Bial urges graduates to build on social justice
Published: Monday, May 21, 2012
Updated: Monday, May 21, 2012 22:05
Meditating on her fond memories of the time she spent at the University 25 years ago, Deborah Bial ’87, founder of the Posse Foundation, advised members of the Class of 2012 about their capacity to affect social change. The 61st commencement was held this past Sunday, May 20 in the crowded Gosman Sports and Convocation Center. Among the family and friends of the 831 graduates attending the ceremony was the President of Honduras, Porfirio Pepe Lobo.
Bial was awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters, alongside honorary degree recipients Sydney Brenner, a molecular biologist; President of the Juilliard School Joseph W. Polisi and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. Prominent philanthropist and former Trustee Myra Hiatt Kraft ’64, who died in July 2011, was awarded a degree posthumously, which was accepted by her husband Robert Kraft to a thundering standing ovation and tears from University President Frederick Lawrence.
Bial began her speech with humor, alluding to an opinion article in the Justice about her differences from Jon Stewart, host of the popular The Daily Show on Comedy Central. She transitioned into her speech by reflecting on her time spent at Brandeis, including living in the residence halls with her college friends and the events she used to attend on campus, such as the “Screw Your Roommate” dance.
While she maintained that “there’s just something really special about this Brandeis experience,” her speech was not exclusively positive. She cited a Rutgers University study that claims that only half of recent college graduates are working full time, and fewer than a half of those graduates have jobs that require a college degree.
“That’s scary,” Bial said, as the audience chuckled and then fell silent, “because there are no jobs out there. It is worse than I think many people realize.”
The focus of the speech shifted to what Bial felt Brandeis students are responsible for: carrying on the tradition of social justice. Discussing social issues, such as genders, races and income levels in the United States, Bial said that “the progress we’ve made [in civil rights issues] has been too slow.”
She expanded upon these problems by giving specific examples of what she felt was wrong with the current condition of the U.S, saying that “we can’t let ourselves become part of a system that promotes stratification and exclusion.”
“Did you know that 50 million people in this country are poor? And another 50 million are what we call ‘near poor.’ That’s nearly one third of the American population. We should be ashamed of ourselves,” she said.
Bial asked all of the graduates to stand if they had ever “became involved in a cause, or joined a campus organization to address or discuss or work on a social or political challenge, or traveled to another country to help another community,” amongst other events.
Nearly all of the Class of 2012—834 undergraduates and 883 graduate students, according to the Office of the Registrar—stood.
“Look around you,” Bial said. “This is an army. … Look at the more than 800 of you in this graduating class who care.”
Lawrence outlined a similar idea during his address, which was nearly identical to his 2011 commencement address, earlier in the commencement ceremony: Brandeis graduates are charged with the responsibility of improving the world.
“And if we cannot fully repair this world,” he said, “then we can—we must—leave it a little better than we found it.”
In response to Bial’s speech, Fina Amarillo ’12 said in an interview with the Justice, “It was excellent.”
“She spoke to us like she would to her friends. It made me emotional and happy and excited and sad at the same time.”
Yuri Levin-Schwartz ’12 said of Bial’s speech, “I liked it a lot; I enjoyed her message of getting out and being active.”
Jacob Chatinover ’12, however, felt differently about Bial’s speech. “I thought that a lot of the messages were kind of standard … which isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” he said, “but I didn’t feel like there was a particular, solid message imparted.”
—Tate Herbert and Sara Dejene contributed reporting.