Saturday, December 17, 2011

Good morning, and welcome to the graduates, to my faculty and staff colleagues, to other University of Iowa students, to family and friends, and to honored guests. It is my great pleasure to share with you this once-in-a-lifetime occasion.

Before going further, please, everyone, join me in offering congratulations to these magnificent graduates!

Many people have made this day possible. Out there in the audience are parents, grandparents, husbands, wives, partners, significant others, children, brothers, sisters, and many other relatives and friends of the graduates. Now, graduates, please join me in applauding these loved ones who have made this day possible!

As the temperatures zoom downward at this time of year, people think about gathering with family and friends, often to celebrate one of the special holidays of this season. But in Iowa, this time of year also means another kind of gathering—at least it does every four years. Unless you haven’t seen a TV, read a newspaper, or been on the Internet in the last few months, it’s hard to miss the fact that it’s presidential caucus time in the Hawkeye state once again.

Some of you here caucused in 2008, some of you will caucus in 2012, and some of you have never—and maybe never will—caucus at all. But whether the caucus is part of your personal experience or not, I would like to send you off from the university today with one of the most important messages of the caucus—civil discourse.

I think the Iowa caucuses are a tremendous model of how we can and should behave in our public life. On caucus night, we literally gather with our neighbors in one of our common neighborhood landmarks—a school, a church, a library, sometimes even someone’s home. We tell each other whom we support for president and why. After that, we share our reasons and listen to each other, working to convince one another why our position and candidate are best for all. Sure, sometimes a caucus meeting can get noisy and maybe a little rowdy, and certainly some people will come away with hard feelings. But the discussion is usually pretty civil and respectful. You really don’t see any headlines in Iowa newspapers the next day about fistfights, thrown objects, or injured parties from caucus night. By the end of the evening, your neighborhood gathering has come to something of a consensus—not always entirely, but at least you finally agree to disagree, shake hands, wish each other well, and part ways.

I can’t think of a better model for conducting the business of one’s neighborhood, community, and even nation—sharing ideas in a rational way, trying to find some common ground, and walking away with mutual respect, even if we still disagree in the end. That’s a great way to do things whether you’re discussing a new strategic plan for the nonprofit organization for which you’re a board member, considering the possible expansion of the company you work for, creating the fundraising plan for the new playground at your children’s elementary school, or debating next year’s budget for the city for which you serve as council member.

In essence, that’s the model we strive to practice in academic discourse, too, and the model of learning that you have participated in for the last few years. In the university, we aim to look at multiple sides of an issue, debate their merits, and decide on which idea or approach is best. When we discuss these matters—whether in a classroom, at a seminar or conference, or in the pages of a journal—we do so while respecting our colleagues’ integrity and position.

That’s a model for approaching the problems—of a community, a company, a state, a country, or a world—that I hope we have taught you, and taught you well. That’s the way of our world within the university that we want you to bring out to the greater world. If you do, you will not only find personal success, but you will help make our society a better, more respectful place.

The Iowa caucuses are all about one of the most important and profound subjects imaginable—the direction and future of our nation and who will lead it. Yet the process is humble, congenial, rational, and community-focused. It’s conducted on the basis of compromise, courtesy, and coming together for the common good. At the same time, you still keep your own opinion and your ultimate right to choose according to your own conscience. And you move forward holding respect for your neighbor—or professional colleague—or fellow citizen—to do the same.

Today, you are leaving the halls of the university. You have engaged yourself with countless discussions, readings, and assignments about profound topics ranging from the origins of the universe, the fate of nations, the darkness and light of the human soul, the scourge of racism, and the exaltation of beauty. There no doubt have been some robust disagreements, heated arguments, and hard truths to face. But you are here today because you have met your academic challenges with grace and respect—for ideas and for others who do not always see things the way you do. If you do the same out in the wide world ahead of you, we will have taught you well—and in some ways, all you really need to know.

Congratulations once again to you all—on your path hard-traveled, on your achievements well-earned, and on your future brightly lit. And thank you, as graduates of this magnificent institution, for being—once and always—the greatest of Iowa Hawkeyes!