|June 16, 2007|
Text of Charles Gibson speech
President Stephen Ainlay presents Charles Gibson, anchor of ABC World News, with a Union yearbook from 1923, the year his father, Burdett, graduated.
First, let me start by thanking you for the honorary degree today. It is not my first.
No, that came in June of 1965 when I graduated from Princeton University. Believe me – that was an honorary degree.
That day, sitting on the front lawn of Nassau Hall, as you sit here at Union, there were the summa cum laudes; there were the magna cum laudes, there were the cum laudes and there was me, sitting among the group that I once heard Bill Cosby describe as the “thank you laudes!”
With my grades, graduation was touch and go. Many of you here can no doubt sympathize and identify with my situation. You know who you are. Anyway, I’ve never been sure if I deserved that Princeton degree. I’m not sure I deserve this one either; but, I thank you for it.
I do want to say a word about Union College. My dad grew up in this city and graduated from this College in 1923. As I was told, my dad roomed with a fellow named Walter Law from New York City, who had a younger sister Georgiana.
An introduction was made, dates ensued, marriage followed. So, did three children.
You’re looking at number three. So, the way I figure it, were it not for this institution, I would not be here. Thus, it is not just for the honorary degree that I am grateful to Union.
But, enough about me, this day is about you, the Class of 2007.
First of all, I want you to think for a moment of all you’ve learned in the past four years. You are the elite. You are some of the few in this nation… who know how to spell Schenectady.
Charles Gibson delivers the 213th Commencement address to the Class of 2007.
In a few moments, President Ainlay will present you with your degrees signifying that you have completed the seven things you have to do to graduate from Union.
Now, I live some distance from this campus. But, even being 150 miles away, I’ve heard about those seven things. There is some confusion, however. I’ve heard that all seven are required. Then, I’ve heard that there are five required, and two are electives.
Either way, you are all graduating. Thus, I presume you all have taken care of the requirements. (I’ll be curious to see if they’re listed on your diplomas.)
I will tell you a secret about this day. While you seniors are relieved to be graduating, no one – no one – is more relieved than your parents. They have written their last tuition check to Union. For the fathers out there, that is the best of all Father’s Day presents.
Your parents have spent as much as $175,000 on your education, and they are not all certain what it is they’ve bought.
I remember a valuable lesson from a noted theologian, Father Guido Sarducci. You may not be old enough to remember Father Sarducci; he was one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live. He had an offer for a young person who did not go to college.
He would provide that person with a five-minute lecture. Contained in those five minutes, he said, would be everything that a real college graduate would remember from his/her classes 10 years after graduation.
Mathematics? Pi R-squared. Economics? Supply and demand curves. Accounting? LIFO-FIFO.
That, he said, is about all that will stick with you.
For a slight additional fee and another two-and-a-half minutes, Father Sarducci would throw in law school.
But, his point is actually a good one. Four years here at Union were never about memorizing facts in Professor Berk’s “History of the Holocaust” or Professor Nichols’ poli sci courses.
During these four years, the mission of your professors has been to get you to think, to analyze, to interpret, to form an argument and to learn how to defend it orally and in writing.
And, let me tell you, as someone who works a lot with young people – you’d better know how to write.
Those are the critical tools you are going to need to keep youlearning through the rest of your life. Today doesn’t end your education. Goodness, no. In many ways, it just begins. Much of what you’ve learned here may well be obsolete knowledge in a few years. And, much of what you will learn hasn’t been discovered, invented or thought of yet.
But, perhaps even more important than the things I’ve mentioned, you were here in this magnificent, protected environment to develop a moral code and code of ethics.
It sounds old fashioned, but I will tell you there are ethical imperatives in this life: compassion, honesty, fairness, trustworthiness and respect for others.
If those things are not the bedrocks of your life, you will suffer from their absence in time. And, I would wager, you won’t much like yourself.
This is an age when pharmaceutical companies leave drugs on the market even when there’s evidence those drugs are not safe. This is an age when home-run hitters suddenly bulk up and wonder why we doubt their prowess. This is an age when company executives sell out their employees’ pensions and cash in huge stock options themselves. And, this is an age when officials of some of our great academic institutions get caught taking kickbacks from companies that are making loans to students like you.
As you leave here, you need to know what it is you stand for – because “out there” the choices are not going to be easy.
You will find times when you’ll be asked to choose between your values and expediency, between what you know is right and responsible – and what your company or firm or network or whomever you work for may need at the moment – to get a leg up on the competition.
I always tell young people in journalism that you really only have one commodity to sell, and that is trust. It takes a long time to earn it, and you can lose it in just a moment. You’ll earn that trust in your workplace and in “life,” if you have a sound ethical base. For it is not just in journalism that that is true.
There is one other thing I want to mention briefly. I want all of you to be involved.
You will be many things in the years to come. You’ll be a mom or dad if you’re lucky, a banker, a doctor, a teacher – some profession. But, there’s one very important thing you will be that I don’t want you to overlook – you will be a citizen.
Politicians like to say, “It’s a crucial time in our country’s history.” Perhaps, at times, they exaggerate.
But, right now it is.
Most of you were 16 when 9/11 occurred. You lost much of the innocence of youth on that day. And for the nation? The nation was no longer insular.
The residual effects of that day have left us with a number of national debates.
We are debating whether in going to war we did more harm than good; whether we have an obligation to stay in Iraq – with the inevitable cost of more lives – or whether we should leave, which would not be without consequence.
We’re debating immigration – a debate that goes to the heart of what we are as a country.
We’re debating health care and whether we have a responsibility to provide it for all.
We’re debating the extent of our responsibility to this planet. We’re debating our responsibility to our elderly and to the poorest among us.
We’re debating things as basic as whether we must compromise some of the civil liberties that have marked our society for centuries – in the name of security.
As we saw in Iraq and the immigration debates in recent weeks, we have deep divisions in our political systems that seem to be roadblocks to resolution of any of these problems.
You need to care – for these are issues that are basic to your democracy.
And, part of that – be an informed consumer of my product, which is news.
Know what is important news and what is not.
Keep abreast of foreign affairs, domestic politics – and we’ve got a fascinating election coming up – and economic affairs. Follow the issues in your local city or county council.
And, don’t disparage the mainstream media. The editor of your hometown newspaper or the producers of network newscasts don’t have 30 or 40 years of experience for nothing. When you see a news organization get fixated on non-stop coverage of Paris Hilton, or Anna Nicole Smith, or Michael Jackson, go elsewhere.
When an announcer says, “It’s a report you have to see,” you probably don’t. When an anchor says, “shocking details,” they probably aren’t. When a reporter claims his news is “fair and balanced,” it probably isn’t. And, when politicians say, “I’m going to level with you,” they probably won’t.
Of course, the first thing you have to do is go out and get a damn job.
You’ll do it. There may be false starts. I can guarantee you there are going to be twists and turns to your life that you couldn’t anticipate in your wildest dreams.
But, you have a good solid base. And, you have a Union education. It served my father well, and it will do the same for you.
And, by the way, here’s the first solicitation you’ll receive from Annual Giving: Give of your treasure in future years to this institution. For this institution has played a large role in developing you as a person and developing what you are. And, it is up to you to ensure it will do so for future generations.
Those people out there – your parents and your teachers – have set you up for an interesting life. They care about you to the depth of their souls. But, their job is now complete. And, it’s up to you now.
A great newspaper publisher once said, “There are two things a parent or a teacher can give you: roots and wings.”
You have both. And, you will find your way. The next few years are going to be a great time in your life. Your possibilities are endless.
Enjoy. And, Godspeed.