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Baccalaureate Address by Marc H. Morial, C ’80,
president and CEO of National Urban League
May 14, 2006

The Challenge to Change the World

Marc Morial

Ron thank you for that generous introduction. And to Dr. Gutmann, to the faculty and the staff, all who make the University of Pennsylvania work, to all of the parents, friends and supporters, and to the 2006 graduates. Let me just say how honored I am to be able to share just a few thoughts with you this afternoon.

I can’t help but remember my first semester at the University of Pennsylvania back in fall of 1976. I came to Penn from New Orleans as a little bit of a country boy. And I had never seen snow or really, really bad weather of the sort that you have in Philadelphia’s winters. I lived over in the Quad up on the 5th floor.  I remember the room number—526 Rodney. It gave me a great view, of the street every morning. And I woke up one morning and it was a blizzard-like snow storm conditions with wind blowing,  and I looked down and I saw all these people hunched over with heavy coats on, walking up the hill to get to class,  to get to work. And I looked down and I said, “not for me, not today.” And I learned how to skip class that day. Got back under the covers and never again did I sign up for any more 8 a.m. classes, I’ll have you know, at the University of Pennsylvania.

But today I also want to say to all the moms, ‘Happy Mothers’ Day’ very warmly and ask that we give all the moms another big round of applause. Thank you very much, thank you…to all the moms and the grandmothers, and I thank my mother for sending  those care packages here to Penn almost 30 years ago when I was a student here.

Those who graduate from the University of Pennsylvania this year graduate with a great education. Never once in my life have I ever doubted or not treasured the education I got here at Penn and what it did for me. More than just an academic sense, my education at Penn gave me a sense of confidence; that in any place I walked, stood, or had to present I felt the confidence that I was never outside of my element. That’s what Penn did for me. Certainly the 2006 graduates, you leave with a powerful brand; the name, ‘the University of Pennsylvania.’ And everywhere you go, most places you go, it will impress, it will say something about you: the accomplishment of graduating from a great, great University. It will give you great academic success. Penn graduates succeed. To not succeed is a rare, rare exception. It’ll give you economic self-sustainability and comfort. And it will give you—whether you choose to be a nurse or a teacher, or an investment banker or a chemist, or a physicist or biologist,  an astronaut or a public servant;  a great writer, a film critic—success in all likelihood at the top echelons of your professional life. You know that. You can treasure that and you can take heart with that.

But what I also hope is that this Class of 2006,  as it enters this brave, this changing, this transforming America, this global marketplace this new world that is before you; as the class of the Internet, of the e-mail, of iPods, of TiVos, of technological advances unforeseen 20 to 25 years ago,  that you will remember your obligation, solemn obligation, to put your talent,  your ability and your education to work, yes, for yourself; yes, for your family, but also for your community, for this nation, and for the world-at-large. You must work to make your contribution to change the world.

What I am inspired by and what I hope you are inspired by are our parents and our grandparents who made great contributions in the twentieth century. 

What did they do in the twentieth century? For one, they ushered in a technological revolution. Television, electricity, automobiles, machinery, airplanes—were all inventions of the twentieth century. 

Number two: they stared down and defeated the genocidal hatred  of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany when others stood  by the side. People in this nation put the manpower, the person power, the people power, the industrial power behind crushing a regime that sought to not only annihilate people but to take over the world.  It was a significant contribution to world history.

Thirdly, and very importantly, they made a contribution to civil rights; to changing the racial justice dynamics of this nation in a very important way.  Most notably it is seen in the changes in the cities of the South—the Atlantas, the Houstons, the Dallas, the New Orleans before Katrina; the Memphis; those cities that have now become centers of  economics and commerce. Great changes.

But what for the Class of 2006?  What for those that come of age in this new century will be the charge, the challenge to change the world?  I have a few thoughts.

One: to focus on the need to eliminate economic inequality and poverty.  Once again, what did our parents, and our grandparents and those of the twentieth century do? They virtually eliminated, and significantly reduced poverty amongst older Americans, senior citizens.  Social Security, Medicare, private retirement plans—all of these sorts of things have virtually eliminated poverty among senior Americans.

Almost a century ago, in the early part of the twentieth century, if people got old and they didn’t have a family member to take them in and care for them, once they were unable to work, physically infirmed, life was very  hard and very tough.

What we should do in this century, what the Class of 2006 should do, is commit to eliminate poverty among America’s children. Where there have been few, few significant advances in the last 50 years; to commit to close the economic gaps which are challenging not only the working class, not only those who are poor, but challenging the status of those who are stable, middle class Americans. Work to change it; improve education; make a commitment; let it be a cause and a clarion call for the twenty-first century for the graduates of 2006.

Number two: end genocide. Before our very eyes, right here in 2006 genocidal terror is taking place in Darfur. Maybe we ignore it because it is African on African. Maybe we ignore it because it is Muslim on Muslim. But we shouldn’t ignore it. The genocide of Adolf Hitler was initially ignored by the world community. It cost many, many people their precious lives.  We have a chance. 480,000 people have already died in Darfur. Let our voices rise, let us say that we will not allow massive genocide to occur on our watch beyond what has already come to pass, in our time,  in this the twenty-first century.

Third, remember and keep in mind that all power does not emanate from  economics, money and politics. Although much power does emanate from economics, money, and politics. But there’s also the power of morality, the power of right. Let us not be so cynical in the twenty first century as not to remember the power of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Not a man of riches; not a man of any political office, but a man of morality; a man who taught us right from wrong. To remember the contributions of Ghandi, to remember the contributions of Mandela whose moral authority and whose moral power…to remember the moral authority that the late Pope John Paul II  commanded in world affairs because of the power of morality and the power of right.

I have great respect for entertainers like Bono. And Russell Simmons who was involved in the Darfur march down in Washington with many, many others. Americans of great wealth, like Bill Gates, who have made a large and significant commitment to use their wealth in philanthropic means.  And he is but one example. There are many.

Whatever your success in life is—if it’s economic you can give of your treasure to support those things you believe in and those things that are right.  If you don’t have great economic largesse you can give of your time and you can give of your talent.

As Dr. Gutmann told us of Mr. Feinberg, a 1991 graduate of this institution who had a great dream, who stayed up all night,  who had an idea that many probably thought was kooky, but an idea of creativity and innovation that has changed the lives of others.

And let us recognize, graduates of 2006, that the America you face in 2006 and the century you face, are going to be a century of tremendous transformation. We are a nation that will become more varied and much more diverse, a country that will no longer have a majority ethnic group. It will challenge our leaders. It will challenge our patience. It will challenge our public policy. It will challenge how we can expand democracy and expand the economic power of this nation to so many more people. It will challenge us.

This is the America, this is the world community. This is what you embrace. It is one where you stand on powerful shoulders of those who shaped the twentieth century. But the question is what will be your commitment to change the world.

You leave this great institution with a powerful education.  You leave this institution prepared, and you leave this institution ready. Be successful; pursue your dream, but make a commitment to change the world. 

Congratulations,   Class of 2006.  Thank you to the parents and supporters for tolerating, putting up with, supporting all these young people. Let’s give them all another big round of applause. Thank you, thank you.



  Almanac, Vol. 52, No. 34, May 23, 2006


May 23, 2006
Volume 52 Number 34


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