Interim President Constance Cain Hungerford

Good morning and welcome to you all – parents and grandparents, sisters & brothers, aunts & uncles, cousins – families, and friends. Members of the faculty, staff, alumni, and Board of Managers. And of course, most exuberantly, welcome, and congratulations to the Class of 2015!

“Commencement” may seem an odd word to use for the conclusion of four years of college. It is, in fact, a moment of transition between. It starts the future, hence “commence.” At the same time, it affords us the opportunity to reflect on the years that have brought us to this moment. So today, as we prepare to launch our graduates into the next stage of their lives, let us take a few moments to recognize and thank all those to whom we are grateful.

There are the faculty who challenged and pushed the knowledge with which you entered and that you discovered here. They inspired you and helped you negotiate difficult conversations, they listened and cared for you, as teachers and mentors, and finally as fellow scholars.

There are staff members who have patiently and cheerfully supported your unfolding lives: advising and collaborating with you, facilitating the necessary record-keeping, helping you find research materials, maintaining this beautiful campus, feeding and sheltering you, even in the depths of terrible winter storms.  

And we savor the friendships. Take a moment to look around at your friends, and for a moment now, call up memories of the years just passed and the people who have played a key part in them. They will continue to be a source of strength, compassion, and support as you transition into Swarthmore’s alumni community and the much larger world.  

Most importantly, today we are tremendously grateful to the parents, families, and caregivers. Each has sacrificed, in individual ways, to ensure your arrival at this moment. They have cheered and championed, comforted and encouraged, and are today filled with pride and exultation. So we say particular thank yous to your sisters and brothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, extended and blended families – all of whom deserve your deepest gratitude for the numerous ways they have shaped and added to the accomplished person you have become. Graduates, I invite you to turn, and thank your special champions.

We take a moment now too, then – faculty; and then staff, as well, to recognize the following retiring staff members who have served the College for 20 years or longer:

Thomas Cochrane, Planning & Construction

Nancy Sheppard, Business Office

Laura Talbot, Financial Aid

Anthony Agostinelli, Heat Plant

James Fawcett, Maintenance

And we take a moment to recognize the following retiring faculty: Susan Davis, in physical education and athletics, Charles Grinstead, in mathematics and statistics, and Robinson Hollister, in economics. To all of you we are humbled and grateful for the care and devotion you exemplify and have brought to the entire college community for so many years.

So now for some words from my perspective as interim president. I have been struck by a number of important words that we seem frequently to invoke: words like 'community,' 'tolerance,' and 'respect,' words that seem to roll off our tongues both effortlessly and endlessly. Used too repetitively, too insistently, these words can become a bland litany, lose their meaningfulness, and seem to promise something of great value while too often papering over, sometimes obscuring, its very absence.

My goal in these remarks is to reflect on another one of these words, which I think matters both to our campus “community” and to the relationships you will undertake and nurture now in the larger world outside our Swarthmore “bubble.”  That word is “civility.”

So what is civility and why is it desirable?  Superficially, we might take it to be good manners, being polite, courteous, abstaining from pointless rudeness. But in fact this kind of civility is in no way superficial – it is the glue that binds us together. Congressman Joe Wilson interrupting President Obama’s State of the Union speech in 2009 yelling “You lie” is a clear example of incivility, one that compromises the effective functioning of our government. And we find incivility everywhere, not just in Congress itself, and farther back into history, but in today flamboyant TV and radio talk show hosts and their guests. Unfortunately, just as children learn from their parents, too many think that the nastiness they see, hear, and read in social media is an acceptable norm. Incivility is an assault on assumptions by which our democracy operates, with passionate give and take, advocacy and counter-argument, yes, yet within bounds that highlight, even emphasize, disagreement and differences of opinion but without impugning motives, intelligence, character, or loyalty.

Civility needs to grow from mere politeness to genuine respect for difference: to be a means of negotiating the initial surprise, of getting beyond being taken aback. Civility means agreeing on common ground, the social norms with which everyone is willing to comply, in order to have a framework for learning about difference and sometimes altering one’s views, sometimes not, but at least trying to understand one’s fellow citizens as human beings with lives to live.

In the early 18th-century [1726], Voltaire, a French philosophe visiting England, thought to learn more about Quakers. He sought out a specimen and noted his attire: “a coat unpleated at the sides, and without buttons on the pockets or sleeves.” And of his conduct, he observed “He received me with his hat on his head, and came toward me without the slightest bow.” Whereas Voltaire, be-pleated, many-buttoned, would have doffed his hat with a gentlemanly flourish. And bowed with one leg gracefully extended. To Voltaire, the Quaker’s conduct appeared uncivil, as it contravened the intricate rules of polite society. But Voltaire quickly understood that those 18th century Quakers behaved as they did, not out of contempt, but out of conviction about the equal respect due anyone, whether born high or low. And Voltaire, though he “offered a few more lame compliments, because one does not change one’s customs all at once,” was curious; he came prepared to compare his own attitudes with those of the unfamiliar Quakers, not just in terms of dress and deportment, but more importantly in terms of religious practice and the Quakers’ opposition to war. 

So norms of civility can be taken as something to challenge, define oneself against – upheaving conventions about relationships – to a deity and to each other, gentleman and commoner or male and female, or fellow countryman and foreigner. But the aim is not challenging for its own sake, but for a new relationship with better norms of civility, norms that reflect equal dignity and respect. 

I take one more example from my own field, art history, although I can’t illustrate as I usually would (It’s very hard to speak without my visuals). But do find a reproduction, or make the pilgrimage to the Musée d’Orsay, and look at Edouard Manet’s 1865 painting of Olympia. It’s a painting that paid homage to the past in quoting from a prior artist, Titian, but it deliberately defied convention – was considered bad-mannered, uncivil – because it showed a nude woman not demurely, with an inviting come-hither facial expression, but staring boldly out at the viewer. He challenged the norms of good behavior: even today we are taught that it’s not polite to stare. He painted a woman who was not someone else’s property, but his rather calmly owned her body and asserted a sense of self. And he showed her attendant, a black woman, not as a sign of exoticism and sexuality, but as an economically-classed servant. We are still catching up with some of Manet’s implications about gender and class, but to challenge norms of polite society is not to abandon civility, but to expand its reach, to look for forms of civility more appropriate to new sensibilities and moral imperatives. 

There are dangers to civility. It can constrain initiative and passion; it can protect the status quo and the interests of established powers, insiders against legitimate needs and fresh perspectives that open up important alternatives. That is why we need iconoclasts like Manet and the rebellious Quakers of the 18th century, lest we take existing norms of civility as if they were timeless, classless, genderless, and without implications for ethnic, religious, and other outsiders.

Civility goes far beyond what even the most sensitive etiquette requires. It demands engagement with those with whom we live in civil society, that is, those who aren’t our family, friends, and co-religionists. It is not accidental that ‘civility’, ‘civilization’, ‘civil society’, ‘civil rights’ and ‘citizen’ share a common etymology. All refer in different ways to living our lives beyond the hearth, not always with family or friends, but recognizing a common endeavor to create and sustain life not marked by tribalism and barbarism. It is no mean achievement, and shouldn’t be taken lightly. To be civil in civil society, to recognize our joint citizenship – perhaps cosmopolitan citizenship – to recognize that despite deep differences among us, we must presume that each of us deserves a respectful hearing and engagement. In extreme cases, of course, that presumption must be abandoned, but we should, I believe, be extremely reluctant to let it go, to draw the circle of what we owe each other with too small a diameter.

Civility requires active engagement with the ideas that challenge, not just polite patience, a willingness to wait till the irritant goes away. And to be actively engaged requires that one have the courage to advocate for one’s own views, not belligerently, but thoughtfully, clearly. Viewed in this lift, civility is not a trade-off to the pursuit of social justice, but complementary to it

That was a hallmark of which we can all be proud in this year’s consideration of how to address the urgent challenge of climate change. We embrace a range of strategies – from working to reduce our use of fossil fuels by minimizing energy consumption and exploring solar and geothermal sources, from taking steps to steward other resources like water more wisely and rethink the waste we generate, to arguing for divestment from the producers of coal and oil.  We don’t always agree on tactics, but we have largely been patient and respectful of the priorities of others and have focused on persuading by the thorough research and persistent reasoning. We turn toward next year with a foundation for disparate groups on campus to find common ground and to work together constructively.

I have been dismayed sometimes at the personal attacks that have characterized some of our public conversations this year. But I am also impressed by the many instances where individuals chose more difficult courses of action, with courage coming forward to responsibly focus attention issues such as sexual misconduct and diversity and inclusion as they are lived daily. Your class has many who have been vocal and their distress was sometimes painful to witness. But the campus listened and in forums and discussions grappled with what we were hearing; we have begun to work through our shortcomings and the College will be better for everyone who lives and works here. Where progress has been made, it has happened both because of passionate outcry about grievances and a willingness to work constructively with others, to explain and help others see the need for action, to listen to their initial confusion, to make it easier for people to change because you accorded them respect and dignity, rather than demonizing.

Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., in discussing pluralism in academia, writes:

“Ours is a world that already is fissured by nationality, ethnicity, race, and gender. And the only way to transcend those divisions – to forge, for once, a civic culture that respects both differences and commonalities – is through education that seeks to comprehend the diversity of human culture. Beyond the hype and the high-flown rhetoric is a pretty homely truth: There is no tolerance without respect and no respect without knowledge.” 

Each of you has undergone a transformation since arriving here. You built strong friendships, developed, and pursued deep academic interests, and today find yourselves quite different individuals than in your initial semester.

You have redefined and redesigned yourselves, changing the qualities of your community and probing the limits of its civility. You have lived inventively here and are prepared by the tools of your intellect and accumulated knowledge to do so in your next community.

But the education you received here is not complete. In order to construct a life that maintains the importance of civility, one of respect and tolerance, you will need to exercise your curiosity and learn still more.

I hope that wherever you live next, you not settle down comfortably with the familiar, but will seek out new communities and challenges to the educational root of your notions of community and civility. In adjusting to them, I hope you will draw on the power of critical thought and of knowledge you have learned here. New communities may not feel perfect, perhaps even unwelcoming at times, and finding a properly balanced approach to make them feel like a home can be difficult. However, to borrow again from Professor Gates, “If there is an equilibrium to be struck, there’s no guarantee we will ever arrive at it. The worst mistake we can make, however, is not to try.”

Class of 2015, I believe you represent some of the most capable students in the country, more able than ever before to try and better the world through your brilliance, and I wish tremendous success in all of your future endeavors. My warmest congratulations to each of you!