Bard College’s 163rd Commencement Bard College held its 163rd commencement on Saturday, May 27, 2023. Bard President Leon Botstein conferred 392 undergraduate degrees on the Class of 2023 and 172 graduate degrees. The Commencement address was given by U.S. Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock, of Georgia.
U.S. Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock Delivers 2023 Commencement Address
“We need the spirit of Bard College throughout this nation, of faculty and the staff that understands that we must not only train the head, but we must tune the heart and ready the hands for service. That education ought to have a purpose. You ought to use your education to make a difference for the human race, particularly the most marginalized members of the human family. Thank you, Bard College, for your commitment to that mission.”
U.S. Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock Delivers 2023 Commencement Address
Text (unedited) of commencement address by U.S. Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock of Georgia
Hello, Bard College! Blessings on all of you. How are we doing today?
Let’s take a moment to give a big hand to all the incredible graduates here today!
Let’s hear it for our graduates. Young leaders who have crossed the threshold and deserve our love and our recognition. Today is about you. This is your day.
What a warm greeting from President Leon Botstein! Let’s give him a great big round of applause. Come on, the man has been here almost a half-century; give him a great big round of applause.
Thank you for all that you do to maintain the standards of excellence for which Bard is known.
I want to recognize my friend, Jim Chambers, the President of the Board, as well as the Executive Vice President and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Jonathan Becker, for all the tireless work you do. To the entire leadership team, the faculty, and the staff.
But most of all, the graduates who have crossed this amazing threshold. And while we celebrate you, we know that you understand that you have not done this alone. We are grateful for the village: the mothers and the fathers, the grandmothers and the grandfathers, the aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, and neighbors—and so, let’s hear it for the whole village!
Dr. King said we are tied in a single garment of destiny, caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality. That whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. You have arrived, but you didn’t get here by yourself. We got here together.
The Reverend Doctor Samuel DeWitt Proctor, one of my late mentors, used to say that if you see a turtle on a tree stump, you know somebody put him there—he didn’t get there by himself.
But I’m especially grateful—and I do a few commencement addresses each year—but I’m especially grateful to be here at Bard College.
I’m grateful because Bard College carries with it a deep sense of mission.
This is a community that carries with it the burden of Benjamin Elijah Mays, that great schoolmaster and president of Morehouse College when Martin Luther King, Jr. was a student there. He said I’m disturbed—in the language of that day—he said I’m disturbed about man. I’m disturbed about the human. I’m disturbed about the humankind, because he said, when we train a person’s head, we don’t have any guarantee that we train your heart. That there is no correlation between knowledge and goodness.
And we are seeing in this very moment a kind of perverse genius at work that in many ways is waging an assault on our democracy. We need the spirit of Bard College throughout this nation, of faculty and the staff that understands that we must not only train the head, but we must tune the heart and ready the hands for service. That education ought to have a purpose. You ought to use your education to make a difference for the human race, particularly the most marginalized members of the human family. Thank you, Bard College, for your commitment to that mission.
I’m grateful for those who share with me today in receiving the honorary degree. That each of you in your own way embody that hope and that commitment.
So graduates, today is an important milestone. You have crossed the river, but the ocean lies in front of you.
And may you take with you the words of Howard Thurman, who said, “I'm tired of sailing my little boat far inside the harbor bar. I want to go out where the big ships float, out on the deep where the great ones are. Should my frail craft prove too slight for those waves that sweep the billows, I'd rather go down in the stirring fight than drowse to death by the sheltered shore.”
We send you not just into the world; we send you not just out of these academic halls. We send you into “the stirring fight.”
It is our hope that you will go into the world, and that with head and heart and ready hands, you will get yourself ready for service. The village has been preparing you. The village has been helping to build the boat. But as you set sail, as you leave this place, don’t forget about the people who helped to get you ready.
Thank God for your professors. Thank God for the faculty. But thank God also for the administrators and for those who attend to this place.
You have to thank the whole village. You have to thank the folks who prepared the grounds upon which you walk out into the world. And so we send you into the world with a great sense of hope because we know that’s what Bard College is all about. Head and hearts and hands, ready for service.
It was the scourge of fascism that descended on Europe in the 1930s that drove Bard to stand up and provide sanctuary to intellectuals fleeing the Nazis.
And in the 1950s, Bard stood up again and took in Hungarian students who opposed their country’s oppressive, Stalinist government. This is who Bard College is.
In the early 2000s, Bard stood up again to provide safe refuge for fleeing students as the authoritarian regime in Belarus clamped down on academia and free thought. Recently, Bard has stood up and taken in refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine.
You have remained true to your mission to be safe haven for those escaping tumult, to come learn in one of America’s shining institutions.
And now, Class of 2023, the latest graduates from this great institution. There are among you classmates who had to literally cross oceans and flee terrorism and brutality. And yet they are here today, thriving and graduating and ready to make the world better.
But the truth is, all of you have had to overcome obstacles never before seen in our history. Your journey was interrupted by the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, learning in isolation from your peers—and in that isolation, you had to begin the journey of discovering what you wanted to become.
And in the midst of dealing with COVID-19, we were struck as a nation with the latest iteration and expression of an age-old pandemic I call COVID 1619, as we woke up one day and saw another Black man named George Floyd with his body beneath the knee of law enforcement—something to which I’ve dedicated my life fighting and addressing time and time again. What I love about this generation is that we saw a multi-racial, multi-faith, multi-generational coalition of conscience mask up to protect themselves from one virus, COVID 19, and you went to the streets waging war against that age-old pandemic, COVID 1619, that showed up as slavery, and then showed up as Jim Crow segregation, and then showed up in America’s prison industrial complex, and you said we’re better than this.
So for those of you who expressed those concerns, I’m on your side. This is the work I was doing long before I came to the Senate. And that’s why I’m most proud of what Bard is doing in this moment as you deal with the Bard Prison Initiative.
Because as we stood up protesting what happened to George Floyd—but not only George Floyd, but Ahmaud Arbery down in Georgia, and Rayshard Brooks, whose eulogy I preached. And Renisha McBride. And the list goes on, and on, and on. What you understand is that we are dealing with not only physical death on the streets, but social death in our increasing, privatized carceral state.
The United States of America, four percent of the world’s population, warehouses twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners. It is a scandal and a scar on the soul of our country. No other nation comes even close in both the number of people we incarcerate and the percentage of our population that we incarcerate. It’s a scandal and a scar on the soul of our nation that a greater percentage of the Black population is in prison in America today than was in South Africa during the era of apartheid. That’s a scandal and a scar on the soul of our nation.
And so we have to stand up in this moment. We have to bear witness to freedom. And so I hope, graduates, that you will go out from this place and that you will stir up good trouble, that you will challenge the systems.
First time I got arrested, first time—and to be clear I've only gotten arrested in acts of civil disobedience—but the first time I got arrested, I was a young seminary student not far from here, at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
And there was a young African immigrant named Amadou Diallo who was standing on the stoop of his own home. And he was shot multiple times by the so-called “elite unit” while reaching for his own wallet. And I was arrested as a young seminary student in the late 1990s, before you were born, many of you. So when I saw [them] standing up for George Floyd, I said, here we go again, addressing this age-old challenge—but don't you dare lose hope. Don't you dare give in to despair. Bard, in a real sense, has set up for you a blueprint for how we address this issue. This college could have said, well, we are an elite institution; we graduate people within the pristine halls of academia. But not only are they graduating people under this tent, they’re graduating people in prison right now.
So a few years ago, I decided that when asked to speak publicly, in any occasion, no matter what they asked me to talk about, before I left, you were going to hear something about America's prison industrial complex—the fact that the land of the free warehouses twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners.
And so my church decided a few years ago, that we were going to get engaged in this fight. So we managed through our moral witness to pull together the constituent parts of our local government. And we had an event at the church. It was [the] proudest moment in my ministry. Because it was a small way of addressing this issue. We were clearing people's records, people who had been indicted, some of them never convicted. People who could not get a job, could not get an apartment, because they had a record. One of the proudest moments in my ministry is when I walked into our sanctuary one day and saw a sea of people in front of me, and literally everybody in front of me had a record. But it occurred to me that that's true every Sunday morning. All of us have a record. In other words, each of us has something, some area of our lives that we're not proud of, and we don't want to be judged indefinitely by our worst moment. There's human promise and possibility in every human being.
And so we got engaged in the work. And all I'm trying to say to you graduates, is I want you to find a place to get involved in the good fight. And I know as you sit here—perhaps 21, 22, 23 years old—you say, well, what should I do? What is it that the world needs? My answer again are the words of Howard Thurman: Ask not what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. In other words, I challenge you to find your passion. I challenge you to find that thing in the world that feels like such a deep moral contradiction that you cannot be silent. You have to express yourself; you have to stand up and try to make the world better. Find anything that you would do for free except that you have to pay the rent or the mortgage.
And chase after it with all of your might. Pursue the good life. Find your life’s project. Jesus put it this way—you invited a preacher—Jesus said if you seek to save your life, you’ll lose it. But if you would lose your life, he said, for my safe, you'll find eternal life. In other words, the way to find yourself is to give yourself over to something bigger than yourself. And if your life’s project can be completed in your lifespan, I submit to you that is too small. You ought to find a life project that is bigger than your lifespan and seek to continue the important work.
I'm a living witness that you can make a difference in the world, and you never know when, you never know how. Here I stand as the first Black United States Senator from the great state of Georgia. And while I am the first Black senator from the state of Georgia, don’t say it like Georgia is a lagging indicator. I'm only number eleven in the whole history of the country. But I grew up in public housing, one of twelve children; I'm number eleven. I had to stand up and celebrate those first-generation college students because I was you not long ago; first college graduate in my family. I grew up in public housing, now I serve in the Senate—only in America is my story possible.
We got work to do. The great thing about America is we always have a path to make America greater. And so my life is a testament to our grand democratic experiment, to people who stood up to keep our society reaching towards its highest ideals.
I had a high school teacher who told me that service is the price you pay on space you occupy. Before that I had a mother and a father who poured a lot of love into me, and they nurtured me in the faith that sustained me, and they passed on to me a fierce work ethic. We were short on money, but we were long on faith.
My dad was a preacher and a junk man, literally. During the week he lifted old broken cars on the back of a rig that he built himself with no engineering degree, no formal training in physics; he’d load one car on top of another on the back of an old rig, and take it to the steel yard—and that’s how he took care of his family. But on Sunday morning, the man who lifted broken cars lifted broken people, and reminded them that there is a God who sees the people that other people have thrown away.
My mother grew up in Waycross, Georgia. You know where that is? It’s “way ‘cross” Georgia. She grew up picking somebody else’s cotton and somebody else’s tobacco. But because this is America, hands that used to pick somebody else’s tobacco and somebody else’s cotton, picked her youngest son to be a United States Senator. Anything is possible in this country.
So when I made my way into the halls of the Senate, I brought with me their story and my story. Yes, I've worked hard, but I wouldn't be here if someone hadn’t helped me along the way. You're not just looking at a graduate of Morehouse College. I'm an alum of Headstart. A good federal public program. I’m a graduate of Upward Bound, another good federal program that put me on a college campus as a high-school student so I could imagine myself there. And then it was Pell grants, and low-interest student loans, that made my journey possible. That’s why I keep pushing for student loan debt relief. I keep pushing for it because I don't believe that our children should have a mortgage before they have a mortgage. And if we would free them up, we free the American entrepreneurial spirit.
So that's all, graduates; that's all I really want to say. Make an impact. Leave a legacy.
When you see me fighting for children, I'm trying to make an impact and leave a legacy. When you see me passing legislation that caps the cost of insulin, and other prescription drugs, know that I'm trying to leave a legacy and make an impact. Because I believe that health care is a human right.
When you see me standing up for a woman's right to choose, know that I'm trying to make an impact and leave a legacy. Because I believe that a patient’s room is too cramped and narrow a space for a woman, her doctor and the United States government. That’s too many people in the room.
And if we really want to make a difference for women, we ought to address the issue of maternal mortality; if you want to preserve life, address the fact that there are too many women dying trying to have babies in our country. And Black women are three to four times more likely to die.
When you see me challenging my colleagues to do more to rescue us from the terrible scourge of gun violence, I’m trying to make an impact and leave a legacy. Because I do not buy the lie that mass shootings are the necessary cost of freedom. It’s a strange freedom that sends our children on lockdowns, every single day in this country.
When you see me fighting for voting rights, know that I'm trying to make an impact and leave a legacy. Because I believe that democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea; that your vote is your voice, and your voice is your human dignity. That we’re all created in the Imago Dei, the image of God—if you aren't given to that type of language, put it this way, we all have value. And if we have value, we ought to have a voice. We ought to have a vote in the direction of our country and our destiny within it.
And when you stand up, my beloved, you never know the difference that it will make. I didn't know that when I flipped the Senate, that I would be able to stand one day and confirm the first Black woman to the United States Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson.
The day we confirmed here, the chamber table was full. Everybody was there. I'm standing there with my colleague, Cory Booker. We were standing next to the chair of the presiding officer and the Vice President was sitting in the chair, because it was such a moment. The Vice President looked at me and Senator Booker and she said, you know, guys, this is quite a moment. I said yes. She said, you know what you ought to do? You ought to take this moment and write a letter to somebody who comes to mind in this moment. She made that suggestion to us the way the Black women in my life make suggestions. And then she handed each of us distinguished United States Senators a piece of paper. But it wasn’t just any sheet of paper, it was the letterhead of the Vice President of the United States of America.
Didn’t take me long to know who I should write that letter to because the only thing I love more than being Georgia’s Senator and Ebenezer’s pastor is being Chloe and Caleb’s dad—my six-year-old daughter, and my four-year-old son. And I sat down and I wrote a letter to my daughter as I thought about a woman named Ketanji, who would serve on the Supreme Court. And I said Dear Chloe, today we confirmed to the United States Supreme Court Ketanji Brown Jackson. The long history of our nation she is the first Supreme Court Justice who looks like you, with hair like yours. And while we were confirming her a friend of mine, the Vice President, suggested that I write a letter. By the way, she's the first Vice President who looks like you, with hair like yours. I write this letter just to say that in America, you can be and you can become anything you set your head and your heart to do. Love, Dad. I was so moved that I couldn’t wait to get home. I called my daughter, who was then five years old, on FaceTime, and I read a letter to her. She’s five-years-old, she listened to the letter. She was not the least bit impressed. She said, can I go play now? She didn't understand the letter now, but she'll understand it later. But it occurred to me in the weeks after that, that in a real sense, the work I do as a legislator is a letter not only to my daughter, but to all of our children. But not only that, the work that you do as a citizen, the work that you graduates will do after this day, is a letter to the future generations.
So I want you to start his day writing a letter to the future. I want my letter to say that I stood up in this defining moment in America. I want my letter to say that I stood up against fascism. I want my letter to say that I stood up for women, that I stood up for members of the LGBTQ+ community. I want my letter to say that I stood up like somebody who understands that there's no such thing as equal rights for some, there must be equal rights for all.
I want my letter to say that I used my gifts, and I used every opportunity to make a difference in America and to build a better world—and what Dr. King called the beloved community.
Now it is your turn. Now is your time. All of us are standing on tiptoe to see just how great you shall become. God bless you. Keep the faith.
“Our collective intellectual and artistic heritage, which this college is determined to protect and share, will be your most reliable ally as you resist orthodoxy, act with reasoned empathy, dance, sing, and laugh, and celebrate wonderment as we, together, embrace the achievements of science, and the riches of literature and all of the arts, for the benefit of all humanity.”
President Botstein’s Charge to the Class of 2023
President Leon Botstein addressed Bard graduates on May 27, 2023.
A few weeks ago, I was at the Friday night Sabbath gathering I host each semester at my home for the JSO, Bard’s Jewish Student Organization. I am fond of the JSO, not because I am myself Jewish, but because so many of its members, and even several of its presidents, have not been Jewish, but have chosen, when they arrived at Bard, to join because of the community the JSO creates. This is a small indication about why we love this college.
During the after-dinner question and answer conversation, hosted by our fine Jewish chaplain, a Bard alumnus from the Class of 1997, Joshua Boettiger, a senior asked what advice I was going to give to the Class of 2023 at commencement. I was astonished that anyone would ask. After all, advice giving commencement speeches recede into obscurity with uncommon but well-earned consistency.
Advice is a tricky thing. Advice is quite easy to give and also very hard to hear, much less to take. At its best, advice is a cautionary tale. It reminds us of what we ought to do and suggests what the world could be like if only we would alter our patterns of behavior.
But offering unsolicited piece of advice to the Class of 2023 is my obligation in this ceremony. And the advice, or rather admonition I wish to share with this distinguished and accomplished class is quite simple: resist orthodoxy.
Orthodoxy describes a set of beliefs about the world and the conduct of personal and political life in a manner closely associated with religious doctrine and belief. Orthodoxy suggests timeless and absolute truths, immune from criticism and justified by a higher authority. With orthodoxy comes the clear possibility of heresy. Orthodoxies most often rely on authority prior to experience and reason, and they rely on divine authority, and they claim a monopoly on truth. Heresy therefore is not just mere dissent. One does not argue with heretics, and perhaps agree to disagree. We expel them, ostracize them, torture them (as Thomas Moore did) and cancel them, and we even burn them, as they did in Salem, at the stake. Orthodoxy resists complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity and projects an absolute divide between good and evil. One is either right, or wrong. Orthodoxies are inevitably reductive, and insist and thrive on conformism.
Orthodoxy, marked by a specifically American tradition of puritanism, is experiencing a renewal in our troubled times. Today’s orthodoxy is invoked to justify banning books from schools and libraries, violating academic freedom by forbidding subject matter from being taught at public universities, restricting the control by women of their lives and bodies, blocking our right to choose how we live our private lives and express intimacy with others, and rendering the natural world—our environment, which we all hold in common—vulnerable to unfettered degradation. Orthodoxy justifies condemning freedom, tolerance, difference, and openness as guiding principles in our politics.
By framing the world along the lines of a simple struggle between good and evil, orthodoxy justifies intolerance, hate, and violence. The relentless onslaught of fatal shootings in our shopping malls, our schools, and places of worship is more that the expression of individual rage and anger in our society. Our shocking culture of gun violence and our collective insensitivity to the death of our neighbors are infected by the self-righteousness and self-confidence of our reigning pseudo religious political orthodoxies, by the very same ideological madness and moralizing arrogance that justifies the death penalty as lawful, as if exacting the penalty of death was a positive virtue. Orthodoxies encourage a culture of revenge and retribution, not one of forgiveness, renewal, redemption, and understanding.
I therefore urge the Class of 2023 to pursue as an alternative to orthodoxy, reasoned empathy. Use the skills of inquiry and the pursuit of learning that you have cultivated in your years in college to comprehend, with some sympathy, those with whom you disagree, even with your fiercest enemies. Only by imagining the possible reasons others think differently, absorbing new ideas and information, and revising your thoughts and attempting to understand those who oppose your views will the means come into view to persuade, to compromise or defeat—with civility and without violence—that which you think is wrong.
Freedom in a democracy means protecting the right to dissent, to debate, to restrain others from imposing orthodoxies on your fellow citizens, and both to win and lose fairly within the forum of democratic politics and the rule of law. A true democracy considers freedom as an axiom, not an orthodoxy. Freedom permits us to pursue the truth, even when a majority refuses to acknowledge it. Without clinging to orthodoxies, we may succeed in preserving freedom of thought and movement, and discover and guard the often unpleasant and uncomfortable truth, as well as protect the minorities among us against the majority. We together must spread a culture of learning as widely as possible despite the rage that comes with ignorance, no matter how widespread rage and ignorance may be.
In the absence of orthodoxy, and with reasoned empathy (even for things we really do not like), we can acknowledge our shared human condition, and embrace the one other habit of life I commend to you: the experience of wonderment. Orthodoxies, tinged as they are with the overt ascetic piety of a puritan cast that is rarely upheld, revile dancing, singing, and laughing. Singing, dancing, and laughing may have come easily to you during your undergraduate years, but as the older adults gathered here today will readily testify, they get harder to do as life goes on. But never stop dancing, singing, and laughing, and expressing astonishment, joy, and affection. That should remain a major part of your lives. And with them will come that treasured gift – the capacity to be kind to strangers.
Our collective intellectual and artistic heritage, which this college is determined to protect and share, will be your most reliable ally as you resist orthodoxy, act with reasoned empathy, dance, sing, and laugh, and celebrate wonderment as we, together, embrace the achievements of science, and the riches of literature and all of the arts, for the benefit of all humanity.
Honorary degrees were awarded to U.S. Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock, of Georgia, horticulturist George Ball ’73, Indiana University School of Medicine assistant professor Caitlin Bernard, Olympic track star John Carlos, writer Sandra Cisneros, UCLA history professor Robin D. G. Kelley, MIT professor Barbara Liskov, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on US-China Relations at Asia Society Orville Schell, and playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith.