Pomp—and humility

Ben Franklin provides modern lessons for Class of 2004

A dose of humility—or at least the appearance of such—is a worthy trait for both college graduates and national leaders, Walter Isaacson told the audience at Tufts’ 148th commencement on May 23.

Fletcher School graduates are particularly boisterous on Commencement Day. © Mark Morelli

Isaacson, author and former media executive, drew his advice from the subject of his latest best-selling biography of Benjamin Franklin. “Remember that virtue of humility,” Isaacson said in a speech that explained how the lessons learned from Franklin’s life are still very much applicable today.

And, should any of the new graduates find it difficult to humble themselves—much like Franklin himself—they should remember another lesson from the good doctor, who received honorary degrees from Harvard and Yale in 1753: The appearance of humility is just as useful as humility.

Isaacson’s comments capped off a day of joyous celebration that also ushered in a new tradition for graduates of the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering. Following the all-university commencement exercises on the main academic quad, the A, S & E graduates dispersed to separate sites to receive their diplomas at more intimate ceremonies within their academic departments. The graduate and professional schools also conducted individual ceremonies in the afternoon, as in the past.

Main commencement speaker Walter Isaacson draws lessons from Benjamin Franklin to exhort the graduates to greatness. © Mark Morelli

The university awarded degrees to 2,077 graduates. President Lawrence S. Bacow presented honorary degrees to Isaacson and Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong; musician Tracy Chapman, J86; former chair of the university’s Board of Trustees Nathan Gantcher, A62; U.S. Sen. Richard G. Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; and former National Science Foundation director Walter Massey, now president of Morehouse College.

In another first for Tufts, the undergraduate Class of ’04 presented an $8,118 donation to the Tufts Fund as its senior gift, reaching a record participation rate of 61.1 percent of the class.

On a chilly, damp morning under overcast skies that hinted at rain but, fortunately, never delivered, the degree candidates filled the quad in front of Bendetson Hall. Students from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy bounced blue balloons and cheered wildly during parts of the ceremony.

“Commencement has always been a beautiful day,” said Bacow. “And sometimes we happen to enjoy nice weather.”

The ‘forgotten’ virtue
Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, an international education and leadership organization, instructed the audience on 12 pieces of advice that can be gleaned from Dr. Franklin, perhaps the sagest of America’s Founding Fathers.

President Lawrence S. Bacow, left, and Board of Trustees Chairman James A. Stern present Tracy Chapman with an honorary doctor of fine arts degree. © Mark Morelli

Isaacson recounted Franklin’s interaction with other members of the Leather Apron Club, a “workingman’s club” he had founded in Philadelphia. Franklin prepared a chart listing all the virtues he wished to acquire and checked off each one as he mastered it. Once complete, he displayed the chart to his companions.

One fellow member pointed out that Franklin had forgotten one virtue: humility. And, Isaacson said, Franklin replied in his wry fashion, “I was never very good about that.” And yet Franklin “became very good at the appearance of [humility],” Isaacson said, leading to the lesson that “appearances, if handled right, become part of your reality.”

This is a lesson that is all too valuable today, Isaacson said. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Isaacson, who was then managing editor of Time magazine, went to Crawford, Texas, to speak with George W. Bush. “[Bush spoke] about the need for more humility in America’s foreign policy,” Isaacson said.

Now that Bush is president, “I understand the need for a more assertive foreign policy after 9/11, but I wish George W. Bush had learned from old Dr. Franklin at least to fake a little humility and listen to our allies,” Isaacson said to applause from the audience.

A beginning, not an end
Another important lesson can be drawn from Franklin’s mission to France to enlist support for the Colonial cause during the Revolution, support that proved vital to the American victory, Isaacson said. “He appealed to France’s values and ideals,” Isaacson said. “[Franklin] realized that ideas had power.

© Mark Morelli

“Now we are losing the war of ideas around the world, losing the war of values. This would dismay our founders,” he said. America’s might and its ability to inspire the world lies in the strength of its ideals, not just in its military power, he said.

During the Constitutional Convention, Franklin again provided a valuable blueprint for civil conduct when he proposed the idea for a bicameral federal legislature, the House and the Senate. “Seek to find common ground,” Isaacson advised. “Compromisers don’t make great heroes, but they make great democracies.

“The hardest thing to do is to figure out when to compromise and when to hold true and steadfast to basic principles,” he said, moving on to another lesson. “There’s no easy formula. Even Benjamin Franklin got that wrong at times,” he said, referring to Franklin’s ownership of slaves during his early life and his later fervent support for abolition.

A new tradition
Following the Phase I commencement exercises, the School of Engineering and academic departments from Arts & Sciences hosted a series of smaller Phase II events. Each was designed by the particular academic clusters involved, and each was carried out with its own flavor and style.

“It worked very well. They were customized ceremonies; individual students received attention as they had never received before, and we were free to do some things we had never done before,” said James Glaser, dean of undergraduate education.

© Mark Morelli

Some of the departments offered gifts to the new graduates—for example, rock hammers for geology majors; a Stephen Hawking book signed by faculty for physics majors. The Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development handed out copies of Proactive Parenting: Guiding Your Child from Two to Six, a book collaboratively written by the Eliot-Pearson faculty. The ceremony for music, drama and dance in Goddard Chapel featured an original composition by John McDonald, associate professor of music.

Armstrong, who holds engineering degrees from Perdue University and the University of Southern California, spoke at the ceremony for the School of Engineering.

“One thing that struck me is that every ceremony was different,” said Linda Dixon, J63, secretary of the corporation, who attended portions of seven of the 14 A&S ceremonies. “Some of them were highly emotional; some were very intimate and small; others were exceptionally humorous. Others were much more academic and serious, but all were successful.”

“The departments marched in to ‘Pomp and Circumstance,’ and in several venues, they marched out to more playful songs,” Glaser said. In the ceremony for political science and international relations, for example, the students danced out to a recording of Tracy Chapman’s hit song “Give Me One Reason” (the lyrics go: “Give me one reason to stay, and I’ll turn myself around…”). In art history and architecture, the recessional was “All You Need is Love.”

“Lots of faculty were there. There were a lot of handshakes and high-fives and hugs,” Glaser said. “There were lots of meaningful things in short ceremonies filled with warmth and celebration.”

Honorary degree recipients, from left, Walter Isaacson, Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong and Richard G. Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. © Mark Morelli

There were also some poignant moments: The political science department awarded a posthumous degree to Peter Vabulas, a member of the Class of ’04 who died several months ago. “It was terribly sad, but I think a very meaningful moment for his family and for everyone who was gathered,” Glaser said. At the mathematics ceremony, students and faculty paid tribute to longtime professor Martin Guterman, who died in February.

‘Everyone comes together’
“Another wonderful thing, I was impressed with the number of university staff who were involved with all of the ceremonies…the campus was just full of Tufts people all day,” Dixon said. “It was marvelous to have so many members of the community here on what is the most important day of the year—to really get the feeling for commencement when everyone comes together.”

The innovative approach to Phase II required a tremendous, coordinated effort, Glaser said. While some of the venues may be changed for next year to accommodate more people, the project was successful, he said.

“This was clearly an experiment, and a lot of people were concerned that maybe we had over-reached,” Dixon said. “I think, hands down, the experiment worked. It was a huge success.”

‘We have taught you well’
The School of Dental Medicine, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, the School of Medicine and the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences and the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy held exercises elsewhere on the Medford/Somerville campus during the afternoon. The School of Veterinary Medicine held exercises on the Grafton campus.

The commencement ceremony for the School of Medicine and the Sackler School was marked by levity, candor and waves of emotion. Dean Michael Rosenblatt began on a note of reassurance. “Don’t worry,” he told the assembled graduates at the start. “We have taught you well.” He then recounted his own early experience of residency, where, he admitted, “I was greener than Kermit the Frog.” After failing to diagnose his first three patients properly, Rosenblatt went to his supervisor and tendered his resignation. The offer was refused, and the fledging physician learned that he was doing just fine by enlisting the aid of others.

Seek help, he advised the graduates. Try to stay involved with the public issues involving the practice of medicine, he continued. Finally, think deeply about ethics in everything that you do. “Medicine is ethical; the rest follows,” he said.

A sea of Tufts graduates. © Mark Morelli

Naomi Rosenberg, the newly appointed dean of the Sackler School, traced a similar concern, addressing the multiple dimensions inherent in the life of a “complete” scientist, including collaboration with peers, the mentoring of younger talent and attunement to the social applications of technical advances. “You’ve received superb training,” she told the Sackler graduates. “I am confident that your time with us has prepared you to be complete scientists.”

The dental school awarded 166 D.M.D. degrees at its commencement, and the Fletcher School awarded 195 master of arts in law and diplomacy degrees, 15 master’s degrees and 10 Ph.D.s. The School of Veterinary Medicine awarded 78 degrees at a ceremony that also served as the capstone event to the school’s 25th anniversary celebration.

Friedman School Dean Irwin H. Rosenberg and Trustee Bruce Male, A63, welcomed that school’s 65 degree recipients, who hail from nine different countries. In her charge to graduates, Dean for Academic Affairs Beatrice Rogers said, “We are living in a time when it is not always easy to believe that the future will be better than the past. But when I consider you, our graduates, with your skills, knowledge, experience and commitment, optimism comes a bit more easily.”

Staff writer Bruce Morgan contributed to this report.