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Penn Commencement 2008
May 27, 2008, Volume 54, No. 34

Penn Commencement Address by President Amy Gutmann, Monday, May 19, 2008.

Changing the Political Climate


Chairman Riepe, Trustees, honorary degree recipients, honored guests, parents, families, friends, all returning alumni: It is my great privilege to welcome you to the 252nd commencement of the University of Pennsylvania!

Please be seated; please join me in congratulating the men and women of the hour: the graduates of the great Class of 2008!

Graduates: You have passed your exams, packed up your belongings, and survived Walnut Walk!

And we have every intention of granting your diplomas.

But first you must prove yourselves worthy of your Penn degrees by performing one last task: you must endure our speeches. If you leave Franklin Field elated, we have done our jobs. If you leave feeling sedated—well, as Gary Trudeau once observed, that is why commencement speeches were invented in the first place.

Last year, I spoke to our graduates about sustaining our environment for the sake of humanity’s survival. Today, I want to speak to you about changing the political climate for the sake of democracy’s and humanity’s long-term health. Short-term thinking has sold your and our futures short.

Not only are global temperatures rising, polar ice caps melting, and species vanishing; but energy, food, and health costs are soaring, wars are raging, nuclear arsenals growing, and far too many children are dying from hunger, disease, and yes, hatred.

Yet something unprecedented in recent American history is also happening, on this campus and across this country. Yours is the first generation of young adults in over 40 years to have turned on to civic action, tuned into public affairs and turned out to mobilize and vote in huge numbers—and all without the direct threat of a military draft, which mobilized many of my generation. 

You transformed the Penn campus into an essential destination for presidential candidates. You set new records for voter registration and voter turnout in this year’s Pennsylvania primary.

You served communities here at home and abroad in sustainable, replicable ways.

I invite anyone who thinks that today’s young people cannot sustain their engagement to come to Penn and take a long, hard look at the evidence.

Who empowered elderly citizens in West Philadelphia to continue living independently through our nationally acclaimed LIFE program? Students from Penn Nursing.

Who devoted thousands of hours of pro-bono work for Philadelphians who cannot afford legal assistance? Our Penn Law students. 

Who will you find hopping out of Penn Smiles mobile vans to deliver comprehensive dental care to neighborhood youth? Penn Dental students.

Who have worked alongside their counterparts in Botswana to fight the AIDS pandemic and also delivered life-saving care to thousands of Philadelphians? Students from Penn Medicine.

Who are partnering with Doctors of the World to develop a viable business model for sustainable medical care systems throughout Africa? Wharton Health International volunteers.

Who saved 30,000 homeless pets last year alone through spaying and neutering? Our Penn Vet students. 

Working to improve the learning environment in Philadelphia’s public schools are our students from Grad Ed.

On the front lines delivering ever more effective social services for our most vulnerable populations, you will observe students from Social Policy and Practice.

Devising prize-winning plans to revitalize Penn’s Landing along the Delaware River waterfront, you will see students from Penn Design.
And—when it comes to rebuilding Gulf Coast communities that are still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina, you will see Penn undergraduates from the College, Engineering, Nursing, and Wharton.

I can cite many more examples of your engagement over the past four years at Penn, but that will do for now, what I can’t stop are the cynics from stamping an early expiration date on your engagement. They predict you and your generation will grow disillusioned and soon become disengaged by the inevitable disappointments of democracy. 

Only you can prove the cynics wrong.

But it won’t be easy.

Whichever candidate wins the next presidential election, he or she alone will not heal all the divisions or resolve all the looming crises. It will require sustained engagement by citizens and politicians working together across partisan divides to solve our greatest problems.
Experimental economist Ernst Fehr has shown, individuals are more likely to devote their time and energy toward achieving a common goal when others are involved.

Sustaining engagement long after today’s commencement is not just a matter of doing good; it also serves your enlightened self-interest. You will lead longer, healthier, and yes, happier lives if you get more involved in social groups.

Now, I don’t really have to tell Penn students to get involved socially, but my message is that you must sustain your involvement in social groups. Psychologists and sociologists tell us that those who lead lives of quiet isolation typically die before their time. They tell us also that, whatever your age, joining one social group will cut your risk of dying over the next year in half.

I can’t vouch for the causal connection, but it’s sure worth taking this wager. If you want to keep feeling as blissful as you do today … and if you want to leave the world better and healthier than it is today—then you need to keep cultivating those social networks that both drive civic progress and pick you up when life gets you down.

We humans are the only creatures—at least on this planet—whose frontal lobes give us the power, as Dan Gilbert puts it, “to peer deeply into our futures… and learn from mistakes before we make them.” And what we have learned is that, we are so social in nature,  that we enhance both our own lives and others best by working together in groups.  

Never have so few created so much destruction in so short a time as did the suicide bombers who destroyed the World Trade Center. It is your generation who now knows that never will so many be needed, working together, both here at home and overseas, to restore the damage and move this world forward.

I know we can count on you—as Penn graduates—to make particularly good use of your frontal lobes. The trick is to resist simple but illusory short-term solutions in favor of sustained social activities that encourage long-term thinking, foster enduring happiness, and deliver lasting gains for humanity.

Graduates, you have been the most civically engaged students in Penn’s and in this country’s recent history. But do you have the wisdom, the passion and the persistence to sustain your social engagement after Penn, to gain more happiness, and to move some mountains that block our society’s and world’s path to a better future?

My bet is … yes you do

Graduates, go out into the world and prove me right. Persist in your passionate engagement, and the world will be yours to lead and everyone’s to love for a long time to come.  Congratulations.


Almanac - May 27, 2008, Volume 54, No. 34