Uncommon Ground

2017 Graduate Commencement Ceremonies @UConn

The University of Connecticut celebrated its 138th Commencement exercises last weekend.1 The Graduate School now confers so many degrees that we have two ceremonies, a ceremony for recipients of master’s degrees on Saturday afternoon and a ceremony for recipients of doctoral degrees on Monday evening. Stuart Rothenburg, who received his

Stuart Rothenburg, who received his PhD in Political Science from UConn, addressed the graduating class at the master’s ceremony. If you’d like to see his remarks, follow the link below, click on “Graduate School Ceremony: Masters Candidates, May 6, 2017”, and then click on “Commencement Address” at the left.

I addressed the graduating class at the doctoral ceremony on behalf of Elizabeth Jockusch, this year’s winner of the Edward C. Marth Award for Mentorship, and Takiyah Harper-Shipman was our student speaker. If you’d like to see my remarks, follow the link below, click on “Graduate School Ceremony: Doctoral Candidates, May 8, 2017”,  and then click on “Welcome Remarks” at the left. After a brief welcome from Interim Provost Jeremy Teitelbaum, you’ll see me. If you’d like to see Takiyah’s remarks, click on “Commencement Address” instead. If for some reason you’d like to read my remarks, keep scrolling down (or click through if you’re on the home page).

University of Connecticut Commencement Ceremonies 2017 (from Total Webcasting)

University of Connecticut

Doctoral Commencement Ceremony

Monday, May 8, 2017

The University of Connecticut Chapter of the American Association of University Professors established the Edward C. Marth Mentorship Award to recognize the leadership and dedication of Edward Marth, former Executive Director of the UConn AAUP Chapter, and to encourage and reward outstanding mentoring of graduate students by UConn Graduate Faculty members. Recipients of the Award are members of the graduate faculty who have extraordinary records of excellence and effectiveness in mentoring graduate students.

By tradition, the winner of the Marth Award addresses the graduating class of doctoral degree recipients at this ceremony. Unfortunately, this year’s winner, Professor Elizabeth Jockusch of the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, is out of the country – which means you’re stuck with me. I think of this as an example of you might call “the live frog principle.” As Mark Twain observed if you “eat a live frog first thing in the morning, then nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” So if you can bear listening to me for a few minutes, the rest of this ceremony – the part you’re really here for – will go down very easily.

The Marth Award recognizes that none of us get where we are, and especially that none of us complete a doctoral program, without the encouragement and support of our mentors. Professor Jockusch is a shining example of the mentor we should all try to be. She is, as I know from serving with her on several PhD advisory committees, generous with her criticism – generous and gentle. She deftly balances demands for the highest levels of creativeness and intellectual rigor with a clear understanding of how to help students meet her exacting standards of excellence. As you file across this stage a little later this evening and receive your doctoral degree, I hope you’ll take time to remember the mentors who have guided you along the way, not only your advisor – although your advisor has been very important – but also other faculty members, members of the University staff, friends, and most especially your family.

You are here not only because you worked very, very hard – and you did work very, very hard – but also because you had those mentors guiding you, sometimes pushing you from behind, sometimes pulling you forward, but most often standing beside you with words of encouragement and advice.

And after remembering your mentors, I hope you resolve to be the kind of mentor to others that winners of the Marth Award have been – mentors who encourage and inspire, mentors who are generous, and gentle, in their criticism, mentors who not only demand the best from others, but also help them achieve it.

Let me leave you with two hopes for your future:

First, I hope you fail quickly and often. You see, as the novelist and comic book author Neil Gaiman put it a few years ago, “If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something.” And if your doctoral degree has prepared you for anything, it has prepared you for doing something. That something could mean writing a great novel, raising happy children, teaching in a school or college, working in a large corporation or government agency, starting your own business, or any of a thousand different things. Whatever something means for you, I hope your something is something that matters. And since doing something that matters means making mistakes along the way, my first hope for you is that you fail quickly and often.

Second, I hope that you find your unicorn. The unicorn, of course, is a mythical animal with the body of a horse, the hooves and beard of a goat, the tail of a lion, and a spiral horn on its head. You might think that I hope you find your unicorn, because it would mean that you’ve discovered the magnificent thing you’ve been searching for during your doctoral studies. You’d be partly right if you thought that, but you’d be only partly right. I hope you find your unicorn because in traditional heraldry unicorns are shown collared, but with a collar that has a broken chain. Unicorns cannot be bound, just as I know your imagination will never be bound. That’s why I hope you find your unicorn.

Before long I will be welcoming you to the community of scholars. Belonging to that community brings with it great privilege. But with great privilege comes great responsibility. And among those responsibilities is our responsibility to share what we have learned with those around us.

So fail quickly and often.

Find your unicorn.

And share your knowledge and imagination with the world.


1The School of Law will hold its Commencement exercises next weekend.

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