which many of you grew up. On that score, I believe they need not worry. They have simply forgotten the recessions of the past—and the rhetoric that accompanied them. In fact, economic downturns come at us in cycles. From just the 1970s on, when New York City had to be rescued from near bankruptcy, we have lived through four official recessions—and survived each one. You may remember the brief dot-com bust of 2000-2001. And I remember very clearly—perhaps your parents will as well—the more prolonged recession of the early 1980s. Indeed, many of your parents were just coming out of college themselves at that time. With unemployment at over 10 percent, job losses were even worse than they are now. There was talk of social unrest and oft-stated fears, as I said, that the age of affluence was over, that young people would never live as well as their parents had. Yet those young people went to work; they coped, they sacrificed, and eventually they prospered.

While there is no guarantee that this recession will be just like the others, the past always provides a helpful perspective. Recessions, even long and deep ones, do eventually end. In these last weeks, we are already getting some glimmers of hope—green shoots, in the delicate imagery of our Federal Reserve chairman. Indeed, at this very moment, despite the economy, more than half of the American people believe that our best days are yet ahead.

Class of 2009, you are the ones who will lead us in the days ahead. You will be the authors of America's next phase. You will be the ones who reinvent and reconstruct the landscape. And in a way it's not the worst place to be. As the CEO of Gucci said recently, Bad times are ideal to make your talent, your brain, your capabilities work at their best. No less a guru than Larry Page—co-founder of Google—told a graduating class in Michigan last month to ignore the crumbling world out there. Follow your curiosity, he said, and be ambitious about it. Don't give up on your dreams. The world needs all of you. And let me remind you that it was in the midst of a very deep recession that Microsoft and Apple were born. While this may be a sobering time, it is also a time of opportunity.

But the opportunity goes beyond the challenge to your career plans and creativity. It is an opportunity to look inward, to revisit core values and priorities, to re-examine the real meaning of wealth and the fundamental questions of how we want to live our lives. This is something many of us are doing already. Some of your peers in colleges across the country—students who otherwise might have pursued Wall Street careers—are calling this moment liberating and lucky and are now hoping for careers in public service, the sciences and teaching. Some are unexpectedly becoming entrepreneurs. As one of them said, For me, the Wall Street crisis was a blessing in disguise.

As we look at the economic landscape in new and fresh ways, we may find, as Time magazine said quite eloquently in a recent article, that our riches have buried our treasures. Indeed, studies show that once we reach the median income of $50,000 a year, wealth and contentment go their separate ways. A millionaire is no more likely to be happy than someone earning 1/20th as much.

So it is instructive—and good—to learn that as many as one-third of the people that Time magazine polled last month for an issue devoted to the economy said that they are now spending more time with family and friends—and many more reported that their relationships with their children have significantly improved. It is instructive—and good— to know that even in the midst of this moment, record numbers of Americans are reaching out to others working in homeless shelters, in soup kitchens, fighting poverty, or promoting the green revolution. Whatever may have happened to their bank accounts, these fortunate people have come to recognize the blessings that surround them. Real wealth, the sages tell us, is about connections, relationships savoring the beauty of the moments that do not last and knowing that our most essential experiences—like intimate moments with family or bursts of aesthetic wonder—cannot be bought or sold.

Just the other day, Vice President Biden told another graduating class that although they are entering a world of anxiety and danger world of unprecedented change have the opportunity to be claimed this country's greatest generation. And when I look at you—and think of your own daring spirits, your determination, your bright, nimble minds, and your God-given gifts—I fully agree. I hope that what you learn from this moment in time helps to guide you. You alone will decide what role you want to play as you pick up the reigns of control, of power. But because these are such dramatically transformative times, the decisions you make the courage, values and ethics you carry forward in your professional and personal lives can make each one of you a powerful agent of change and can help to shape the bold new reality that will become the signature of your generation.

I fully place my trust in you and wish you Godspeed.

Now it is my pleasure to introduce Annie Leibovitzwho, as an internationally acclaimed photographer, bridges the generations. For over four decades, she has chronicled the global celebrity culture, and in the process has become something of a rock star herself. You have seen her work on the covers of major publications, such as Rolling Stone—where for a decade she served as chief photographer—and Vanity Fair. Her unique vision, insight and photographic gifts have produced striking—yet revealing—portraits of everyone from Mick Jagger to Queen Elizabeth, Brad Pitt to Richard Avedon. She is, in addition, an award-winning fashion and advertising photographer whose work also appears in museums around the world. Please join me in welcoming Annie Leibovitz.