2012 Commencement Address

Tuesday, May 22, 2012
10:30 am; 3:30 pm
Javits Center

Congratulations, Class of 2012! This is your very own glorious day. As I look around you—even into the distance of this great hall—I see the beaming faces of your friends and families, and here on the platform, your 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, SUNY and FIT trustees, honorees and distinguished guests. I want to offer a special welcome to (morning) Vice Dean Professor Telem Gok Sadiklglu and Professor Bulent Ozipek of Istanbul Technical University [afternoon: Dean Professor Emel Onder Karaoglu and Professor Cevza Candan of Istanbul Technical University] who join us on the platform to celebrate the 18 students who graduate as part of FIT's dual degree program with ITU. (morning: I also want to welcome New York State Assemblyman William Boyland.) Each person who is here today adds to the joy of this moment for our graduates.

Thank you, Samantha, this is your moment. Class of 2012: this is your moment, this is your year! As it happens, it is also an election year. For some of you, it may be the first time you will be able to cast a ballot for president. Yet, given the occasional tenor of the campaign, I could hardly blame you if you decided to plug your ears, hold your nose, squeeze your eyes shut, and just walk away.

How is it possible that an election year discussion on a substantive question of public policy—health care for women and how to fund it—can degenerate into a juvenile and vulgar explosion of name-calling? How—after years of slow, bumpy, but nevertheless steady progress for women—can our public arena once again become fertile ground for vitriolic outbursts so demeaning to women.

How is it possible that today—50 years after John F. Kennedy became the country's first Catholic president—that in highly personal matters of faith—in this country founded on the basis of religious freedom—that candidates are still being put on the defensive with regard to their own beliefs.

How is it possible that a president who states the all-American wish that he wants all of our nations children to have a chance to go to college, gets attacked as a snob, and worse—an elitist that colleges themselves are accused of being a flagrant waste of money.

Naturally, as a life-long educator, I find the battle about going to college of particular interest. But I wonder what it must sound like to you, and to so many FIT students—past and present—who have worked with such energy and dedication to earn your diplomas. I think of the passionate fine arts student who struggled financially for almost ten years to get his degree or of the injured ballerina who found, through our AMC program, a promising new professional path. I think of the menswear design student who arrived in this country as a stowaway from Vietnam—one of so many who would become the first in their families to attend college.

I wonder, too, how these accusations would have sounded to that little girl who lived in the shadows of City College and with awe and admiration watched its eager students, with their bundles of books, rushing to class. From her apartment window, she could see them bent over their microscopes in their science labs and wanted more than anything to be in college, too. That little girl was me. And I wonder how I would have felt if, at that impressionable age, I had heard adults—especially important adults—say that college was a waste of money, that college was not for me.

Now I grant you, in any election season the rhetoric rises to fire-alarm levels. Yet there is a debate —a legitimate debate—going on right now among educators, public policy makers—and members of the public. It is being conducted in far more civil terms, I should add, but a debate nevertheless over a very basic question: what is college for? Or, put another way: is college worth it?

You arrived here at FIT in the midst of a difficult recession—one that has caused very real hardship in the form of job losses, foreclosures, bankruptcies, and depleted bank accounts. And even though the economy is slowly improving, we have all seen how easily a bad economy can hijack opportunity. So it is not surprising that today when talk turns to the basic value of a college education, the issue is framed most often in economic terms. So let me address this aspect of the debate first: Is the money spent to attend college—whether a public college like FIT or a private university like NYU, whether a career college like FIT or a liberal arts college like Columbia—worth the investment? When you factor in tuition, room and board, fees, books, equipment, loans—not to mention your occasional field trips to Top Shop, or Shake Shack or Marquee—is there, in the end, a cash advantage?

Well, as it turns out, the answer is yes—just in these stark practical terms alone, yes there is a cash advantage. Every study shows that a college degree—whether two-year, four-year or advanced—can earn you anywhere from $400,000 up to $2 million more than a high school graduate over the standard course of a career. Now statistics vary and are always subject to interpretation—but either way, these are considerable sums. And yes, it is true that because of today's economy, many well-educated graduates are pouring lattes at Starbucks. It is also true, as the skeptics like to tell us, that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg did pretty well without their diplomas. But the bottom line for the majority of American students is this: financially, your college degree pays off.

But there are other advantages you have gained from your time in college—advantages not as tangible as your prospective paycheck...but advantages that derive from your expanded intellectual growth, your exposure to challenging new ideas, new people and new cultures, your accumulation of new and vital information, and broader perspectives. It may sound odd coming from the president of a college whose mission is to prepare you for a career, but I think one of the greatest advantages of your years here at FIT was your exposure to the liberal arts—those courses in history or economics or literature that you had to squeeze into your very crowded schedule in order for you to graduate today. I know that the liberal arts has its critics, many of them. They see the study of language or art history or philosophy as an indulgence—a useless frill, something perhaps for the wealthy elite—and a particular distraction for students in today's difficult marketplace. If you go to college, they say, do not waste your time with the liberal arts.

But in fact industry leaders—including those from companies like Macy's and Kohls, Ralph Lauren and LVMH— are clamoring for employees who have strong communication skills, who are adept at critical and creative thinking who understand how societies and democracies work, and possess cultural and global sophistication. These are the qualities that will keep their business culture healthy and dynamic and these are the qualities that are developed through the liberal arts.

There are other benefits to these courses as well—and why your ability to read Cervantes in Spanish is more than a mere educational ornament. That knowledge base you picked up from history or earth science or from your Pre-Columbian Art and Civilization course is not only enriching to you personally, but it is part of the arsenal of information you will need and use as a contributing member of society.

Indeed, when the question What is college for? is raised, I think one of the best answers comes from the man who founded the University of Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin. True education, he said, is an inclination joined with an ability to serve mankind, ones country, friends and family. To serve the public good.

Benjamin Franklin is hardly alone in arguing the civic purpose of education, and especially higher education. ..but it is a mission that we sometimes lose sight of. That is particularly unfortunate at a time when more Americans can identify Michael Jackson as the composer of Billie Jean than can identify the Bill of Rights or when more than a third of us do not know the century in which the American Revolution took place.

You are our future business leaders, our creative artists, our innovators and entrepreneurs. Yet you are also citizens role that is, as President Obama said last week to another group of graduating students, the most important in our democracy. Earlier I suggested that the incivility of the presidential campaign might put you off. But, I hope it does not. As the president said, it's up to you to right wrongs, to point out injustices, to hold the system accountable. Its up to you to stand up and be heard, to march, to organize, to vote. Here at FIT, your professors nurtured your skills of interpretation, imagination, inquiry and evaluation. Those are the skills that have prepared you for lives of civic responsibility and will help you to engage in the difficult, complicated sometimes angry debates of our day—to hold the system accountable, to stand up and be heard.

The other day, an op-ed piece appeared in The New York Times about who should or should not attend collegewhich is another way the debate about higher education is being framed. It was written by a professor at the University of Virginia who has been teaching English for 35 years. And yet, the essay reminded me of you. There are many students for whom college isn't the right choice, he said: students who aren't curious, alive and hungry to learn. The best students, he said, the ones who get the most out of their educations, are the ones who come to school with the most energy to learn—the ones with what Bruce Springsteen calls a hungry heart.

You have hungry hearts. After more than 35 years in the world of higher education, I can categorically say that I have never seen more curious, alive, passionate, motivated students than the students at FIT. You arrive here—most of you—knowing just what you want to do and your hunger to learn and to achieve is fierce and palpable. And the results are spectacular. We have all seen, admired and applauded your end of year demonstrations, projects and exhibitions. You leave us breathless with your skills and talents, and with all that you have achieved. So is college worth it? For you, for all of us, the evidence is in. And we thank our lucky stars that you—and your families—believed in the abundant benefits of higher education and particularly higher education as practiced in the classrooms, labs and studios of FIT.

Congratulations, Class of 2012! And Godspeed.


Now I am delighted to introduce you to someone who revolutionized the way millions of American women think about beauty products—the force behind Bare Escentuals—Leslie Blodgett. I am also delighted to tell you that Leslie got her start here at FIT—which her mother urged her to attend—as a Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing major. In less than ten years after graduating, she was CEO of Bare Escentuals—launching a line of health-conscious mineral-based products named bare Minerals. Anyone who watches QVC knows all about it—because it quickly became QVC's number one-selling brand, and Ms. Blodgett became its best, most passionate advocate as well as educator, friend and advisor to the legions of women whom she reached. So its not surprising that when Shiseido acquired bare Escentuals two years ago—for a mere $1.8 billion— it did so only under the condition that the universally popular Leslie Blodgett remain its public face. Were delighted to have her with us this morning.


Now I am delighted to introduce you to a revolutionary—although he may not look like one. However, Davin Stowell, the founder and CEO of Smart Design, did, in fact, revolutionize hundreds of everyday household items from potato peelers and measuring cups to camcorders and automobile instrument panels. With the OXO Good Grips line he created in 1989, he introduced the concept of Universal Design to household products—accessible, easy-to-use products—many of which are now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. His company's clients include giants such as Johnson & Johnson, Hewlett-Packard, Starbucks and Ford. The recipient of dozens of awards, Mr. Stowell has mentored and inspired countless designers to follow his revolutionary vision of improving everyday lives through innovative functional product design.