May 12, 2012

In addition to the people you’ve already thanked for helping you to get here, I’d suggest there are three other people who played a key role. One you know more intimately than the other two, so we’ll start with them.

Thomas Jefferson: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Jefferson was by far the most pro-educational of the Founding Fathers. His writings and arguments helped to set the stage for the role of public education in a functioning democracy.

Abraham Lincoln: Most of you likely know that Lincoln signed the Morrill Act that created Land Grant Universities on July 2, 1862. But you may not have thought about the context: On July 1, 1862, the Seven Days Battles ended with Union commanding General George McClellan retreating toward Washington. You’re in the midst of the bloodiest year of the civil war, your army is in retreat, and this is only 100 miles away. And against a historical backdrop where education was only for the wealthy, you sign a bill creating a public university in each state committed to assuring that every American with the talent and motivation to earn a university degree should have that opportunity. It created an educational system that changed our nation and continues to change education around our world today.

And the 3rd person is you. You were given the talent to have earned your place here today, but you had to supply the motivation. And you have. And so we complete the cycle we began with you at convocation and Ram Welcome where we said that every time we admit a new class, it re-starts the cycle of each generation turning to the next and asking for help with problems we’ve left unsolved.

So now it’s your turn. When you cross this stage, you stand on a foundation built by every faculty member and every alumnus of this great university — resting on cornerstones put in place by some of the greatest leaders in our nation’s history.

That’s a pretty special place to stand — with pretty heady company.

And what you face out there isn’t trivial. Where will you start? The economy needs some work. This issue of energy that doesn’t come at the expense of the environment needs to be solved sooner rather than later. And there’s that small detail of needing to feed 9 billion people by the time you’re our age.

These are daunting challenges. Ones that, when you cross this stage, will look you in the eye — and make one consider grad school.

But you have this in you. Consider what Lincoln said in the face of his challenges on December 1, 1862, almost exactly 5 months to the day after signing the Morrill Act, when he addressed Congress.

“Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

Of course, Lincoln was speaking of American democracy as the “last best hope of earth,” but I’d suggest that public education in a free society may well be the last best hope of humankind for solving problems that have plagued us since the dawn of civilization — and the new challenges we’ve added since. But public education is not a given — it is a system under intense stress. Indeed, it will survive — or fail — during our lifetimes, and that places a special responsibility on us — one, to paraphrase Lincoln, that we cannot be spared.

We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, this last best hope.

Representing public education in a free society, cherishing it, arguing for it, perhaps even saving it — that is a very big responsibility.

But you have on your side that which Jefferson prized above all else: the mind of man. And yours has been honed in the finest education system on Earth: Abraham Lincoln’s research universities. And when you pair that with your passion, commitment and motivation, I simply don’t believe there is anything you can’t do.

But here’s the thing — and there’s really no getting around this that I’ve been able to find — it doesn’t matter what I believe, or what the people in this audience believe, or what Lincoln & Jefferson would say if they were here. The only thing that matters is what you believe — and what you’re going to do about it.

So this is my charge to you, members of the May 2012 graduating class from the Colorado State University College of Liberal Arts: From our generation to yours: we trust you. Believe in yourselves. And change the world.

I am extraordinarily proud of each of you. And wherever your adventure takes you next: Godspeed.

– tony

Anthony A. Frank, President
Colorado State University