Bard College Holds One Hundred Fifty-Sixth Commencement on Saturday, May 28, 2016
Harvard Law Professor and Author Randall Kennedy Delivered Commencement Address; Honorary Degrees Were Awarded to Kennedy, Geneticist Jennifer A. Doudna, Historian William Chester Jordan, Media Executive Geraldine Laybourne, Law Professor Elisabeth A. SemANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y.— Bard College held its one hundred fifty-sixth commencement on Saturday, May 28, 2016. At the commencement ceremony, Bard President Leon Botstein conferred 490 undergraduate degrees on the Class of 2016 and 160 graduate degrees, including master of fine arts; doctor and master of philosophy and master of arts in decorative arts, design history, and material culture; master of science in economic theory and policy; master of business administration in sustainability; master of arts in teaching; master of arts in curatorial studies; master of science in environmental policy and in climate science and policy; and master of music in vocal arts and in conducting. The program took place at 2:30 p.m. in the commencement tent on the Seth Goldfine Memorial Rugby Field, and included the presentation of honorary doctoral degrees.
Text (unedited) of commencement address by Harvard law professor and author Randall Kennedy:
Being invited to be the commencement speaker at Bard College is a great honor. It is also a daunting assignment. Bard is an extraordinary institution. So, I’ve done my homework. I’ve been watching commencement talks and discerned a familiar form. There are usually a few jokes, and then a lots of personal stories, often about the speaker’s difficult childhood—perhaps an indifferent parent—and then, after some failures, eventual triumph. If the speaker is black, the formula often includes an up-from-slavery scenario, involving references to the suffering of the speaker’s parents under the Jim Crow regime. Well, y’all ain’t getting that from me. At least not today.
What I am going to do here instead is celebrate what Bard does that is singular. Bard is led by an evangelist for the humanities and the fine arts who insists that the kind of education offered here is the most USEFUL education in the world. In his words, “It’s the kind of education that actually allows you to live with yourself over time.” President Leon Botstein is an eminent scholar, who insists on teaching freshman seminar. He is also an internationally recognized conductor, who rehearses with student musicians into the wee hours. He is an orchestra unto himself.
Then, there are the Bard students. Their energy, your energy, sophistication, and off-beat adventurousness is legendary. A couple of days ago at my home institution, Harvard Law School, there was a Bard student who graduated. I knew him quite well. He was in my contracts class. Daniel Severson (’10). Wonderful student. One of the best students I’ve encountered in many years—a Bard student. Then in just the past 24 hours, while I’ve been here socializing with people, I’ve heard in casual conversations about students, and I’m going to mention quickly just a couple. Angie Del Arca (’16), who is going to be on a Humanity in Action Fellowship, who is going to study human rights in Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Sarajevo, and Warsaw. Tamzin Elliott (’16), who is going to leave her harp and her Conservatory training behind for a while to learn Georgian chant in Tbilisi. Then I heard about David Bull (’16), who is going to do lighting design on Broadway. And there were others and others and others just doing extraordinarily interesting things.
Bard is based here in Annandale-on-Hudson, but it spreads its vision all over the world, on its campuses in Berlin, St Petersburg, Vilnius, Bishkek, and Jerusalem, including the first dual-degree program between American and Palestinian institutions of higher education. The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities convenes major symposia. The Clemente Course in the Humanities, which was recognized by President Obama, provides impoverished participants with accredited-level instruction in a variety of disciplines at no cost. The Bard Early College Initiative, which has far-flung outposts across the country, offers high schoolers a rigorous, tuition-free college course of study. All of these programs reflect the distinctive spirit of Bard. One that does so with a special vividness is the Bard Prison Initiative. The Bard Prison Initiative, the BPI. Started by a bard student while still in college here, the BPI enacts Bard's uncompromising attachment to intellectuality and creativity conjoined with passionate attentiveness to social justice.
The BPI offers college instruction to men and women in six prisons in New York. It enrolls about 300 participants yearly and offers some 60 courses per semester. Since 2001, it has awarded several hundred associate or bachelor’s degrees. The inspiration for similar programs at other colleges and universities, including Wesleyan, Grinnell, Goucher, and Notre Dame, Bard’s program remains the largest in the country.
The BPI is a response to the linked disasters of mass incarceration, ruinous conditions inside of prisons, and vindictive policies that brand and marginalize the formerly incarcerated. The National Research Council of the National Academies informs us that in 1972 the United States incarceration rate, the number of inmates in prisons and jails per 100,000 people, stood at 161. That is, for every 100,000 people in America, 161 were incarcerated. By 2012 the incarceration rate had jumped to 707 per 100,000, an increase of over 300 percent, a rate five to ten times higher than rates in other advanced industrialized democracies. Although the United States, contains about five percent of the world’s population, it cages close to 25 percent of the world’s prisoners: over two million.
This unprecedented uptick in incarceration arose as a consequence of public revulsion against criminality and politicians’ efforts to address, channel, and exploit that popular anger to “wars” on drugs, crime, and disorder. Those campaigns brought, in their wake, longer prison terms and mandatory minimum sentences. At its best, the incarceration binge was a well-intentioned but mistaken effort to obtain increased safety through massive doses of incapacitation and deterrence. At its worst the incarceration binge was a disguised reaction against the social advances of the 1960s, a pernicious way of stigmatizing, marginalizing, and controlling populations perceived to be threatening, especially populations of young, poor, men of color.
The BPI brings into the dismal environs of the penitentiary the enthralling possibilities of higher education. It holds the inmates to high standards. To be eligible for admission, one must have earned a high school degree or its equivalent. Bard, moreover, accepts only about one in ten applicants, just as it does here on the Annandale Campus. Those who enroll take courses of the same depth and difficulty offered here to the regular students.
The results have been striking. No commencement exercises anywhere are more moving than the BPI commencement exercises held at the Eastern, Woodbourne, Fishkill, Green Haven, Coxsackie, and Taconic Correctional facilities. You can see excerpts on the Bard website. They are absolutely riveting. They reveal men and women who have bested prison’s mind-numbing, time-slowing, soul-sapping boredom, who have overcome countless discouraging inconveniences, who have defeated the self-betraying suspicion that they are no good and can never become better.
In February of this year, the New York Times lauded the BPI, noting that the recidivism rate for inmates who participated in the program was four percent, while those who earned degrees was 2.5 percent. By contrast, the recidivism rate for the general population of inmates is about 40 percent. Lowering recidivism rates saves the public money. Imprisoning people is expensive. New Yorkers pay about $60,000 per inmate per year. The fiscal effects of decreasing rates of recidivism are thus quite substantial. The Times reported that for every dollar spent on prison education, the public saves four to five dollars on reimprisonment costs.
The BPI and kindred programs, however, face opposition. The most politically influential line of criticism goes like this: it is wrong for felons to receive excellent college instruction at no financial cost to themselves while law-abiding people have to pay, or, even worse, go without higher education. The potency of this attack is evident. In 1994, the federal government eliminated all state and federal inmate eligibility for Pell Grants. States have also cut back on resources that made higher education accessible to inmates. In 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed setting aside a mere one million dollars to finance inmate college education in a state prison budget of 2.8 billion dollars. He withdrew his proposal when it was attacked as a “slap in the face” to taxpayers.
In online responses to articles about the BPI, one finds numerous iterations of this sentiment. As one reader remarked: “[I]t is very hard to sell a free college education for prisoners when such is anything but free for those who have committed no crimes.”
How should we at Bard, believers in the education of the soul, respond? First, we need to argue that it is a bad state of affairs for any applicant to college to be prevented from attending merely because of his or her household’s financial incapacity. That is an affront to our society’s professed aspiration to equal opportunity. It contradicts our claimed repudiation of aristocracy.
We should say to the detractors that they are wrong in using the plight of needy non-incarcerated people to stymie efforts to provide relief to those who are incarcerated. Some who do this never voice any concern about needy people except when they are attacking social generosity.
Another response has to do with what the BPI offers to Bard. The BPI offers proof that there is real joy in learning for learning’s sake. A few days ago, I was talking with a Bard professor about the BPI. This gentleman is a tough cookie, a hard-boiled realist, an intense, exacting intellectual. He told me that when he has taught behind the locked iron gates of prison he has had “no better feeling” as an academic. BPI, in other words, involves an exchange: teachers give to students, but students give to teachers as well. Bard is helping those prisoners. But those prisoners are helping Bard, too, infusing it with ideas and motivations and experiences and perspectives that would otherwise be missing. Outside of prison, in the free world, purveyors of higher education talk about the glories of non-instrumental intellectual engagement. But the omnipresence of the market, the lure of vocational ambition, the pervasiveness of desires for upward mobility put into question the sincerity of professed commitments to liberal education. Prison clarifies matters. The person facing years behind bars after graduation, who nonetheless seeks to learn German for the thrill of reading Kant in German, is a person whose actions and circumstances bespeak a bracing commitment to learning for the sake of learning.
Educating prisoners is a cost-effective method of reducing recidivism. This is an important consideration. Diminishing rates of reimprisonment not only benefits public budgets; it also saves past offenders from further misery behind bars. As we have seen, though, the recidivism point is not the only argument to make.
Graduates, you are lucky to have been able to attend Bard. Your president is a visionary; your deans are accomplished computer scientists, cellists, and philosophers. You have been taught by devoted professors. You have been wonderfully prepared to pursue all sorts of endeavors. You will be artists, scientists, teachers, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, and all sorts of other things. I hope that you will engage yourselves in activities that allow you to continue to conjoin intellectuality and the pursuit of social justice. Max Kenner has. He is the former Bard student who founded the BPI and now directs the project. Stephen Tremaine has. He is the former Bard student, who founded a Bard Early College program in New Orleans.
I hope that you will be blessed to find work that is similarly noble and sustaining. I look forward very much to reading about your contributions in the months, years, decades to come.
Class of 2016 - congratulations and good luck! Thank you.
ABOUT THE COMMENCEMENT SPEAKER
Randall Kennedy is Michael R. Klein Professor at Harvard Law School, where he teaches courses on contracts, criminal law, and the regulation of race relations. He was born in Columbia, South Carolina. He attended St. Albans School, Princeton University, Oxford University, and Yale Law School. He served as a law clerk for Judge J. Skelly Wright of the United States Court of Appeals and for Justice Thurgood Marshall of the United States Supreme Court. He is a member of the bar of the District of Columbia and the Supreme Court of the United States. Awarded the 1998 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for Race, Crime, and the Law, Kennedy writes for a wide range of scholarly and general interest publications. His most recent books are For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law (2013), The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency (2011), Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal (2008), Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption (2003), and Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (2002). A member of the American Law Institute, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and American Philosophical Association, Kennedy is also a charter trustee of Princeton University.
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