In his address at Hamilton College’s commencement, former U.S. ambassador to Germany and longtime top-level executive at Goldman Sachs Philip Murphy advised the Class of 2015 that as they enter the world, above all else “it is the content of your character that counts” and stressed that “the power of the individual to change the world is undiminished.”
Murphy, who served as ambassador from 2009 to 2013, gave the address at Hamilton’s commencement on Sunday, May 24, in the Margaret Bundy Scott Field House where 505 students received bachelor’s degrees. He was awarded an honorary degree, along with Bill Harley ’77, two-time Grammy award-winning singer and storyteller; Philip Lewis, vice president of the Mellon Foundation; and award-winning Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie ’94.
Also speaking at Commencement was class of 2015 valedictorian Nicholas B. W. Vassos of Caledon, Ontario, Canada, and Meghan O’Sullivan of Madison, Conn., recipient of The James Soper Merrill Prize.
In his remarks Murphy recalled N.Y. Sen. Robert Kennedy, noting “I am drawn to him for two other compelling reasons, each of which has enormous relevance today: his ability to connect with people of all shapes and sizes, even in desperate circumstances, and his unwavering belief in the power of the individual to change the world, from the ground up.”
Murphy recalled how “Kennedy bonded with the likes of Cesar Chavez and migrant workers in California or coal miners and their families in Eastern Kentucky. On the outside, they didn’t share anything in common with him.
“But as Reverend King famously reminded us almost 52 years ago, it is not the color of your skin or – if I may expand – the God you worship or the thing you wear on your head or your last name or your gender or your preference or your accent or anything – it is the content of your character that counts,” Murphy noted. “Graduates, given the world that is awaiting you, that is a powerful lesson.”
Murphy observed that “the world awaiting you is fractured almost like never before. It is filled with chasms, voids, disagreements and conflict. The words ‘common’ and ‘ground’ have become oxymoronic. Shia, Sunni. China, Japan. Greece, Germany. Israelis, Palestinians. Our congress. Our political discourse. Our economic divisions. Immigration. Blacks, whites. The technology wedge.
“But, the world into which you are graduating is not defined, for the most part, by neat divisions, but lies in a million little pieces,” he said.
Murphy acknowledged that “Our generation has either created many of the fractures, or, at a minimum, has failed to mend them. The challenge of your generation,” he said, “is akin to piecing together a giant jigsaw puzzle that’s been dropped out of the box onto the floor.
“The voids need to be filled. The dissent brooked, but compromise achieved. The fractures mended. The common ground found.
“There is no question it can be done,” Murphy said. “There is also no question that the world will continue to change. President Kennedy said, ‘Change is the law of life.’ The questions are: what is the path to a better place, who will lead us there, and how will you fit in? Will you lead…or will you follow?”
Murphy reminded the graduates, “For all of the time and energy we focus on top-down leadership, from presidents to popes, history will tell you that the most profound and lasting change comes from individuals, from the streets. Rosa Parks wasn’t an elected official when she stood her ground on the bus in Montgomery on December 1, 1955. The East Germans who gathered on October 9, 1989 in Leipzig had no idea that 70,000 would march that night. The fruit vendor in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, who took his own life on December 17, 2010 out of frustration with the authorities, never expected he would set a new course in the Arab world.
“And so, while your world today is very different from our world then, the power of the individual to change the world is undiminished,” Murphy said. “If you accept the premise that the world is in pieces and the strength of the individual rages on, there are leadership opportunities for your class and generation as never before.”
He advised the class to “view this moment in history – and your ability to shape a better outcome – as the chance of a lifetime, and rise up.
“I suggest you start leading in practical, local and tangible ways. I’d focus less on battling high flying ideology and far more on 'walking in the other guy’s shoes.'
Murphy gave some specific suggestions, including: “Live in a neighborhood or a town with people who don’t look like you; If you go to church, visit a mosque this quarter and a temple the next. Or vice versa. If you’re liberal, watch Fox News once a week. If you’re conservative, watch MSNBC.
“One of the biggest mistakes I made in life was hanging around too many people for too long who were too much like me," Murphy said. “If your life revolves around the same old posse, you’re going to have a hard time leading the change we need. Be safe, but don’t be timid. Take some risk,” he advised.
He also reminded the class to “tend to your friendships and, make time for your family, particularly for your parents and grandparents… They are not always there when you get around to it. Take the time.
Murphy urged the graduates to do some research on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “a vocal critic not only of Hitler but of Christian leaders who were doing too little … to stand up for Jews and a range of minorities. With others, he was involved ultimately in an unsuccessful plot to kill Hitler. Bonhoeffer was arrested in April, 1943 and was hanged in the Flossenbürg concentration camp in April, 1945 just days before the allies liberated it," Murphy explained.
“Remember the lessons of Bonhoeffer and of the greatest generation of Americans from that same era…,” said Murphy. “Know when to compromise, know when to pursue diplomacy at all costs, but also know when to stand your ground.”
Concluding, Murphy wished graduates “Adult years ... filled with a richness of diversity and good judgment… That all your dreams come true and, if they don’t, then celebrate the ones that do… That you lead and always find the common ground, vigorously filling the voids and putting that grand puzzle back together. That you never forget the lessons of King and Ghandi, on the one hand, and Bonhoeffer, on the other; and that you always know the difference and act accordingly. And, if it comes to it, may you answer the call and become the generation by which history will then measure greatness.”
In his speech, Valedictorian Nicholas Vassos remarked, “My whole life I have been a forward planner—always thinking about tomorrow or about the next task to check off on my to-do list. So if somebody had told me four years ago when I first arrived at Hamilton that I could fast forward to graduation, I probably would’ve jumped at the opportunity.
“Thankfully, though, that was never an option, and had I fast forwarded through freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year I know I would not be the same person that I am today. These last four years at Hamilton College have positively shaped me in ways I never could’ve imagined, and the skills and attributes I’ve developed on the Hill will stick with me for the rest of my life and career.
“More importantly,” Vassos said, “if I had fast forwarded through the last four years, I would’ve missed out on all of the friendships and relationships I have formed … I’m sure I can speak for most, if not all, of the graduating class when I say that the relationships we’ve built on the Hill and the moments we have shared with one another are what really matter.
“Now as we move on to the next stage of our lives, we will enter some unfamiliar territory just as we did when we first matriculated at Hamilton,” Vassos said. “ Most of us came here knowing very few people and were probably very unsure about what the next four years would hold, and today most of us probably still have very little idea about what the next four years may bring.
“However,” he noted, “there is one major difference between the uncertainty we face today and the uncertainty we faced four years ago. That is, today as Hamilton College graduates, we now have an entire support system and network behind us,” Vassos concluded.