Bard College Holds One Hundred Sixty-First Commencement on Saturday, May 29, 2021
Text of commencement address by former Open Society Foundations president Patrick Gaspard:
Chairman Chambers; Board of Trustees; august faculty and staff; fellow distinguished honorees; the Annandale community; and the graduating class of 2021!
What an overwhelming honor to join you in celebration—and to join you in person!
President Botstein. Thank you, President Botstein, for that too generous an introduction. Thank you for the gifts of your scholarship and the gifts of your friendship. I’ve had the distinct pleasure of knowing President Botstein and spending meaningful time with him, but never in his sanctum sanctorum. Even away from campus and without the trappings of ceremony, President Botstein always seems to be wrapped in the garbs of ritual. That effect is greatly enhanced in academic regalia, which you wear quite well, sir. Hannah Arendt, whose grave lies near to us here on this campus, described friendship as “one of the most active modes of living.” Maestro, you embody that in the personal and in the political, and I see that ethos extends throughout this community.
Please be forewarned, Mr. President, that I have this belief that one should never waste the privilege of a public platform, and my inclination is to provoke and interrogate even at a tea party. Furthermore, while one might look for some practical directives from a commencement speaker, I’m oriented toward the impracticalities of the unapprehended poetry in our midst. I hope I won’t give you occasion to regret your generous introduction and welcome.
Graduates, I have yet one more confession that I want to make here at the start. The address I’m delivering now was crafted late last night, after I completely rejected the arc of my original draft. Commencement addresses are bracketed by such traditional expectations of exhortative language that one tends to bury the desire to express any sincere sentiments that don’t fit neatly in that rubric. There’s a liturgical order to these things. I’m supposed to look out upon you, ordain your absolute greatness, acknowledge your brilliance, lift up the example of a great alumnus, and command you to go forth amidst the uncivilized herd to shine your light. If I were following the traditional pattern, I would pull down some appropriate quotation from the classics—something like Pindar from the Pythian Chronicles. I’d say, “O my soul, do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible,” and I would tell you then to exhaust the limits of the possible. All of this would all have the expectation being punctuated by raucous applause from all of you all. There wouldn’t be much room left for any nagging doubts about your accomplishments or your destinies.
While your parents and loved ones, who paid dearly for the privilege, can trust that I’ll do some version of all of the above, there’s a different sensation and focus that quickens my reflections this afternoon. I want to interrogate the very notion of your exceptionalism and the broader question of our national exceptionalism at this moment when history is balanced on a knife’s edge.
Let me start, though, with a note about the ground that we stand on. Contrary to my wariness about praising exceptionalism, we can all say an amen to the notion that Bard is a special place! Might I get an “Amen!” for that? It is indeed one of the essential spaces for those of us who care about the promotion and the protection of our open society. Graduates, please know this and hold on to that essentiality as you move on from this hamlet. It has been a year of acute struggle and profound isolation as you’ve attempted to endeavor to complete your studies during this pandemic season. I know that the siren song of early summer and the confidence that we all have now because we have vaccines in our arms—all of that compels us to get back to the excitement of worshipping the combustion of matter in motion that comprises contemporary civilization. But graduates, be still, and know that not all movement is toward meaning. Sit in this place. In the beatitude of it. Be present and imbibe the hard-won lessons of this traumatic year, but also take stock in the permanent ownership of the armature that you’ve acquired in this special place. Bard is an institution that we all should defend—fiercely! When I was asked to take up this honor, I didn’t hesitate for one second—first of all, it was because it would give me the opportunity to feel fabulous in a flowing robe. But mostly, because this is a nexus of thought and action that speaks to my core sense of democracy, justice, inclusion.
There are scholars who are joining us today who are graduating through the Bard Prison Initiative, which is one of our great Redemption Songs in higher education, in a society that imprisons people who look like me at disproportionate astronomical rates. As someone who grew up in financial hardship, I will praise-sing a college that opens its doors to a student population that’s 26 percent Pell eligible. And I’m awed by students who managed to not only be resourceful enough to conduct scientific research, artistic performances, and scholarly work under the strain of COVID but also participated in a yearlong President's Commission on Racial Equity and Justice. You asked the hard questions. You didn't accept the usual answers. You demanded positive change, and, critically, you took up the responsibility for the work that comes with change. This college, that has survived on the hustle and audacity of creative administrators, has far outpaced universities with deep endowments on the investments that you all have made on social justice and the building of a more perfect union. And that is deserving of self-applause.
Bard is also essential as an idea because the humanities and not only STEM are vital to remake the world in its broken places. We must learn how to understand, and not only how to have impact, to invest in meaning and not only in harnessing resources. We must be guided by the compass of our soul’s curiosity aligned with the ballast of our reflective moral equilibrium. These are the bricks and mortar of a Bard education, and the tent poles for a society that promotes the rights of the most vulnerable. This is clearly why George Soros, the great champion of open societies, saw fit to place an unprecedented big bet on the ideal of Bard. We should all do the same.
And now, graduates, can we talk a little bit about you?
I have to admit to being slightly intimidated by the notion that I’ve been asked to frame and define your triumph and to impart some vision as you take the next brash steps in your journeys. I feel poorly equipped to do that, mostly owing to the enormous wall that stands between our generations. I like to think of myself as somebody who is still relatively young. Clearly, I have an active imagination. But, in truth, I’m three decades older than you all, and share the same follicle challenge as your much-esteemed president. And, I’m on the verge of being fatigued by experiences that you don’t even have names for yet.
But as I considered what I might have to say to you today I realized that there is some strength and advantage in my infirmities. Now, I’ve always been one to advise that one should be profoundly suspicious of the agendas and the generosities of the previous generation. But please know that, while I might not have an intimacy with your music, your fashion, or with your tech, I do have the ability to look back on the arc of my own journey, which I’ve traveled from the seats you currently occupy right now to this perch at this podium, with this embarrassing notion that titles I’ve worn uneasily or the marbled halls that I’ve accessed somehow grant me some bizarre exceptionalism that compels you to have to suffer through my poor musings. But oddly, my confidence in our kinship grows as I realize—with apologies to your loved ones and these extraordinary educators—how spectacularly ordinary we all are. Yes, I said ordinary. I know it’s customary to extoll your genius on a day like today. But ultimately, the diploma that you’re going to receive on this stage does little to distinguish you from the nearly 117 billion homo sapiens who have devoured oxygen before you. Heck, there are four million students who are receiving some form of college diplomas in the United States this year alone!
All of our beauty, brilliance, essentialness, all of our genius, was all greatly exaggerated. This is true of us all, perhaps with the exception of your honorary recipient Audra McDonald, who is as brilliant and as genius as advertised. There are ways though that you may yet elevate your soul’s highest song and the greatness that your families aspire to for you. But I’ll get there momentarily.
In many ways, I’m still very much the person that I was when I reached your mark. But there are ways that life alters you far beyond your ability to even recognize yourself. I had an Odyssean greed for experience that was set against the very real limitations of economic degradations and the lived challenges of institutionalized racial animus. Those impositions stirred in me an anger that could have been dangerously self-destructive. My salvation came in the form of involvement in movements far greater than myself that pulled down my vanities and channeled whatever few gifts I had. I learned, in my wilderness journey, what President Barack Obama articulated with such precision, that “thinking about only yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition.”
This poverty of ambition and all-consuming certitude about the significance of one’s own navel extends from the individual to the nation-state—to this nation-state. I’ve been involved in the work of politics my entire life. From solidarity work in my Haitian American diaspora community, to my true awakening in the anti-apartheid era, to my work as an organizer for low-wage workers, to my efforts in electoral politics which culminated in my service in the White House and my foray into diplomacy and international advocacy through philanthropy. You might say that I’ve been in the business of history. And I’ve done it with a religiosity, a faith in functional cooperative behaviors and structures that enable us all to impose our will on history for progressive outcomes. The central notion in my unpacking of it is that history is in all of what we keep. What we choose to preserve. What is in the service of a coherent humanitarianism. And in what advances justice. As an immigrant who had to carve out his own sense of Americanness, I can appreciate the words of Vaclav Havel, who wrote that “he tried to hold in a single thought ‘reality’ and ‘justice.’”
There’s a struggle in that for those of us who are not part of the orthodoxy, who sit outside the traditions of power in this nation. This sense that justice is a transcendent thing that is ever elusive.
Justice has been historically elusive in our nation. And so has truly inclusive representative democracy. I won’t here recite our innumerable challenges and our most recent traumas, though the recent insurrections in our nation’s Capitol and the ensuing lack of national examination remind us that violence and authoritarianism have more enablers than instigators. I raise this here to extend my interrogation of exceptionalism—in this case, American exceptionalism—and to wonder aloud what a recasting of America’s place in the world might mean for this graduating class and your generation, both those who are U.S.-born and based and the 10 percent of your cohort who are international students.
We are emerging from a devastating health and economic crisis greatly exacerbated by the ignorance of ill-equipped leaders who insisted on our exceptionalism in the face of the shocking death tolls, the stunning job loss and resulting hunger and deprivations. The essential nation, essential America, was exposed as a fragile state, despite the resilience of our truly essential workers and the deep pockets of wealth. We suffered from that poverty of ambition—an inability to see ourselves in the world and a failure to count up the cost of isolation and America Firstism.
What might a different ambition look like now? How might we look beyond our own navels?
The great writer Ralph Ellison was an instructor here at Bard in the late 1950s, a time when, surely, he must have been one of the few Black people on this campus. Ellison wrote that “Americans give but a limited attention to history. Too much happens too rapidly and before we can evaluate it, or exhaust its meaning or pleasure, there is something new to concern us. Ours is the tempo of the motion picture, not that of the still camera, and we waste experience.”
We waste experience. How do we advantage ourselves from the great toll of experiences that we’ve just had? We must begin with a deexceptionalization of the self and the nation. America is of course an overwhelming planetary force. But we need to help repair the world and protect against future calamities by being one of many players in it. We can and we must tackle the great challenges cooperatively, not through a winner-takes-all race to the bottom. Any diplomat will tell you that confrontation alone mostly fails. For instance, we can appreciate that in order to reinvigorate the global human rights movement while also solving for our climate crisis we need to be able to hold the reality of the injustice endured by the Uighur community and confront China, whilst recognizing the enormity of the scale of carbon emissions while we work in partnership with China. We have to appreciate the singularity of the American experience of systemic racism while reaching for the lessons that we might draw from the resistance to police abuse in the favelas in Rio, where there are countless George Floyds every day.
What America does best is lead with the capacity for reinvention. Right now, the world needs the spark of that and not the poverty of an ambitious hegemony.
I’ll conclude by returning to the individual. To you all. And to your exceptional opportunity to be great. Now coming out of our long quarantine, it’s easy to slide into a lazy decade of youthful waste, where the health of your generation will be judged by all of what you consume. That would be a poverty of ambition. We need to look up from our navels and look up from our phones and realize at last that service to others is the only leadership that has legacy.
In my pocket and now placed on this podium, I have this treasured photograph of my father from the 1950s. My later father. He’s resplendent in a graduation gown replete with satin flourishes. He matches you in style, President Botstein. In his hand he’s clutching, seemingly for dear life, his law diploma, which he had just received from the finest university in Haiti. The world was very much in front of him, with his exceptionalism assured, but even in that moment this diploma was losing all value as a brutal dictatorship, supported by the United States, was taking hold in that proud island nation and dismantling the very concept of justice. He never got to practice his profession. Our ideals of peace and justice are ephemeral, fragile things without sustainable institutions like Bard and without servant leadership. My father’s degree was printed on stock equal to yours, but what he learned is what you need to learn, that you need to prove the value of that degree every single day. Every day. And you do it with service to others.
That’s a lesson that I’ve had to learn and to take up over and over because sometimes your ego can kind of get in the way. I learned this lesson a few years ago when I was down in Atlanta, Georgia. I had to give an address, not dissimilar to this one, at a conference in Georgia, and I was feeling pretty good about myself. My ego was walking into the door before I arrived, and I was feeling rather exceptional. As I’m wont to do whenever I’m in Atlanta, I went off and visited Dr. King’s old church. And, as I went in there, as I sat in the pews and I looked at the podium that he used to command, there was a loop tape that was playing, and his oceanic voice swept over the room:
He who is greatest among you shall be a servant. Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.
You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.
You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve.
You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve.
You don’t have to know the second theory of thermonuclear dynamics to serve.
All you need is a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.
You can be that servant.
My ego was put in check.
Yes, you can be that servant. Service begins with the recognition of the greatness of others and the desire to lift it up. Look at the student that’s sitting next to you. Exalt in their greatness. Forget your accomplishments for a moment. Think about what’s been sacrificed by others to get you to this moment. There’s exceptionalism in those who washed floors to pay for your brilliance. Be present in that goodness. Revel in that greatness. Elevate it. Celebrate it. Be in the service of it and your own brilliance will shine on through. You can be that servant.
Here I’m reminded of the hymn by the Indian poet Tagore:
I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted and behold, service was joy.
Take up the joy of your exceptional service, Class of 2021. We await your greatness!
About the Commencement Speaker
Patrick Gaspard is former president of the Open Society Foundations (OSF). During his three-year tenure, he confronted significant threats to open societies around the globe, including the rise of authoritarian regimes and the spread of the COVID-19 virus worldwide. Gaspard conceptualized and stewarded Open Society’s contribution of $220 million in grants to build power in Black communities, and $200 million in global investments that included support for essential workers and other communities hit hard by COVID-19. Prior to leading OSF from 2018 through 2020, Gaspard was a key figure in President Barack Obama’s administration and held a number of prominent positions during Obama’s two terms in office.
Gaspard was born in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, in 1967 to Haitian parents. He grew up in New York City and had a long career there in electoral and campaign politics. After attending Columbia University, he joined Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, then worked on David Dinkins’s successful bid to become the first African American mayor of New York City. Gaspard served as national deputy field director for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2003–4 before returning to labor organizing, where he rose to become executive vice president and political director of the 1199 branch of the Service Employees International Union, one of the largest unions in the United States.
In 2008, Gaspard joined Obama’s presidential campaign, serving as national political director. Following the inauguration, Gaspard transitioned to direct the White House Office of Political Affairs from 2009 to 2011. Thereafter, he served as executive director of the Democratic National Committee from 2011 to 2013, overseeing efforts to reelect Obama. Gaspard was subsequently appointed U.S. ambassador to South Africa, and served in this capacity from 2013 to 2016.
Post Date: 05-31-2021