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Tilghman: With graduation comes a responsibility

By Ruth Stevens

Princeton NJ -- Graduates received more than their degrees during the University's 257th Commencement on June 1. In her address to the students, President Tilghman reminded the class of 2004 that their diplomas carry with them a responsibility.

"Today you enter the world as adults, and as adults educated at one of the finest universities in the world, you have an obligation to make this world a better place for all of us," she said.


The University awarded degrees to 1,104 undergraduates and 686 graduate students. It also conferred honorary doctoral degrees upon five individuals for their contributions in the fields of education, science, arts and humanities, philanthropy and civil rights.

Ruth Tennen, a molecular biology major from Collinsville, Conn., delivered the valedictory oration. She praised her Princeton professors for teaching students to "challenge the intellectual status quo."

"Our Princeton experiences have taught us how to challenge expectations and how to confront traditional thinking with a critical eye," she said. "Thank you, teachers, for allowing us to challenge or rather, insisting that we challenge."

Salutatorian Brian Tsang, a computer science major, delivered the salutatory address, which at Princeton is traditionally given in Latin. The tradition dates back to an era when the entire ceremony was conducted in Latin. The Latin Salutatory, Princeton's oldest student honor, began as a serious, formal address, but today it often contains humorous tributes, recollections and a farewell to Princeton campus life. Swapping his mortar board for a red hat with white polka-dots, Tsang switched to English only when saluting his fellow students with a quote from Yogi Berra: "I want to thank you for making this day necessary."

The din of cicadas, paying the campus their once-every-17-years visit, provided a steady background hum for the ceremony on the front lawn of Nassau Hall. The noise brought to mind the Commencement of 1970, Tilghman said, when the insects were memorialized by honorary degree recipient Bob Dylan in his song "Day of the Locusts."

She drew other comparisons between the experiences of the two classes: "Whereas earlier wars of the 20th century had united and strengthened our country, the Vietnam War, like today's war in Iraq, divided us and raised fundamental questions about our policies and values.

"In 1970 the civil rights movement was gaining momentum as institutions like Princeton increasingly opened their doors to students from all racial and ethnic backgrounds," she continued. "Today, marking the 50th anniversary of the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, we recognize how far we still have to go to make equal opportunity real in all our nation's schools. The third great issue of that day was the nascent women's movement calling for greater inclusion of women in the affairs of the world. That year Princeton awarded degrees to undergraduate women eight of them for the first time in its history. Today the number of women graduates in the senior class has increased 70-fold, yet we know there are still fields that women are discouraged from entering and in which they do not have fair chances for advancement."

Describing a campus protest in spring 1970 following the invasion of Cambodia, Tilghman explained how the campus community came together to debate the issue and find constructive ways to participate in the national discussion.

"Through their passionate engagement with the events of their times," she said, "the students of 1970 shouldered their responsibilities as citizens of a free democracy to speak out for what they believed."

The outcome, she said, ranged from a more broadly participatory University governance to the institution of a fall break so that students could participate in election campaigns. It also included the opening of FitzRan-dolph Gate, which until that time had been closed except during special occasions. That change was intended to symbolize the University's strong attachment to the local community as well as the world beyond its gates.

Tilghman told the class of 2004 that she hoped that, like the class of 1970, they would carry with them an interest in speaking out for what they believe and participating in government. "Princeton has aspired to [instill] in each of you the qualities of an educated citizen: the ability to distinguish reason from prejudice and leadership from demagoguery; to weigh evidence against rumor; and to know right from wrong," she said. "I hope each of you, particularly in this election year, will take seriously your responsibility as an educated citizen and engage, like your predecessors in the class of 1970, with the momentous issues of the day."

In addition, she called for universities to continue to generate new knowledge for the benefit of citizens of all nations. Specifically referring to the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, she said, "I firmly believe that we can make a crucial contribution to our nation's understanding of and capacity to deal with global terrorism and the many seeds from which it springs."

She concluded by encouraging the students to use their education to serve their country in some capacity.

"As you walk through the wide-open FitzRandolph Gate today, as educated citizens of this and many other countries," she concluded, "I hope that you will carry forward the spirit of Princeton and all that this place has aspired to teach you a respect for ideas and discovery, the courage to stand up for your beliefs and the rights of others, a commitment to civic engagement and a passion for justice and freedom, all informed by the highest standards of integrity."

Tilghman and McPherson

President Tilghman and history professor James McPherson, who gave the Baccalaureate address, chatted before the procession.


As it does each year, Princeton honored excellence in teaching at the Commencement ceremony. Four Princeton faculty members received President's Awards for Distinguished Teaching. Four outstanding secondary school teachers from across New Jersey also were recognized for their work.

Other honors for the new graduates were presented over the last few days of the academic year. The Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni honored four graduate students for excellence in teaching. Seniors were recognized at Class Day ceremonies May 31, where they also shared some laughs with comedian Jon Stewart.

At the Baccalaureate service on May 30, James McPherson, the George Henry Davis '86 Professor of American History at Princeton and a pre-eminent Civil War scholar, told the students to "take heart." "These are perhaps not the best of times to graduate. But neither are they the worst of times," he said. "Most of your student days have been lived in the shadow of 9/11. But from that experience you have gained the perspective to endure both the good and the bad times that will come in the future."

Before walking through FitzRandolph Gate, the graduates received best wishes from President Tilghman: "I hope that you will carry forward the spirit of Princeton and all that this place has aspired to teach you."