Saturday, May 17, 2008

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 remarkable and 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, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives and friends of the graduates. Now, graduates, please join me in applauding these people who have made this day possible!

Garry Trudeau, cartoonist of the Doonesbury comic strip, once said, “Commencement speeches were invented largely in the belief that outgoing college students should never be released into the world until they have been properly sedated.” Well, I really have no plans to sedate you today. So let me get to it.

The first exciting thing I have to share with you this morning is a special greeting from Iowa Governor Chet Culver and Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge. I received a letter to you from them, and I would like to share their words:

“On behalf of the State of Iowa, we would like to congratulate the graduating class of 2008. The day that you have diligently been working towards over the past several years is finally here. It’s a significant milestone, and we know this is a very exciting day for you, your families, and your friends.

“As you graduate today, your journey is just beginning. Your futures are bright, and there are endless opportunities within your reach. As you explore these opportunities, we urge you to remember your communities and the wonderful people who have provided you with life lessons and experiences to inspire your successes thus far. They have instilled in you many values that we hope you will carry with you in the years to come.

“Soon enough, you’ll be on your next great adventure, and we have every reason to believe you will be as successful on your next journey as you have been on the one we celebrate today. It is our hope that each of you will choose to build your future in Iowa. Our state prides itself on the traditions of strong values, a spirit of community, and a high quality of life, and we know each of you can help our state be the best it can be.

“We wish the Class of 2008 the best of luck in all your future endeavors.

“Sincerely, Chet Culver, Governor, and Patty Judge, Lt. Governor”

Thank you, Governor Culver and Lt. Governor Judge for those wonderful wishes, And now I have the privilege of sharing with you some of my own thoughts on what comes next for you.

Aldo Leopold, whom many cite as the father of the modern environmental movement, was born and raised over 100 years ago in Burlington, Iowa. On the banks and bluffs of the Mississippi River, Leopold developed his understanding of the natural world. Even in the first years of the 20th century, he saw that natural resources were being depleted, polluted, and destroyed. So he left his hometown of Burlington to change the world—just as you are on the cusp of leaving our great University in this great state to make your mark.

Aldo Leopold did not simply do practical things, no matter how wonderful they may have been. Leopold applied his great imagination and virtually invented both wildlife management and ecological restoration. But even more than that, he expanded our fundamental understanding of the human relationship with the natural world. In his most famous book, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold presented his idea of “the land ethic,” which revolutionized our environmental understanding. He said, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. . . . The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”

I am talking with you this morning about environmentalism for two reasons—practical and philosophical. First, the practical.

You may have heard or read about the UI’s recently announced “sustainable university initiative.” We face a world that must become more environmentally responsible and sustainable. We in higher education are the source of discovery and new knowledge in the world that must lead the way. So sustainability must and will become a central priority of all aspects of our university—our operations, our academic mission, and our responsibilities to the greater society.

But you are leaving us today. So this news probably isn’t high on your priority list. But I share it with you because the issue of sustainability is one that applies to each and every one of us. Although you won’t be joining a University of Iowa committee on sustainability, I do want you to join us as part of the human community in creating an environmentally sound world. We all need to do our parts to make our world a healthy, vibrant, sustainable place. No matter what your new career path is, no matter what community you will serve, please make environmental sustainability part and parcel of your work and your social sensibilities.

Now, that’s the practical part. What’s even more pertinent today is the philosophical part.

As I suggested with Aldo Leopold, many of our most famous environmentalists—whom we think of as eminently practical people—were also among our greatest thinkers and dreamers. They were so successful in changing our actions because they reached into their minds and souls to tap into wonder.

Rachel Carson is another great example. You may remember her as the marine biologist who raised our consciousness about the harmful effects of DDT and other pesticides, leading to their ban. But Rachel Carson was also a magnificent thinker who often said things like this: “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against . . . the alienation from our sources of strength.”

As I think back upon my own school days and my own college studies, I was drawn to biology. But I was drawn to biology not because of the calculus of any specific career ambitions. I was drawn to it because it gave me a glimpse into a wondrous universe, a world so remarkable that it sparked my passion for discovery.

Which brings me back around to the idea of sustainability. Although we use that term commonly these days, many environmentalists are actually dissatisfied with it. We do want our natural ecosystems and our society to continue on indefinitely in a healthy way. But many of us want more than that. “Sustainable” to some implies a status quo, or an unchanging level. Many want a human relationship with the natural world that does more than chug along at an acceptable rate. So that’s why Aldo Leopold was interested in more than adequate waterfowl populations, and Rachel Carson was interested in more than banning pesticides. They were interested in bringing into the world the highest sense of ethics and the most glorious sense of wonder.

So my message to you about “sustainability” today is not just about recycling, energy conservation, and walking lightly on the earth. Those are important. But my message to you is also about expanding your vision of your work in the world.

You are embarking today on paths to be teachers, artists, scientists, public servants, businesspeople, scholars, and many more. No matter what your path, I don’t want you to be satisfied with merely doing good, practical work. I don’t want you to be satisfied with merely sustaining an acceptable career and an acceptable level of participation in your community. I want you to go beyond “sustainability” to expansiveness, to hold onto those glimpses of wonder that got you to college in the first place, to enlarge your imagination and passion even more than you did here at Iowa so that you can change the world.

The University of Iowa has existed for over 160 years. When our doors first opened, we had a handful of teachers and 124 students, almost all of them from the local community. Since then, we have expanded nearly 250 times in size. We have explored the far reaches of space, helped map the microscopic world of the human genome, written some of the world’s great literature, and educated thousands and thousands of talented students just like you, from all over the globe. Even in the earliest years of the University, I suspect our ancestors dreamed of the wonders and possibilities for this great institution.

Today, take with you the example of Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and The University of Iowa itself. Inspire yourself to achieve not just the acceptable things, not even just the sustainable things, but the great things bounded only by your sense of wonder, your passion, and your talent. I know you can do it. I urge you do it. I can’t wait to see you do it.

So 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!