Commencement Remarks by President John Hennessy

Following is the text of remarks by university President John Hennessy, as prepared for delivery at Commencement on June 14, 2009

L.A. Cicero John Hennessy

John Hennessy

Introduction of Anthony Kennedy

It gives me great pleasure to introduce this year’s Commencement speaker: Anthony Kennedy, U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Stanford alumnus.

Justice Kennedy was raised in Sacramento, and he has compared his boyhood growing up in central California to my favorite movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. His father was a highly regarded lawyer with many friends in the California legislature; his mother participated in numerous civic activities. Justice Kennedy grew up surrounded by people who took great pride in public service, and that had a profound influence on him.

From the fourth through the eighth grades, he served as a page at the State Senate, where he came to know Earl Warren, the governor at the time. Warren, of course, went on to become Chief Justice of the United States. He wrote the young Anthony Kennedy a letter in which Warren predicted: “You’re going to go very far in government.” Prescient.

As an undergraduate at Stanford, Anthony Kennedy majored in political science. During his senior year, he studied at the London School of Economics, his first introduction to foreign cultures and ideas. When an interviewer asked him about it years later, he said, “It was a different world, and I loved it.”

After a few years in private practice in San Francisco, he returned to Sacramento after his father’s death and took over his law practice, and also began teaching constitutional law at the McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific. After a dozen years in private practice, he was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and in 1988—30 years after graduating from Stanford—he was nominated as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan.

On the court, he is recognized as a moderating force, someone who can find common ground among dissenting views, who understands the importance of building what he calls “bridges of understanding.” In recent years Justice Kennedy has often been the decisive vote on some of the most vigorously debated issues, from restrictions on the use of the death penalty to gay rights to the right of habeas corpus for detainees in Guantanamo Bay.

Ten years ago, in an interview with Bill Moyers, he explained his judicial philosophy:

“Our system presumes that there are certain principles that are more important than the temper of the times. And you must have a judge who is detached, who is independent, who is fair, who is committed only to those principles, and not public pressures of other sort.”

In a 2005 article in The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin noted that references to foreign law are not new to the Supreme Court; they date back to this country’s earliest days. But for Justice Kennedy, who travels the world, teaches summer sessions in Salzburg, participates in international judges’ conferences, and has been involved in helping China develop its judiciary, knowledge of foreign law is a recognition of how interconnected we are. As he said to Toobin:

“Why should world opinion care that the American Administration wants to bring freedom to oppressed peoples? Is that not because there is some underlying common mutual interest, some underlying common shared idea, some underlying common shared aspiration, underlying unified concept of what human dignity means?”

We have had the distinct pleasure of welcoming Justice Kennedy back to the Farm on a number of occasions. What I remember most from the times I have heard him speak is his passion, admiration and respect for the U.S. Constitution. In one interview, he said:

“We’re so fortunate … the self-image of an American relates to his or her Constitution. No other country in the world has that.”

We are especially honored that 51 years after his own graduation, he agreed to return and share some of his wisdom with our next generation of leaders.

Please join me in warmly welcoming one of Stanford’s own, Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Concluding remarks

Graduates of Stanford University, on behalf of all members of the Stanford family, I congratulate and commend you.

Every June, as students are presented to me for the conferral of degrees, I admit them to the “rights, responsibilities and privileges” associated with a degree from Stanford University. You have worked hard to earn your degrees, and you certainly deserve this day of celebration.

But at Stanford, we believe the rights and privileges of an education also bring a responsibility to make good use of your knowledge, to be good citizens and to help ensure that future generations have the same opportunities you have had.

Today, you join a long line of distinguished alumni, who like Justice Anthony Kennedy made good use of their education.

I have made it a Commencement tradition to talk about a member of the Stanford family who demonstrated great personal vision and who took their responsibilities to the next generation seriously. Today I want to talk about someone who was not an alumnus, but a faculty member, and who had a profound influence on the university, on the West and on our country.

This year marks the centennial of the birth of Wallace Stegner, a member of the Stanford community from 1945, when he arrived at the age of 36 to join the faculty, until his death in 1993.

Wallace Stegner was a novelist, short story writer, essayist, historian, environmentalist and advocate for the American West. He is the author of more than two-dozen books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angle of Repose; The Spectator Bird, which won the National Book Award; and Crossing to Safety, his last novel and my favorite.

Like some of you, Wally Stegner was a first-generation college graduate. He earned his BA from the University of Utah and his doctorate from the University of Iowa, and taught at several institutions including Harvard before coming to Stanford.

Stegner arrived at Stanford just as World War II ended. Many of his students were former GIs, driven and eager to give expression to their experiences. In response, he established the Creative Writing Program, a program that over the past six decades has nurtured some of the most distinguished writers of our time: Wendell Berry, Larry McMurtry, Ken Kesey, Nancy Packer, Tobias Wolff, Edward Abbey, Robert Stone, Philip Levine and former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass—just to name a few.

Today the Stanford Creative Writing Program continues to educate students across the university—nearly 500 undergraduates take a course in creative writing every year, and the Wallace Stegner Fellowship, one of the most selective fellowships in the university, offers promising poets and writers the time and opportunity to develop their work.

Stegner continued teaching at Stanford until 1971, when he turned to writing full time. He continued to be active at Stanford and was one of the most dedicated users of the library.

In the 1950s, Stegner also became a leader in the conservation movement. He was involved in the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, and during President John Kennedy’s administration, he served on the National Park System Advisory Board.

In 1964, when the bill establishing the National Wilderness Preservation System was being put forward, his now-famous “Wilderness Letter” argued the case for wilderness as a concept, above and beyond its recreational value, as part of our natural heritage.

In 1991, when Stanford University celebrated its Centennial, Wallace Stegner was one of our keynote speakers. By that time, his ties to the university spanned more than four decades, almost half of the university’s history. It was a time of celebration, but also a time when Stanford faced great challenges: The Loma Prieta earthquake had caused widespread damage two years earlier, and there were other financial difficulties.

Stegner opened with this description of the university:

“As Americans, we have been conditioned to like success stories. The story of Stanford University is one, a special one—the story of an improbable but triumphant dream.”

And concluded with this:

“At the end of the first hundred years we find ourselves light-years ahead of what Jordan and his young faculty had in the beginning. By any standard, this is one of a handful of the greatest universities in the world, the university of ‘high degree’ that was projected from the first. Not that we can afford to rest on our laurels. There are still enough troubles to get our attention. … But we have been shown how to handle such things. If there are catastrophes, we will have to rebuild from them. If there have been mistakes, there must be corrections. The one thing that is not permitted is despair.”

That is the legacy you inherit as you prepare to leave the university: It is a legacy shaped by people like Wallace Stegner, whose life as a writer, teacher and environmentalist exemplified the Stanford spirit.

I hope your time here has provided you with a great reservoir of the Stanford spirit and that you leave this campus inspired to make your own contributions to the world, and that that spirit brings you back often to this special place between the foothills and the bay.

Congratulations and best wishes!