Remarks by Stanford President John Hennessy at the 2016 Commencement ceremony

Following is the prepared text of closing remarks by university President John Hennessy for delivery at Stanford's 125th Commencement on June 12, 2016.

President John Hennessy delivers the welcome address at the 125th Commencment.

President John Hennessy delivers the welcome address at the 125th Commencment. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Introduction of Commencement speaker Ken Burns

It gives me great pleasure to introduce this year’s Commencement speaker: award-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.

The Brooklyn Bridge. The Statue of Liberty. The Civil War. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The Roosevelts. Jazz. Our National Parks. Jackie Robinson.

These are just a sampling of the topics Ken Burns has tackled in his documentaries, which often are years in the making. Proclaimed by the New York Times “as the most accomplished documentary filmmaker of his generation,” he exemplifies the transformative power and impact of the humanities. Through his films, he has been bringing American history and culture to life for more than 35 years.

Ken Burns was born in Brooklyn, New York, into an academic family: His mother was a biotechnician, his father a cultural anthropologist. In those early years, his family moved often, living in France and Delaware before settling into Ann Arbor when his father joined the faculty at the University of Michigan.

He developed a love for history at a young age. A great reader as a child, he was often immersed in the family’s encyclopedia. His passion for filmmaking was sparked at the age of 17 when he was given an 8 mm movie camera. He made his first documentary on an Ann Arbor factory shortly afterward. After earning his undergraduate degree at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, Burns co-founded Florentine Films with several fellow students.

In 1981, the release of Brooklyn Bridge – his first documentary for PBS  earned him critical acclaim and his first Academy Award nomination. In 1990, his television series The Civil War attracted more than 40 million viewers and is the highest rated public TV series in history. Using what would become his hallmark style  archival photographs, quotes from the letters and journals of contemporaries, commentary by historians and scholars  he brought the stories of both the well-known and the unknown to life. After viewing the series, George Will declared, “Our Iliad has found its Homer.” The Civil War received more than 40 awards, including two Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards, a Peabody Award, the D.W. Griffith Award and the Lincoln Prize. His compelling technique of combining pan and zoom to “animate” historical still photos acquired the name “Ken Burns effect.”

Other award-winning documentaries followed. The mini-series Baseball explored the sport’s  and society’s  development over its 150-year history. Just as The Civil War drew viewers who were not military history buffs, Baseball attracted people who didn’t follow the sport but were drawn by its stories.

Burns has an intellectual and thoughtful approach that resonates with diverse audiences. His courageous and revolutionary vision has created a transcendent and influential body of documentary film work. Whether he is exploring the devastation of Cancer or the disaster of The Dust Bowl, the miscarriage of justice that befell the Central Park Five or the development of The National Parks, he expands our view and makes complex subjects accessible. For example, in Jackie Robinson, which aired recently, Burns explores not only the man’s impact on baseball and civil rights but also the great love story between Jackie and his wife, Rachel  and how the strength of their bond allowed Robinson to triumph. A self-described “emotional archeologist,” Burns reveals through his films who we are as a people and what we value.

This year  the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment of the Humanities  he was chosen by the NEH to give the 2016 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. In selecting Burns, William D. Adams, chairman of the NEH, said, “His work combines deep humanities research with a rich feeling for American life and culture and unparalleled public reach and appeal. Ken is one of the great public intellectuals and historians of our time.”

Over the past 35 years, his work has been recognized with numerous awards, including 14 Emmy Awards and two Grammy Awards. In 1991, he received a National Humanities Medal, and in 2008, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

Throughout his career, Ken Burns has chronicled the great events in our nation’s history. As he explained in a 2011 interview, “I think we have a hunger for national self-definition. And without a past, we deprive ourselves of the defining impressions of our being … the airing out of history is a kind of medicine. Healing can take place. That’s what I’m interested in: the healing power of history.”

As many of you may recall, Burns served as the grand marshal of the Tournament of Roses in Pasadena this year  when the Rose Bowl featured a match-up between the Stanford Cardinal and the University of Iowa Hawkeyes. While Burns claimed to be neutral  at least to his Hawkeye friends!  I would just note that during the game, he was sitting with happy Cardinal fans.

We thought it would be most fitting to have a historian to mark the university’s 125th anniversary. Please join me in warmly welcoming Stanford’s 125th Commencement speaker, Ken Burns.

Concluding remarks honoring Provost John Etchemendy

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

Today is a day of celebration, but 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.

These rights and privileges bring a responsibility to make good use of your knowledge. Today you join a long line of distinguished alumni who have taken that responsibility seriously and worked to make the world a better place.

For the past 15 years, I have concluded the Commencement ceremony by talking about an alumnus — someone who served the greater good and who exemplified the Stanford spirit.

Today, I share the stage with just such a Stanford alumnus, someone who earned his doctorate here in 1982 and who has spent the last 33 years at this institution. For 17 of those years, he served as a professor of philosophy engaged in teaching and research, and for the last 16 years, John Etchemendy has served as the university’s provost. Now, many people do not know what a provost does, but I can explain it easily by using some examples.

Are you a faculty member who has been appointed, promoted or renewed in the past 16 years? Or are you a student who has learned from a teacher or an advisor who has been appointed in the past 16 years? Provost Etchemendy oversaw the hiring or review of over 1,500 faculty members since 2000. Amazingly, more than half of the faculty at Stanford was appointed during his tenure as Stanford’s chief academic officer.

If you are an undergraduate or graduate student who received financial aid, you have benefited from the provost’s diligent and thoughtful fiscal stewardship and his incredible determination not to cut financial aid after the 2008 fiscal crisis. Since John Etchemendy has been Stanford’s provost, the university has more than doubled the amount it spends on financial aid in real dollars.

Perhaps you have lived in one of the new residences, such as the Kennedy or Munger Graduate Residences, or the new Humanities House, or the renovated Crothers and Crothers Memorial. Or, you might have worked in or taken classes in the new Science and Engineering Quad, a big improvement over the industrial-slum-like buildings that I worked in for my first few years at Stanford. If so, you have benefited from the provost’s leadership and oversight of our capital facilities.

Possibly you have benefited directly or indirectly from the provost’s extensive efforts to diversify the faculty and the graduate student population. John Etchemendy has been a national leader in seeking ways to enhance the diversity of our faculty and to diversify the future professoriate, through Stanford programs such as DARE and EDGE, which support graduate students.

Perhaps you have enjoyed studying in the new Lathrop Library and are happy that the old undergraduate Meyer Library, known by students as UGLI, is now the lovely Meyer Green.

Maybe you are an avid user of one of the new fitness facilities or swimming pools or a participant in the BeWell programs. The provost has been the campus champion for a more healthy and active lifestyle, and many members of the community — faculty, staff and students — have followed his lead and been healthier for it.

John Etchemendy has handled his many responsibilities with the highest ethical standards, with a tireless work ethic, with the patience of Job, and always with a single objective: To do what is in the best interests of our students and our faculty.

As you can see from these examples, it would be impossible to be at Stanford without greatly benefiting from the provost’s many efforts over the past 16 years.

The work we do at the university to educate the next generation and to contribute to the world’s knowledge is vitally important. The provost’s 16 years of service have dramatically improved Stanford’s ability to carry out that noble mission.

Won’t you join me in thanking Provost John Etchemendy for his many, many contributions?

I want to conclude with a few thoughts about the obligations of a Stanford graduate that I cited in my very first Commencement as president in 2001.

They come from the 1905 Commencement address of the university’s first president, David Starr Jordan. I was amazed at how timely they were in 2001 and still are today.

“Whatever you have acquired,” President Jordan told the graduates, “should be an impulse to action. If you have planned somewhat, then carry out your plans. If you have learned the nature of something, then turn your knowledge into execution. If you have gained higher aspirations and your hearts have been touched by a warmer glow, then your neighbors should feel the warmth. There is no virtue in knowledge, in training, in emotion, or in aspiration except as you use them in the conduct of life.”

As you leave here today, I hope you carry with you the strong determination to make your own contribution to a better world and to exemplify the best of the Stanford spirit. Know that nothing gives us — your teachers and mentors — greater joy than to see a former student succeed. Make us proud. I know you will.

Congratulations and best wishes!