Commencement 2002

Omidyars urge 2002 graduates to be 'catalysts for change'

Under chilly but bright, sunny skies, Tufts University held its 146th commencement May 19—the culminating event in a series of celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of the university's founding in 1852. Because of the special occasion, the main commencement speakers and those awarded honorary degrees were selected because of their close ties to Tufts.

"What a glorious day," President Lawrence S. Bacow told the gathering of graduates, their family and friends. "Savor this special moment." Speaking at his first commencement since being chosen president in 2001, Bacow told the nearly 1,900 graduates, "you are truly a special class to me, personally."

Pierre Omidyar © Mark Morelli

Pamela Kerr Omidyar © Mark Morelli

To loud cheers he said, "This is the best Tufts commencement class I have ever been privileged to stand before…use your education for good purposes, and remember you will always have a home here at Tufts."

Tufts alumni Pamela Kerr Omidyar and Pierre Omidyar shared the role of delivering the main commencement speech, titled "From Self to Society: Citizenship to Community for a World of Change." Pierre Omdiyar, A88, is the founder of eBay, one of the world's most successful online companies; Pamela Omidyar earned her biology degree from Tufts in 1989 and now heads the Omidyars' charitable foundation.

During individual school ceremonies following Tufts' all-university commencement, former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright addressed graduates of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, while Daniel R. Glickman, former U. S. Secretary of Agriculture, delivered the commencement address at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Dr. Richard W. Valachovic, executive director of the American Dental Education Association, addressed graduates of the School of Dental Medicine, and Dr. Roderick MacKinnon, M82, winner of the 1999 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, addressed graduating students at the School of Medicine and the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences. On the Grafton campus, writer and humorist Roy Blount Jr. spoke at the School of Veterinary Medicine's graduation.

© Mark Morelli

Make a difference
Drawing on her undergraduate experience, Pam Omidyar recalled studying biochemistry with Prof. Ross Feldberg and realizing that "enzymes make really great role models. As any biology major can tell you, enzymes are the catalysts that make possible biochemical reactions. Enzymes increase the rate of a reaction, but are not themselves consumed by the reaction. To translate that into everyday English, enzymes are nature's activists."

The message the couple chose to share with the new graduates, Pam Omidyar said, is to "be an enzyme—a catalyst for change. Act on the environment around you. Make it your mission to make some small difference in the great scheme of life. Pierre and I are making that the mission of our lives, every day."

The Omidyars have established a philanthropic foundation and also helped found the University College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts, a university-wide initiative ensuring that students graduate from Tufts prepared to be committed public citizens and leaders who take an active role in building stronger communities and societies.

Pierre Omidyar told the graduates to "prepare for the unexpected," noting that "to truly prepare, you've got to position yourself to keep a couple of options open so when the door of opportunity opens, you're close enough to squeeze through."

Keep it simple
He said that industry analysts and business reporters tell him that eBay's strength is that its system is self-sustaining, able to adapt to user needs without major intervention from a central authority. Yet eBay, which was launched in 1995, was made self-sustaining not because he planned for it to serve the 40 million users a day who now log onto the web site, but because it was his hobby, and he had a regular job to go to each day.

President Lawrence S. Bacow presides over his first Tufts commencement. © Mark Morelli

"I was working as a software engineer from 10 to 7, and I wanted to have a life on the weekends," Omidyar told the audience. "So I built a system that could keep working—catching complaints and capturing feedback—even when Pam and I were out mountain biking, and the only one home was our cat." Said Omidyar, "If I had had a blank check from a big VC [venture capitalist] and a big staff running around, things might have gone much worse. I would have probably put together a very complex, elaborate system, something that justified all the investment. But because I had to operate on a tight budget, tight in terms of money and tight in terms of time, necessity focused me on simplicity: I built a system simple enough to sustain itself."

Omidyar told the audience, "Don't try to program everything…build a platform, prepare for the unexpected. And you'll know you're successful when the platform you've built serves you in unexpected ways."

Bipolar foreign policy
Albright used her address to Fletcher graduates to deliver a blunt assessment of the Bush administration's policies, saying the Bush team is "suffering from untreated bipolar disorder" and "a split personality" on crucial foreign policy issues, including the war on terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on strategies involving Afghanistan, North Korea and Cuba. She suggested the administration is torn between factions wanting to "go it alone" and those committed to internationalism.

© Mark Morelli

"The root of the problem," she said, "is that one half the administration truly believes in what the Fletcher School teaches, which is international diplomacy and law, while the other half is less convinced."

Glickman touched on several issues he said would merit the attention of the graduating nutrition students, among them the rising levels of diabetes in the general population and the rising rates of obesity in children—problems he labeled as insidious as AIDS and tobacco-related illnesses. He said while the war against domestic hunger has been successful, hunger around the world remains rampant, and U.S. policies should reflect our ability to help other countries.

At the medical and Sackler school ceremony, MacKinnon spoke on the 20th anniversary of his own graduation, saying that medical school, where he learned to master difficult material in short order, had prepared him well for the "unexpected turn" he eventually made from physician to biophysicist. He encouraged the graduates to heed their own intellectual impulses, wherever they might lead. "What is most important is that you find your passion and pursue it," said MacKinnon, who was awarded the Lasker Prize for his groundbreaking work with potassium ion channels.

© Mark Morelli

Commit to service
At the School of Dental Medicine, Valachovic said widespread patient trust and satisfaction along with a growing sophistication of dental procedures and techniques are contributing to making dental medicine a profession with a great future. But he also urged graduates to realize they must make commitments to a lifetime of learning and a lifetime of service. He noted that dental caries remain the most prevalent childhood disease and that 80 percent of caries are found in 25 percent of children, mostly in lower socioeconomic groups. The five-year survival rate for African Americans with oral cancer is only 30 percent, compared with 54 percent for whites, he said.

Five people with close connections to Tufts were awarded honorary degrees during the all-university commencement: John DiBiaggio, Tufts president emeritus, whose leadership from 1992 to 2001 resulted in increased diversity among the student body, a stronger endowment and numerous new programs and facilities; Eugene Fama, a 1960 alumnus whose work has changed the way many economists and investors think about the stock market; the Rev. William G. Sinkford, the first African American to head the Unitarian Universalist Association, which played a key role in Tufts' founding; Katherine Haley Will, J74, the first woman president of Whittier College since its founding in 1887; and Roderick MacKinnon.

Staff writers Terry Ann Knopf, Bruce Morgan, Janet Walzer and C.W. Wolff contributed to this story.