Thank you, Judith, and to all of the faculty and staff who have collectively made this day possible.
Congratulations, graduates! I am so delighted to be here to welcome you to the community of Duke alumni.
In fact, I am more than delighted to be here—since as a scholar of political communications and a faculty member at Sanford, this school’s mission is uniquely dear to my heart. Please don’t tell the other schools.
Though I know that this is not the commencement ceremony that you might have imagined when you first arrived at Duke, we’ve made it through a most abnormal year to this joyful day—together.
And how about this setting? Is there any place more Duke than Cameron? Well, maybe the coffee line at Fleishman Commons—but this has to be a close second.
To be sure, there were moments these past few months when it would have been ambitious for us to expect to be here, in person.
One might even say, in the famous words of Terry Sanford, outrageously ambitious.
In your time at Duke, you have no doubt heard that phrase—outrageous ambition—used in many settings and contexts: by faculty and administrators; in admissions and marketing materials; even, for that matter, in commencement speeches. It has become a part of our identity as an institution, as fundamental to Duke as these banners hanging above us in the rafters.
But for all its rhetorical power, the notion of outrageous ambition does not capture what it was that President Sanford felt so ambitious about—that is, his hopes for this institution and its students.
Thankfully for posterity—and for future commencement speeches—President Sanford outlined these aspirations for Duke’s educational mission in the very same speech where he coined his more indelible phrase.
“Duke aspires,” he said—with his characteristic blend of rhetorical flair and folksiness—“… Duke aspires to leave its students with an abiding concern for justice, with a resolve for compassion and concern for others…and with an ability to think straight now and throughout life.”
Concern for justice. Compassion for others. And—though we might say this differently today—the ability to think straight.
These core values have brought you to this moment, have carried you through the countless hours of studying and dissertation writing, have supported you in the sacrifices and challenges you have faced, and will carry you forward to the extraordinary careers and lives you have ahead.
In your pursuit of the Master of Public Policy, Master of International Development Policy, or International Master of Environmental Policy, or Doctorate in Public Policy, you have first and foremost demonstrated extraordinary intellectual promise. It’s what brought you to Duke—what set you apart and inspired the Sanford admissions committee to make the very wise decision to invite you to join this community.
And you have certainly made good on that decision. In your research and intellectual pursuits, you have helped to transform our understanding of critical issues in politics, foreign affairs, the future of technology, immigration, education, and environmental conservation.
You have shared in the vibrant diversity of perspectives on our campus, one that I hope has enriched your lives here, broadened your own thinking, and inspired you to pursue new areas of scholarship.
The university, in rather utopian terms, has sometimes been described as a free marketplace of ideas. This is grounded in the notion that if all perspectives are given equal consideration, the truth will rise to the top.
Of course, the free marketplace of ideas comes with its attendant pitfalls. For one thing, the marketplace of ideas has never actually been free, at least not in the sense of being equitable. Ideas promoted by people in positions of power often get more attention, while great thinkers from marginalized populations are, well, marginalized.
A vital component of what President Sanford called thinking straight, then, is seeking out and amplifying the perspectives of those who may not be getting a fair or equal hearing. To borrow a phrase from the poet Robert Penn Warren, remember that even in a democracy, truth doesn’t always live in the number of voices. Remain open to hearing the hard truths, and help others tell their stories in a way that helps us all better understand and serve each other.
As we have seen in recent discourse, we are often tempted to forget that this openness to ideas—which seems so noble in the context of empowering marginalized voices—cuts both ways.
My colleague Peter Salovey, the President of Yale University, tells a story about the great civil rights icon, theologian, and legal thinker Pauli Murray, who spent her formative years here in Durham. Some of you may have seen one of the murals of her in downtown Durham, or visited the Pauli Murray Center at her childhood home on Carroll Street.
When Murray was a student at Yale Law School in the early 1960s, a student group invited the racist, segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, to visit campus for a debate. There was an understandable outcry, even in that less enlightened moment of our nation’s history, and the then-president of the university was considering whether to demand that the students retract the invitation.
He then received an unexpected letter from Murray, sharing an equally unexpected perspective. She argued that Wallace must be given the opportunity to share his views, however wrong, however vitriolic, because that very same notion of a free and equal exchange of ideas was foundational to the civil rights movement.
Wallace must be allowed to speak, she wrote, because that “has been the principle behind the enforcement of the rights of the Little Rock Nine, James Meredith and others to attend desegregated schools in the face of a hostile community and threats of violence.”
The stakes are no lower in today’s discourse. Many of our classmates, colleagues, and friends encounter speech that is discriminatory or threatening to them. We know that invocations of free speech are too easily and too often used as cover for attempts to exclude and demean. And free speech, as I’ve noted elsewhere, is similarly used to absolve those of us with editorial power of our responsibilities to exercise it wisely, and justly.
So, it may seem like a manifestation of our compassion and concern for others to silence those ideas we find wrong, hurtful, or even dangerous. Certainly, we might think, the surest way to protect the vulnerable is to prevent others from promoting ideas designed to anger, provoke, or cause pain.
But there are several profound challenges in this thinking. First, the perceived degeneracy of the opposition must not release us or our responsibility to think deeply and critically about our own positions.
Indeed, it’s in defending our own ideas, in responding with argument and debate, that we both demonstrate the strength of our position and allow for continued growth and evolution in our thinking. Robust debate is the surest path, if not quite to truth, then to its most reasonable human approximation.
To borrow the Yale example, barring George Wallace from campus wouldn’t have done a thing to advance the cause of civil rights. Allowing him to debate his ideas, on the other hand, would force him to face and respond to criticism in a way that might sharpen the thinking and strategy of his opponents.
We must refrain always from ad hominem attacks. We must support and defend those who are subject to hurtful speech, and do all we can to prevent harm and promote our community standard of respectful engagement.
But let’s not deny those who promulgate controversial ideas their own right and responsibility to defend them. They will surely have these ideas, whether we let them be expressed or not. Attempting to silence them is not only likely to fail, it would violate our longstanding commitment to open inquiry, which is at the foundation of research and discovery, of teaching and healing. We can and will insist on decency and honesty, but our openness to a full diversity of ideas and beliefs enriches our work and helps make this a more engaged university, and a more engaged world.
It’s not easy, but it is just. And most importantly, this is how we change minds and hearts—not by edict, not by threat, but by something that, with our constant care and attention, approaches respectful discourse among disagreeable parties.
This, I believe, is what Terry Sanford meant by thinking straight. This charge carries with it a firm dedication to serving the unheard and an abiding concern for justice for the overlooked.
At the same time, it carries with it the deep intellectual honesty of recognizing that we may not have all the answers—that there is in fact a chance that we may be wrong. Wrong about the facts of the matter, and so perhaps wrong about what to do. We hold some truths to be self-evident. Most are not.
Maintaining our commitment to justice and our humility in granting others the right to express what they believe—that is what lifts the work of policy or research or law or writing into something more than an occupation—into a vocation. By contributing your extraordinary thinking to open discourse—and by working to create a marketplace of ideas that is truly free and equitable—you will be shaping a brighter, more engaged world for all of us.
I know that you can do it. You have done it. You’ve demonstrated leadership throughout your time at Duke, and you are ready to bring your unique perspectives to a world that needs you now more than ever.
And in doing so, by setting off in the spirit of service, compassion, and justice, you—the graduates of the Sanford school—you are the fulfillment of Terry Sanford’s outrageous ambitions for Duke.
Congratulations, and very best wishes.