2006 Commencement Address

William H. Neukom P'94
Chair, Preston Gates & Ellis, LLP, Seattle, Washington
Trustee, University of Puget Sound

 

To the graduates and to your families and all the other good people who helped you get to this milestone.

With rare exception, it takes a family and a circle of good friends to raise a graduate.

You are the brightest and best educated class in the 118-year history of this proud University and she expects good . . . even great things from the Class of 2006. As well she should.

You are the beneficiaries of a liberal education. James O. Freedman, a former President of the University of Iowa and Dartmouth College, and a kindred spirit of Ron Thomas’ says this in his book, Idealism and Liberal Education:

“A liberal education acquaints students with the cultural achievements of the past and prepares them for the exigencies of an unforeseeable future. It provides them with standards by which to measure human achievement. It fires their minds with new ideas -- powerful and transcendent ideas that will trouble them, elevate them, and brace them for new endeavors...And it inspires students to delineate the foundations of their moral identity...A liberal education conveys to students a sense of joy in learning -- joy in participating in the life of the mind; joy in achieving competence and mastery; joy in entering the adult world of obligations, intimacies, and relationships.”

Puget Sound has offered you all of this and more.

You have grown
Pause and reflect on who you have become over the course of your four years at Puget Sound: in terms of how you observe; how you think; how you act.

Ask yourselves how differently you now see the world and interact with other people and institutions compared with how you saw the world and interacted with it when you came on this campus as a freshman.

Each of you is a different person today than you were in the autumn of 2002. You have enhanced your skills dramatically. You have experienced a growth spurt -- of mind and spirit. Indeed, these four years have stimulated more growth than any period of your life -- before or after college.

How have you grown?
You have grown in terms of intellectual curiosity: by reading and listening more and asking more questions. By being skeptical about John Kenneth Galbraith’s “Conventional Wisdom.”

You have grown in terms of critical thinking. The first part of critical thinking is gathering and filtering all kinds of information. The information age affords you access to more information just from your laptop than the most accomplished academicians had just a decade ago from all sources. But not all information is accurate or reliable. Today’s blizzard of information is a massive superset of the universe of knowledge -- the stuff that really matters.

The second part of critical thinking is analyzing good data in a logical, rational and thoughtful way. In the best sense: manipulating the data.

And the third part of critical thinking is reaching sensible and sound conclusions.

Critical thinking invites other views and criticisms throughout the process.

You have grown in terms of communication: first, by using data and rational analysis to support a point of view -- resisting the temptation to repeat an opinion without being able to support it with facts and logic; and second, by delivering the message -- whether in spoken or written word -- in simple declarative active voice sentences.

You have grown in terms of collaboration: by developing an appreciation of team work -- not just on the playing field but in the classroom and laboratory. There is nothing as engaging and rewarding or as productive as sharing information and trading thoughts and coming to worthwhile conclusions. Polarities stifle deliberation and consensus and have no role in collaboration. Collaboration works best when credit is not hoarded . . . but is shared generously.

And you have grown in terms of fundamental values: by practicing tolerance above all, as well as celebrating diversity and flashing an instinct of service and support.

Who has helped you grow?
You have these invaluable and enduring skills because a brilliant and committed faculty -- of scholar teachers -- has engaged in a joint learning experience with you. They have shared with you the joy of discovery in the arts and sciences. Here’s to the Puget Sound faculty!

Your transformative learning experience has occurred in a welcoming and stimulating environment. This ecosystem -- the academic support, the extra curricular services, these buildings and grounds -- all this and much more behind the scenes is managed by a devoted group of smart managers led by President Thomas and his cabinet. Here is to the Puget Sound administration.

And you have been surrounded by talented students who have tempted, tested and supported you . . . in the course of learning with you.

And now it is time to apply your skills -- what awaits you?

A marketplace of ideas awaits you -- more open and disputatious than the college campus and with more serious consequences. This is the crucible where both personal and public policy is formed. In this marketplace active listening is a powerful virtue.

A work place of challenge and opportunity awaits you: where the manner in which individuals and teams contribute to efficient and productive enterprises is changing materially and at an accelerating rate. Time honored ways of “doing business” are being discarded left and right. By enterprise, I mean business, the professions, the arts, government or non profits. Your success and your enterprise’s success will require the best of your mental agility and imagination . . . coupled with self-discipline and flexibility.

Communities await you, communities that are “developing communities” in the same sense that we think about “developing countries.”

If the common goal is to design and nurture sustainable communities of equity and opportunity, that is, communities with fair rules and processes where decisions are made on the merits and where each of us has a reasonable opportunity to achieve our full potential as a worker and as a person,

Then each of you has the right and the responsibility to participate in your communities. To think and act in terms of the common good and restrain self-interest. The point is to serve as a “useful citizen.”

You can serve as a useful citizen in civil society by pursuing volunteerism, that distinctively American form of community involvement noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1835 book Democracy in America, where he wrote:

“By dint of working for one’s fellow citizens, the habit and taste for serving them is at length acquired.”

Volunteerism is still a vital part of the American Way. Try not to bowl alone. Balance time in a home entertainment center with time spent out in the community. Invest your time and attention in improving your community.

You can serve as a useful citizen in participatory government, our republican form of democracy by auditing and participating in your local, state and federal governments. Wendell Phillips, an American abolitionist, orator and columnist for The Liberator, expressed the notion this way in an 1852 speech before the Massachusetts Antislavery Society:

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty -- power is ever stealing from the many to the few . . . The hand entrusted with power becomes . . . the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continual oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot; only by unintermitted Agitation can a people be kept sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.”

Without active participation by an informed public this country’s fragile 200-year old experiment in free government will surely wither and eventually fail.

Some closing thoughts
You are abundantly talented and well prepared for what awaits.

You are eternally indebted to your alma mater for a remarkable education -- an education that will make you eager to continue to learn for the rest of your lives.

You can make a difference and you should make a difference. As The Mountaineers say: Leave every campsite better than you found it. As Saint Paul reminds us: Fight the good fight. Do not shy away from leadership; you are well equipped to lead.

You can change the world . . . for the better, one day at a time.

And do not neglect your “private self.” Relentlessly broaden your perspective. Take seriously what you do, but do not take yourself too seriously. As our own Hans Ostrom has written in his poem entitled “Judeo-Christian Codicil”:

“Thou shalt not use any of the Ten Commandments to rationalize what you intended at the outset to do anyway. Thou shalt not kid a kidder.

Celebrate humor -- it so often provides the oxygen of life. Here are words from another Ostrom poem, “Emily Dickinson and Elvis Presley in Heaven”:

“They call each other ‘E.’ Elvis picks
wildflowers near the river and brings
them to Emily. She explains half-rhymes to him.

Emily’s poems now contain naugahyde, Cadillacs,
Electricity, jets, TV, Little Richard and Richard
Nixon. The rock-a-billy rhythm makes her smile.

Elvis likes himself with style. This afternoon
he will play guitar and sing “I Taste A Liquor
Never Brewed” to the tune of “Love Me Tender.”

. . .They will not think of Amherst or Las Vegas.
They know why God made them roommates.
It’s because America was their hometown.
It’s because God is a thing without feathers.
It’s because God wears blue suede shoes.”

Redouble your devotion to family, both immediate and extended. A functional, loving family is both a safe haven and a spring board.

Make time to stare at the sky on a Starry, Starry Night, tap your toe to a jazz riff and oil a baseball glove.

Onward and Godspeed.