Commencement 2016 remarks

June 13, 2016

Congratulations, graduates! I am thrilled to stand here before the University of Oregon Class of 2016. What an incredible accomplishment.

All of you hold a special place in my heart, because you are—and will always—be the first class to graduate during my presidency at the UO. We have shared a journey, learned a tremendous amount, overcome challenges, achieved great successes, made new friends, and now we have a bright future before us. I hope you are as excited and optimistic as I am about what is ahead.

Because this is my first commencement at the UO, the pressure is on for me to say something meaningful and memorable, to inspire you with words of wisdom as you venture off into the great, wide world clutching your newly minted diplomas.

I can tell you right now, it won’t be the commencement speeches you remember a year from now, or perhaps even tomorrow. Just as it won’t be specific equations, lines of text, color theories, or research footnotes that you will need to remember to be successful in your careers and lives in the future.

Graduating from the University of Oregon and earning a bachelor’s degree is not an accumulation of facts, figures, and quotes. It is the sum of all of the experiences inside the classroom and out that has readied you for your life after college.

This is why the first piece of advice I will give you as you venture beyond these walls is not dissimilar to the advice I gave our incoming freshman class nine months ago. I told those new students that in order to be prepared for a changing world and economy, you will need to be broad in your knowledge and able to constantly learn.

Each of you, on this journey to earning your degree, has experienced the benefits of a liberal arts education; exploring the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. I hope you’ve been surprised, inspired, maybe even awed by the world of human knowledge that opened up to you. You’ve likely had to read and study, and consume more Starbucks and Dutch Brothers than you ever imagined, not to mention Voodoo Doughnuts.

You’ve been pushed out of your comfort zone and made deadlines you thought were impossible. I hope you’ve made lifelong friends, and learned about what you love, and maybe who you love. By reaching this point in your educational career, you have learned how to operate in a complicated higher-education ecosystem. That alone is an accomplishment! And so I hope you will keep asking questions and expanding your world view. Do not let your quest for knowledge and understanding end today. Never stop learning.

The second piece of advice is about expectations—those of your family, your friends, society, and yourself. We are all very proud and excited that you have reached this milestone, and we have very high hopes for you.

In fact the world has been watching you since the beginning— the collective you, that is. Your generation has been labeled many things; millennials, generation Y, the social media generation, and the global generation. You have been more documented in photos, tweets, chats, posts, and blogs than any generation before you. You have information about the world at your fingertips, literally. I have to admit, the world is a tad bit obsessed with you.

However, these labels can be limiting; setting up expectations for how you will act, what you will achieve or not achieve, whether you will solve the problems of the generation before you, if you be better off than your parents, and how you will interact in the world.

These labels do not define you or your generation. Each of you will take your own path, and write your own definition of success. And so my advice is to defy expectations, break the mold, do not be confined by what the world says you can or cannot do. Impress and surprise yourself. Shake off any label and write your own story.

My final piece of advice may seem counterintuitive coming from a university president. Because my advice is that you should fail. Now before your parents start calling my office, let me explain. Over the last year, I’ve been all across campus, the state, and nation—talking about the University of Oregon’s need to achieve excellence. The pursuit of academic and research excellence is our very highest ambition and the way in which we will continue to educate and inspire students like all of you.

Along the way, I’ve been asked to define excellence. In the simplest terms, excellence is pursuit, working to achieve your very best, and the striving for better.

But in order to reach high, you must be willing to fall. You cannot have excellence without some risk of stumbling.

For every discovery, there are a thousand failed theories.

For every celebrated prose, there are hundreds of torn-up rough drafts.

For every masterpiece, there are many canvases cast aside.

J. K. Rowling said, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.”

So too is it impossible to be successful without making mistakes, taking risks, and allowing yourself to fail. Do not live by default. Strive so hard that you might fail and you will eventually succeed.

Indeed, my favorite quote by a University of Oregon student is the famous one by our former track superstar Steve Prefontaine. Pre said, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” As you graduate, I hope you will give your best. Our nation, our state, our world needs that of you.

When you think back on this day—the day you graduated from the University of Oregon, many years from now, or maybe just tomorrow, and you’ve forgotten the speeches and the music and who spoke, I do hope you remember that you are part of a wonderful community of scholars, that you are loved by your families and friends, and that we are all very proud of you.

And I will counter one small piece of my previous advice about casting off labels, because there is one name that will stay with you today and after graduation.

You will always be a Duck. And now we are so proud to also call you alumni.

Congratulations again. And Go, Ducks!