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J. Robert S. Prichard '71

J. Robert Prichard '71

Robert Prichard, you are a true servant of the public good, whose dynamic leadership has enabled two distinguished institutions to reach exceptional levels of quality and to contribute fundamentally to the quality of life of the Canadian nation.
The complete charge from President Alfred H. Bloom is available here.

President Bloom, Members of the Faculty, Fellow Graduates of the Class of 2007, Family, and Friends:

This honour means a great deal to me and makes me very happy. Indeed, I can't imagine a happier day: to come back to this magnificent college and beautiful place, to share the occasion with my talented nephew, Andrew Sniderman, who also graduates today, and, at long last, to receive a degree from Swarthmore, a place I learned so much but from which I never graduated. This is as good as it gets. Thank you very much. The honour is all the greater as I share it with Marcia Grant and Robert Moses whose lives and words should long serve as inspiration to all of us.

For me, this day has been a long time coming. Most of you took four years to earn your degrees and graduate. I congratulate you on your achievement and even more on your pace. It has taken me much longer — 40 years in fact — to accomplish the same. I arrived at Swarthmore as a freshman in the fall of 1967 — 40 years ago this year. I have been working ever since to make it to Commencement. And my degree, even now, is not earned but rather a gift of recognition from the faculty. All the same, it feels very good to be here at last.

It is not a surprise that it took me a long time. I didn't exactly arrive as among the gifted in our class. I only got admitted to Swarthmore by having an abundantly talented older sister who came here three years ahead of me. Swarthmore's faith in genetics trumped my sketchy high school record. Once here, it was hit and miss, zigs and zags. I was stunned by the talents of my classmates and had to raise my game just to get into the game. I started in engineering but rapidly found it too hard and my inadequacies too apparent. Economics and art history were next. But rewarding as they were, even they took a back seat to personal development and exploration.

These were the late '60s and they were heady times in every sense of the word: turbulent, troubled, exhilarating, and remarkable all at the same time. Each of us had to find our own way as the constraints of earlier times were eroding and experimentation and change were the most celebrated of paths.

Our politics were intense — the war in Vietnam, the bombing of Cambodia, and the draft spawned the drama of the Moratorium Peace Marches, the murders at Kent State, and the phenomenon of draft dodgers. Many of the latter made it to Canada and some stayed and became great contributors to our country. Some, I say proudly, used my parents' home in Toronto as a way station. Consciousness and controversy about issues of race took a prominent place in our lives, both on campus and nationally. And the feminist movement was beginning to take full flight to address centuries of inequality and inequity. Political violence marked our times. In 1968 alone, the brutality of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the Democratic Party's Convention in Chicago, and ever growing tensions between political dissenters and police were stark evidence that there was much more at stake than flower power and free love.

On campus, life changed dramatically. Co-ed dorms went from non-existent to standard fare almost over-night. And then we got to stay overnight, a significant improvement in campus living as the norms of Mary Lyon spread to the dorms of campus as a whole. Curfews, dress codes for dinner at Sharples, and much else evaporated; political debate, protests, alternative lifestyles, love, drugs, and music loomed large.

As the balladeer of our time, Bob Dylan, sang: the times, they were a changing. And we all did change, following our individual journeys — exploring, discovering and becoming. They were amazing times but in so many ways, the best of times. I wouldn't trade them for any other. In our dissent and demands for change, we didn't get it all right. But we were inspired by a belief the world should be a better place and it was our duty, each in our own way, to make it such.

My personal journey took me many places: to Africa, Asia, and around the world; through a transformation of myself, my politics, and my ambitions; and from a sense of limited possibilities to unlimited ones. Along the way, I earned a few degrees, turned to a life in the academy, and embraced law as my discipline and higher education as my cause.

But my personal journey didn't bring me to Commencement until today. I left Swarthmore after my junior year to go to graduate school. It all worked out well in the end and I feel fortunate that it did. But prior to today, it also felt incomplete: not just an incomplete transcript and experience, but an incomplete sense of belonging as I lacked a degree from the place that was so central not just to my education but to all that I became. Thus today's ceremony is meaningful beyond words for me. I am deeply grateful to the faculty for forgiving the incomplete academic record I assembled and allowing me the privilege of claiming a degree from Swarthmore. And I am equally grateful to the classmates and dear friends who shared those important times with me and taught me so much.

Enough about me and nostalgia. What lessons do I draw from this for you, members of the Class of 2007.

First, Swarthmore is a splendid place, more fully and more successfully committed to undergraduate liberal arts study than any other place on the planet. It is the best there is. Swarthmore gave me a terrific education, albeit brief and incomplete, marked by great teachers and high standards that stretched me to my limits. I am sure the same is true for each of you. Swarthmore deserves your loyalty and support for a lifetime. As you move on, remain a part of this uniquely good place. And help it in every way you can.

Second, classmates and friends matter. Remember them. Stay in touch with them. Today this advice will seem gratuitous at the end of a week of joyful celebration with all of them. But tomorrow you will embark on your life journey beyond Swarthmore and in the rush of everything new that lies ahead, it will be all too easy to lose touch with those who so enriched your years here. Don't make that mistake. You will never find a finer group of people than those you sit with today. Treasure them and keep them close. I am joined today by two members of the class of '71, Jeff Jordan and Rich Schall, my roommates and closest friends while I was here. May you all be so lucky.

Third, take your own journey as I did mine. Don't feel compelled to follow a straight line or conform to anyone else's plan. Much of what is best in life will be found in the detours, the zigs and zags. This is where I learned the most and found what mattered most to me, what I cared about and what I believed. It was trying new things, exploring and experimenting, that fueled this voyage of discovery. And don't think you need to start at the front of the pack to succeed. I started near the back but with a Swarthmore education as my foundation, it has all worked out fine. If it did for me, it will for you. Take those detours.

Fourth, defend dissent — the right to differ, the right to reject convention and conventional wisdom, the right to challenge authority, the right to seek change. Give primacy to the power of ideas — to freedom of thought, freedom of expression and academic freedom — the freedoms of the mind. Care most to protect the right of dissent and to support the voices of change. To dissent and to seek change is not to be disloyal to your institution or your country. They can be the most loyal acts of a good citizen.

The '60s permitted this dissent. Swarthmore, informed by its Quaker tradition, did one better: it encouraged it so long as it was thoughtful. As a result, we engaged and debated. We imagined a better world and sought to realize it. We became better people and better citizens. We came to understand that public causes and public purposes carried greater meaning and offered greater rewards than purely private pursuits. And in doing so, we made a difference.

I know so many of you have done the same and I salute you for it. But I fear too few of you, comforted by this special place, appreciate how fragile and vulnerable is the right of dissent and how vigilant we must be in defending this essential freedom.

I have devoted my career to two causes: higher education and a free press. The common theme has been the centrality of ideas and fundamental freedoms — academic freedom and freedom of the press. A recurring lesson for me in both these arenas has been the ubiquity of threats to these freedoms. Recent concerns about terrorism have only magnified these threats. The threats always come cloaked in the guise of some competing good, but whatever the argument advanced by those who wish to constrain our freedoms, I urge you to be skeptical and to defend the eternal power of the freedom of ideas. Swarthmore College has been stalwart and courageous in its defense of these freedoms. You must be too if you are to preserve and expand the full possibilities of a free society.

Finally, fifth, build a cathedral. Three construction workers were stopped by a passer-by who asked each of them what they were doing. The first said: "I am cutting stone." The second said: "I am making $100 a day." And the third said: "I am building a cathedral." The third worker got it right. He didn't limit himself to his skill as a stone cutter. He didn't confine himself to the need to earn a living. He saw and was inspired by his higher purpose — crafting his cathedral. I urge you to build yours.

You will all find good work and all earn good livings. But what will give you the greatest joy, what will inspire your best efforts, what will cause you to reach higher and farther, what will make your families proudest, and what will allow you to make your personal difference will be fixing your sights on building your cathedral.

Those of us from the '60s took our shot at building our cathedrals. Some stood the test of time better than others but on balance, I am certain we did a lot more good than harm. Most importantly, we tried. But we have left lots for you to do. Please do your part.

You leave Swarthmore with abundant talents, a great education, and the best wishes and fondest hopes of all of us. Good luck to all of you.