Remarks by Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne at the 2017 Commencement ceremony

Following is the prepared text of remarks by university President Marc Tessier-Lavigne for delivery at Stanford’s 126th Commencement on June 18, 2017.

Graduating Students, Faculty Colleagues, Former and Current Trustees, Government Officials, Distinguished Guests, Family and Friends:

Today, we celebrate Stanford’s 126th Commencement! I warmly welcome all of you.

Before I start, I’d like to offer a few special welcomes. We are joined by our outgoing chairman of the Board of Trustees, Steve Denning. We are also joined by our incoming board chairman, Jeff Raikes. Thank you both for your tremendous commitment and service to Stanford.

Another special welcome is to President Emeritus Donald Kennedy. Don, we understand your granddaughter will graduate here today – congratulations!

As well, a special welcome and deepest gratitude to my predecessor, President Emeritus John Hennessy, who will be able to watch the Commencement seated for the first time in 17 years. John, we are all beyond grateful for your extraordinary leadership of Stanford.

And now, I would like to extend a most special welcome to all those who are receiving degrees today: seniors and graduate students from all of the schools at Stanford.

Today, we shall award 1,659 bachelor’s degrees; 2,402 master’s degrees; and 1,021 doctoral degrees.

For those earning a bachelor’s degree:

  • 273 are graduating with departmental honors and 276 with university distinction
  • 86 have satisfied the requirements of more than one major and 27 are graduating with dual bachelor’s degrees
  • 363 have completed minors
  • 168 are graduating with both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree

Stanford is committed to enrolling a student body that includes students from all around the world. In terms of international students earning degrees today:

  • 76 members of the undergraduate class hail from 33 countries
  • At the graduate level, 76 countries are represented by 1,019 awardees of master’s and doctoral degrees

I’ve come to learn that this tradition of reading the statistics of our graduating students long precedes big data being such a big deal and metrics being a mantra. It’s a tradition I am proud to continue because these numbers bring to life the extraordinary impact our university has, and will have, on the world by educating future citizens and leaders.

Another tradition, perhaps by coincidence, is that Stanford’s Commencement often falls on Father’s Day, as it does today. That gives us the opportunity to think of the special roles fathers play in our lives.

I was reminded of this earlier this year when I, along with others here at Stanford, was invited by U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky to participate in his Favorite Poem Project.

I chose to read “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden, the first African-American Poet Laureate – a poem that is an homage to his late father.

An excerpt reads:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

The poem reminds us of the importance of expressing our appreciation when we have the chance to do so, of not delaying.

And so, I’d like us to take this opportunity now to say Happy Father’s Day and thank you to all the fathers – and father figures – who are here with us.

Better still, to extend our appreciation, we will invoke yet another very special Stanford Commencement tradition.

As you all know, there are a number of people who have made your time at Stanford possible. Many are in the stands today or watching the ceremony from around the world via livestream – people who have supported, challenged and encouraged you through the years.

They include parents and grandparents; spouses and children; siblings, aunts and uncles; mentors and friends; everyone who has played a role in helping you get to Stanford, or in helping you once you got here.

Graduating students, I now invite you to please rise. Please think of all those who have supported you on your journey. Turn to you family and friends if they are in the stands, or to those watching from around the world.

Join me in saying to them, “Thank you!”

Introduction of Commencement speaker

Today, I have the great honor of introducing our Commencement speaker: Justice of the California Supreme Court Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar.

Justice Cuéllar began serving on the California Supreme Court in January 2015, when he was nominated by Gov. Jerry Brown and confirmed unanimously by the California Commission on Judicial Appointments.

Justice Cuéllar’s story is one of borders, but also one of boundless horizons.

He was born in Matamoros, Mexico, a city within walking distance of the United States.

As a boy, he and his brother, Maximo, traveled each day by bus and then by foot to attend school in Brownsville, Texas. As he traveled from community to community and country to country, he took in the sights and sounds, including how they changed – from the look of each city to the size of the roads, to what the people were doing.

The contrasts he observed inspired curiosity about the influence of governance on culture and on society. He also developed an appreciation for architecture, the beauty of historic buildings and the utility of modern ones.

Those moments of curiosity and contemplation led to intellectual inquiries and professional pursuits well beyond his early life on the border. To this day, those experiences are at the heart of his passion for working on problems involving law, public policy and education.

Justice Cuéllar and his brother were raised by parents who were both educators. The Cuéllar family eventually immigrated to the United States. They moved to another border city in California’s Imperial Valley, where Justice Cuéllar graduated from Calexico High School.

He went on to earn his undergraduate degree magna cum laude from Harvard in 1993. He then earned his law degree from Yale in 1997. And, he saved the best for last when he earned his PhD in political science right here at Stanford in 2001.

Stanford deeply appreciated Justice Cuéllar’s exceptional scholarship, leadership and empathy. The university invited him to join our faculty in 2001. Until 2015, he was the Stanley Morrison Professor of Law and professor, by courtesy, of political science. Between 2004 and 2015, Justice Cuéllar also held leadership positions at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

As institute director, he supervised 12 centers and programs addressing international affairs, governance and development, food security and the environment, and health policy. Justice Cuéllar has earned a reputation for possessing great integrity, for respecting a diversity of viewpoints to build consensus, for brilliance and for grace.

For these reasons, President Obama appointed him as Special Assistant to the President for Justice and Regulatory Policy. While on leave from Stanford to work at the White House, Justice Cuéllar’s projects included negotiating bipartisan support to enact legislation: to reduce disparities in drug sentencing; to give the FDA authority to protect children and youth from tobacco; to reform the FDA’s food safety authority for the first time in 70 years; and to repeal the military’s Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy.

When I reflect on all of Justice Cuéllar’s accomplishments and service on numerous commissions and boards, I am in awe of his dedication to public service. One of Justice Cuéllar’s former Stanford colleagues, who was an appointee under President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush, said of Justice Cuéllar, “What he’s interested in is practical solutions. He and I could serve in the same administration.”

In his own words, Justice Cuéllar has described his passion for his work by saying, “The world is as messy and complicated as it is beautiful and full of possibility.” And, “My hope is to empower people to do great things.”

Please join me in warmly welcoming Stanford’s 126th Commencement speaker, Justice of the California Supreme Court Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar.

Closing remarks

Graduates of Stanford University, Class of 2017, on behalf of the Stanford family, congratulations! What a joy for all of us to be here today to honor you and to celebrate you.

Commencement. A beginning. A starting point. As though for years you’ve been preparing for lift-off, and today is your launch date.

You are a very special class for many reasons. The Wacky Walk this year certainly displayed some of them. You are also very special because you share your day of Commencement with another historic launch.

On this very day, in 1983, NASA successfully launched the STS-7 space shuttle mission. Aboard the space shuttle was a Stanford alumna, Sally Ride.

Thirty-four years ago, today, Sally became the first American female astronaut to fly in space and to orbit the Earth.

Given such a wonderful coincidence, I thought we might look to Sally’s trajectory for inspiration, as we celebrate this spectacular moment in your trajectory.

Sally’s story is one of preparation, launch, orbit and landing! Let’s take a look at each one in turn.

Stanford days

Like yours, a big part of Sally’s preparation started right here at Stanford.

Sally received four degrees from Stanford – 2 undergraduate and 2 graduate – in English and in physics. She originally wanted to be a professional tennis player, not an astronaut. She would later joke, “What kept me from being a professional tennis player was my forehand.”

During her doctoral degree, Sally saw an ad in the Stanford Daily inviting women to apply for NASA’s astronaut program. While women, including women of color, were pivotal to the space program’s success, the astronaut corps had yet to include a woman. Our aspiring tennis player turned astrophysicist applied and was accepted.

Launch

When the space shuttle launched and headed toward orbit, Sally could be heard through the radio saying, “This sure is fun.”

That moment required a lot more than just 500,000 gallons of fuel and a combined maximum thrust of 1.2 million pounds. Sally had completely devoted herself to being an excellent student throughout her undergraduate and graduate studies here on campus. She had already been a member of the astronaut corps for more than 5 years. And, she enjoyed the support of her family and friends, her professors and mentors, and thousands of NASA personnel, including her crew.

Like Sally, I know all of you can appreciate a moment of tremendous joy made possible by dedication, countless hours of study and a great crew. Graduates, this weekend is your moment to celebrate! And we all know what an extraordinary effort you have put into making this day possible.

I won’t try to quantify the number of pages you have read, papers you have turned in, problem sets you have solved or the amount of caffeine you’ve ingested! We know that the support offered by your family and friends, and the gratitude you feel for them, is also beyond measure. And, I ask that you make sure your crew knows it, too.

On behalf of the university, I want you to know we all swell with pride for you. Because today, on the day of your launch from Stanford into a vast openness of possibility and opportunity, you too are defying gravity and beginning to soar.

Orbit

Once in orbit, Sally Ride got her first view of the Earth. She noted the beauty of the Himalayas that seemed to be reaching up to touch her. She was struck by the sight of rivers in the moonlight and fires along the coasts of the African continent. She reflected, “It’s so clear from that perspective how fragile our existence is.” Most astronauts, when they see the Earth from space express much the same awe as Sally. They are moved by the Earth’s beauty and humbled by the precariousness of our lives.

Graduates, to whatever heights you aspire whether through expressing creativity, committing to service, building a family, advancing knowledge, driving innovation, leading organizations – give yourself space, step out of the fray, appreciate and be humbled by the beauty of life, and the delicate connections between your life and the lives of others.

Now seems an especially important time in history for humility. Our world today faces many challenges that require great perspective and perseverance. We face still-untreatable diseases, unprecedented environmental degradation, political turmoil, socioeconomic injustices and so much more. Times of tension or retrenchment, which threaten to devolve into antagonism, provide us a renewed opportunity to offer empathy and to build community.

In order to achieve these, I hope you will choose to sincerely seek to understand others, rather than to quickly judge and criticize. I hope you will choose to respectfully listen to contrary views and challenge accepted notions. I hope you will choose to be creative, curious and humbled by the potential of our global interconnectedness.

May you continue to embody Stanford’s pursuit of excellence to benefit all of humanity in your endeavors. And, may you fulfill the vision of our founders, who asked of all Stanford students, that you be true to the best you know.

Landing

After orbiting the earth 95 times and traveling more than 2 million miles in six days, Sally Ride and the crew of the STS-7 were scheduled to land at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But, bad weather forced a change of plans. The crew was required to orbit the Earth two additional times, and the landing was diverted to a location 3,000 miles away.

Now, as you have learned from your time on the Farm, California often has great weather, and that day was no exception. The STS-7 crew touched down safely 6 hours south of here at the Edwards Air Force Base, which meant Sally Ride landed in her home state.

Graduates, the unexpected often provides new insights and opportunities. Remain receptive to surprises and be prepared to adapt as circumstances change. After all, as the saying goes: “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted.”

So, be open to unexpected experiences; there is a good chance one of them may transform your life. At one point, Sally Ride wanted more than anything to be a tennis pro. But, the forehands of fate had different plans.

That apparent setback gave her the space to fall in love with physics to discover that she wanted even more to be an astronaut and to fulfill that dream. She also went on to make history and to inspire generations of girls to pursue the STEM fields. And, she reinforced the idea that Stanford is a great place for women to study science. In fact, since Sally, Stanford has produced more female astronauts than any other college or university in the country.

As Sally’s story illustrates, sometimes, our paths become more purposeful and gain more meaning through our experiences of detour and disappointment. Remember, what seems like a setback might be a better path, or an even better way home.

Class of 2017, thank you for trusting Stanford University with your education. Because you will always be members of the Stanford family and because California can be counted on for great weather, as you set forth on your own exciting journey, however near or far the winds of freedom carry you, remember – Palm Drive will be here and always clear for your landing.

Congratulations, Class of 2017!