Text of President Hennessy’s prepared address for Commencement 2010

Following is the text of the address by University President John Hennessy, as prepared for delivery at Stanford University’s 119th Commencement on June 13, 2010.

It gives me great pleasure to introduce this year’s Commencement speaker: Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and a Stanford alumna.

Stanford University has always encouraged its students to use their education in order to “promote the public good.” Certainly today’s speaker has exemplified that tradition.

Determined. Courageous. Straight talking. Visionary. These are words most often used to describe Susan Rice. The first African American woman to serve as the U.S. permanent representative to the U.N., Susan Rice has been breaking boundaries and surprising people her entire life.

As a young girl growing up in Washington, D.C., she was exposed to education and public affairs issues at an early age. Her father was a former governor of the Federal Reserve System and once taught economics at Cornell University. Her mother was an education policy researcher. Frequent visits to her home by scholars and public officials – including Madeleine Albright – heightened her awareness of politics.

In her senior year in high school at the National Cathedral School – where she earned the nickname ‘Spo,’ short for ‘Sportin’ for her athletic prowess, especially on the basketball court – Rice surprised her parents once again. She had decided on college. She would be going to Stanford. To say her parents were less than thrilled would be an understatement. Her mother, a Radcliffe alumna, cried. But Rice was undeterred.

At Stanford, she excelled. She earned her degree in history in 1986, was a Truman Scholar and graduated junior Phi Beta Kappa. And like many of you, while she was here, she pursued interests outside of the classroom. This was where she met her husband, fellow student Ian Cameron. This was also where she led a divestment effort to protest apartheid in South Africa, establishing an alumni fund to be used to persuade the university to redirect its investments.

During President Bill Clinton’s administration, she worked as a staff member on the National Security Council. In 1997 she was named Assistant Secretary of State for African affairs with responsibility for U.S. policy for 48 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa and the management of 43 U.S. embassies.

In 2000, three years after her appointment, she was co-recipient of the White House’s Samuel Nelson Drew Memorial Award for distinguished contributions to the formation of peaceful, cooperative relationships between states.

She joined the nonprofit Brookings Institution in 2002 and continued her work on the implications of global poverty and failing states. From 2007 through November 2008, she served as a senior advisor to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

In nominating her to serve as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, President Obama said, “Susan has been a close and trusted advisor. … Her background as a scholar, on the National Security Council, and Assistant Secretary of State will serve our nation well at the United Nations.” She was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate in January 2009.

Madeleine Albright, a family friend and mentor who has known her since she was a 5′3″ point guard blazing her way on the basketball court, once described Susan Rice in this way: “If I were to characterize her, whether it’s playing basketball or anything else, she’s fearless.”

Ambassador Rice’s goals mirror those of Stanford: to tackle the most pressing global challenges – including addressing global climate change and combating poverty, disease and violence to promote peace.

We are proud that a Stanford alumna is in this vital role, and we are especially honored that she agreed to return and challenge our graduates to make their own contributions as our next generation of leaders.

Please join me in warmly welcoming one of Stanford’s own, Ambassador Susan Rice.

Concluding remarks

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

This is a day of celebration, and you have certainly earned it. Before we close, I would like to reflect for a few minutes on a phrase you have heard several times this morning. As each group of students was presented to me for the conferral of degrees, I responded by admitting you to the “rights, responsibilities and privileges” associated with a degree from Stanford University.

We believe a Stanford education brings with it a responsibility to make good use of your knowledge, to work to make the world a better place for future generations.

Today you join a long line of distinguished alumni who, like Ambassador Susan Rice, put their education to good use.

I have made it a Commencement tradition to talk about a member of the Stanford family who took his or her responsibilities to the next generation seriously. This year, that distinguished alumna is the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

Many of you are familiar with Mrs. Shriver’s background. A member of one of this country’s most distinguished families, sister of a president and two senators, mother of California’s First Lady, Eunice Kennedy Shriver was the fifth of nine children of Rose and Joseph Kennedy. She arrived at Stanford in 1941 as a transfer student, earning her undergraduate degree in sociology two years later.

What brought her from the East Coast to California? Some speculate that she was influenced by her older brother Jack, who audited classes at Stanford the year before; others that her father was worried about her health and thought the warm California climate might help: She had the family nickname of “Puny Eunie,” which seems laughable today given her life accomplishments.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver – the young woman who learned the jitterbug from fellow students at Lagunita – would become recognized the world over as an unrelenting advocate for the mentally disabled and founder of the Special Olympics.

Her relationship to her sister Rosemary, institutionalized the same year Eunice Kennedy arrived at Stanford, inspired her life’s work. In 1962, she wrote a landmark article about Rosemary for a national magazine. The year before, under her leadership, the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation played a key role in President Kennedy’s Panel on Mental Retardation. That led to the establishment in 1962 of the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, now named for her.

That year also marked the establishment of Camp Shriver. After learning that children with intellectual disabilities were not accepted into summer camps, Shriver opened up her Maryland farm to about three dozen children. She believed deeply that these children had much to offer – that they could be exceptional – and was outraged at their lack of opportunities.

The Special Olympics were established in 1968 just weeks after her brother Robert Kennedy’s assassination. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said at the time, “Eunice, the world will never be the same.”

In 1987, she exhorted the young athletes who convened for the Special Olympics World Games:

“You are the stars, and the world is watching you. By your presence you send a message to every village, every city, every nation. A message of hope. A message of victory.”

Thirty-nine years after the first Special Olympics World Games in Chicago, that message was celebrated in China – a country with a history of discrimination against the disabled – when more than 7,000 athletes were welcomed to the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai. Today, more than 3 million people in 180 countries throughout the world train and compete in the Special Olympics.

Over the course of her life, Shriver’s efforts also led to the establishment of research, service and training centers advancing the care and education of the mentally disabled across the country, as well as Community of Caring programs to provide a supportive environment in order to reduce disabilities among children of teenagers. She was recognized with countless awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this country’s highest civilian honor.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s life exemplified the Stanford spirit. She was driven by a deep desire to make a difference. She changed people’s lives for the better. She pioneered a worldwide movement, opening doors for people with disabilities and transforming attitudes in the process.

Today I hope that you leave here with a strong reservoir of the Stanford spirit and that it inspires you to make your own contributions to the world. And I hope that you find joy – just as Eunice Shriver did – in putting your knowledge to use to send a message of hope to others.

Thank you and congratulations!