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Commencement Address: "Finding the Opportunity in the Crisis"
Vernon E. Jordan Jr., senior managing director, Lazard Freres & Co. LLC
May 11, 2008
President Kerwin, trustees of the university, deans and faculty, administration, alumni, parents—mothers especially—friends and you, the class of 2008 of American University. On a beautiful Sunday morning in June, fifty-one years ago, I sat where you sit today—anxious, excited, weary—waiting to be awarded my hard-earned college degree. The speaker at my commencement was perhaps the most prominent corporate leader of the day. He rose and proceeded to deliver... the longest, most boring, most uninspiring address ever inflicted upon a graduating class. It was all sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing.
So this morning, you have my deepest sympathy and empathy as you await my discourse because, believing as I do in equal opportunity—I plan to do to you the same thing my commencement speaker did to me.
First, let me congratulate you for the hard work you have done to get to this special moment. Your parents and loved ones who have supported your education deserve your lasting thanks. I congratulate them for pushing, pulling and standing by you for the sacrifices they have made to help you reach this significant moment in your life.
Secondly, I thank you for the privilege of being your classmate, honoria causa, an honor for which I wrote no term paper, took no field trips, spent no time in the physics or chemistry lab and did not have to suffer through economics 101 or communications 202. Thank you. I am honored to be your classmate.
Allow me to briefly mention some of the things that preoccupy Americans today:
A year ago this month, the average price of gasoline set an all-time record when it hit $3.10 a gallon. Now, the average price is closing in on $4.00 a gallon, and a Gallup poll of late April found that 20 percent of Americans expect it to hit $5.00 a gallon this summer.
A year ago, the price of a barrel of oil was in the $60 range. Oil prices have now climbed above $120 a barrel and seem to be ratcheting higher.
The unraveling of the subprime housing market has already cost a growing number of banks and investment houses billions of dollars, some chief executives their jobs, and for one venerable firm, its very existence. It's also estimated that two million people will lose their homes over the next several years—and it's likely that many of them will never become homeowners again.
That data makes it easy to understand why a Gallup poll survey of last week found that 44 percent of Americans rated current economic conditions as poor, and 85 percent said they were getting worse.
But the worrisome news is not all grounded in economics.
For example, now and then, an incident or an individual's words remind us that we in America are still far from the promise land of racial comity.
And every now and then, an egregious act of violence in Iraq and Afghanistan reminds us that just because some of us have shut our eyes to the war does not mean that the crisis of violence, with its many tentacles, has abated. It doesn't mean the future in Iraq and Afghanistan looks any brighter.
Many Americans read about this data or they live this data, and they despair.
But to you, this graduating class from American University in 2008, this and other data charting the turbulent times we're in should be a cause, not of despair, but of inspiration.
There is work to be done. There are problems to be solved—if not completely solved at this moment, at least reduced in severity. There are people and whole societies to be helped. Yonder across this world, people cry out asking, pleading—“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” That's why you came to this institution, and why you took up the challenge of earning your degree—to conceptualize and implement creative solutions to some of the problems facing our society—yes, to turn the question mark into an exclamation point, answering “Yes, there is a balm in Gilead. There is a physician there.”
There is a whole world awaiting the application of your intelligence, your skills, your ambition, your compassion. In that regard, how fortunate we are. Your graduation comes not a moment too soon.
In that regard, how fortunate you are for you will not lack challenges that will test all that you have learned in the classroom and will test your ability to learn in the classroom of the world beyond the academy.
Graduates, do not succumb to the prophesies of doom and gloom. Be aware of them. But do not succumb. Recognize that crises are a part of the cycle of history. Whether economic, such as the great depression; or social, such as the crisis of the civil rights movement of the 60s—they are a test of a nation's ingenuity and character.
That test is upon us all. But responding to it is most especially your generation's challenge, because you must carry America deeper into the 21st century.
This is the point my friend, Tom Friedman of the New York Times, made in his column last week. Will you answer the challenge, that Friedman characterized as the “overwhelming hunger” among the American people “to do nation-building” in America? Will you help Americans reduce their indulgence of what Friedman called the “subprime values” of essentially trying to get something for nothing for as long as one can? That wrongheaded value system infected many at the top as well as atthe bottom of our society.
Will you help Americans return to the values of hard work, sacrifice, studiousness and thrift? “We still have the potential for greatness,” Friedman wrote, “but only if we get back to work on our country.”
Albert Einstein defined his three rules of work this way: “Out of clutter, find simplicity; out of discord, find harmony; and in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”
Einstein's prescription is, in effect, the same as that found in Chinese ideography. There the written character meaning “crisis” is actually a combination of two characters: the left one meaning “danger” and the right one meaning “opportunity.”
In other words, in every crisis lies opportunity. I believe it is your task... Your responsibility... Your obligation to find and exploit the opportunities in the many crises facing Americans and the peoples and nations of the world.
And I belive absolutely that is your fate, your charge to keep, your calling to fulfill, your rendezvous with destiny. And as you depart these hallowed grounds of American University, hear Langston Hughes:
O, let America be America again—the land that never has been yet—and yet must be—the land where every man is free. The land that's mine—the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, me—who made America, whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain, must bring back our mighty dream again.
God bless you and good luck.
President John F. Kennedy spoke at American University's Spring Commencement on June 10, 1963. In this speech Kennedy called on the Soviet Union to work with the United States to achieve a nuclear test ban treaty and help reduce the considerable international tensions and the specter of nuclear war at that time. (text of speech)
Recent Commencement Speakers