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Commencement 2012: Remarks by Chancellor Nancy Cantor

May 13, 2012

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I want to offer a warm welcome to the families and friends of the Syracuse University and SUNY-ESF Class of 2012. Congratulations from all the members of the university community! 

I’d like to ask our faculty, staff, parents and friends to stand and join me in giving the Class of 2012, those receiving undergraduate and graduate and professional degrees today, a huge round of applause.   

And now I want to ask the 2012 graduates to stand and join me in thanking your families, your professors and your friends with a new round of applause.  

In clapping for each other on this great day of celebration, we do more than mark the moment—though it certainly deserves marking—we acknowledge our reciprocal connections, the sense in which so much good has come from knowing each other, caring about each other, worrying about each other, and now from celebrating that connection, and reflecting on how it will continue going forward.  

In a few minutes, you’ll hear from our extraordinary alum and friend, Aaron Sorkin, in his own words, but I’d like to take a moment to mention something he said after writing more than 85 episodes of the television drama “The West Wing.”  He said, “The hardest thing is starting. Starting is the hardest thing for me.” 

Well, the good thing about today is that even as you go forth to write new episodes in the stories of your own lives, you know you don’t have to start from scratch.  You’re working with the connections, the social network (to borrow a famous phrase) and the intellectual lineage and moral outlook that you’ve developed with faculty and friends at Syracuse and ESF, and with your family and friends before that. The spontaneity and ease of our mutual congratulations just now should not belie the effort that went into building those connections and the durability of the trust within them.

In a world where the proverbial click, click, click “connects” us, where you can be sure to “remember” your classmates’ (and even your professors’) birthdays on Facebook for the foreseeable future, it may seem a bit out of step to celebrate the contributions that education and learning make in building deep and durable connections between people, ideas, viewpoints, values, ethics and tastes. But that is precisely the theme that I want to stress today, and that I hope you take with you as you leave here. If there is one thing you have done here, it is to actively and deliberately connect. You’ve forged ties that expand rather than contract, that contest rather than just reinforce who you are, who you know and who you can count on. That’s what education, growth, life is about—and you did it here. Now it’s time to start over (even as we’ll make certain that your connection here isn’t lost). 

Let me quickly assure you that this isn’t meant as an ode to the days before technology made for omnipresent facile connectivity. The click, click, click is just fine as long as you use it to embed yourselves deeply and widely in the world, to see beyond the confines of where you actually live and the people with whom you directly interact, so you can hear from people and places beyond your physical capability to parse the sounds. But you can’t let the easy connections replace the harder ones that take place in person and allow for the kinds of contested thought and risk-taking that make the heart beat sometimes too fast. 

As Sherry Turkle, an M.I.T. professor who has been interviewing people about their use of social media, wrote recently: “It’s hard to do anything with 3,000 Facebook friends except connect.”[1] “We are tempted,” she noted, “to think that our little “sips” of online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation ….Connecting in sips may work for gathering discrete bits of information or for saying, ‘I am thinking about you.’ Or even for saying, ‘I love you.’ But connecting in sips doesn’t work as well when it comes to understanding and knowing one another.” There is something decidedly one-sided about how we go about connecting electronically. By contrast, in the reciprocity of real conversation, as Turkle states, “we are called upon to see things from another’s point of view.” 

As you know well from your time here, education demands connection. Sometimes it comes in formal conversations across difference and disciplines and geographies, structured, for example, in difficult intergroup dialogues on race, or in heated policy debates about Mideast politics. Other times, it occurs in equally demanding but less structured conversations, perhaps in a design charette across disciplines for the Connective Corridor, during an immersion in Turkey for SU Abroad or in a Literacy and Photography class on the Near Westside of Syracuse. Whether formal or informal, structured or out of the box, these conversations have comprised your education, and they’ve demanded time and effort and no small amount of entrepreneurial agility and social risk-taking to survive—but you have, and I hope you feel much stronger for it. Certainly our campus, our community and all the places in the world you have touched are stronger for them, full of new businesses, better functioning schools, energy-efficient homes, murals that delight, technology that surprises, discoveries that heal—and all of them took many hours of deep conversation to complete.

You have learned about the world in the world, working with people who have no formal connection to our campus but deeply important connections to our lives. You’ve had chances to use your powers of intellect, imagination and empathy. It takes those powers, all of them in combination, to change the world—and that is what you’ve been about, bit by bit, click by click, connection by connection. It is your willingness to embrace each other, in both conversation and in connection, that gives me faith about where we are all going together, as you indeed start again. Congratulations!

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