Karen R. Lawrence: President of the College

Karen LawrenceOn behalf of the Trustees, faculty and staff of Sarah Lawrence College, I am delighted to welcome all of you to the commencement of the class of 2009. I also extend a special welcome to the many dignitaries in attendance today, including elected officials State Senator Andrea Stewart Cousins, State Assemblyman Mike Spano, County Legislator Ken Jenkins, Yonkers City Council President Chuck Lesnick, and Council Members John Murtagh and Sandy Annabi, Bronxville Mayor Mary Marvin, And Eastchester Town Council Member Vicki Ford, who is also an SLC alumna & trustee. The Sarah Lawrence community is honored by your presence.

As we celebrate our graduates today, we also honor those who made it possible for them to be here—their families, whose love and commitment supported them, including those who are no longer here to mark these milestones. Ben Jonson, the seventeenth-century poet and playwright, called his child his “best piece of poetry.” I want to thank the parents in the audience for your authorship and to assure you that over your son’s or daughter’s career at Sarah Lawrence, the faculty, staff, and administration have done everything in our power to ensure the creative development of these precious products of your imagination and love. Thank you for lending us your sons and daughters for these past few years. Members of the Class of 2009, please stand and recognize the family members and friends who have contributed so much to this moment.

It is clear from the class’s rousing salute to their teachers and dons during the procession that they deeply recognize these special guardians of creativity and knowledge on our campus. The relationship between the student and faculty member is the heart and soul of the Sarah Lawrence experience. It is true that at any institution, the quality of the faculty in large part determines the quality of the education. But the artisanal nature of both teaching and learning at Sarah Lawrence makes the student-faculty relationship so central and uniquely formative. Handmade and crafted with care and respect by teacher and student together, the singular education this College offers depends on an extraordinary commitment from our excellent faculty. It depends on teaching and learning that discourage passive consumption and invite the active testing of theories and assumptions.

Since the last time that we celebrated a Sarah Lawrence graduation under this tent—many of the world’s theories and assumptions have been challenged in practice. The deep and unanticipated recession has eroded the economic security of our families and our institutions. The graduates of 2009 face a labor market that a year ago would have seemed unthinkable. At Sarah Lawrence, as at other colleges and universities all over the country, we have been forced to take painful measures that have affected the entire campus community. The delivery of our unique educational model, economically challenging at the best of times, is being tested—even stress-tested—in this economic climate. Yet at this moment, there is nothing more important than reaffirming the mission and signature of Sarah Lawrence College: to nurture intellectual curiosity, courage, and even risk-taking and to foster a healthy skepticism of received ideas. A Sarah Lawrence education fosters a respect for language that expresses, rather than obfuscates, the moral and intellectual complexities of our times. The “steeping” of ideas nurtured during an education at Sarah Lawrence continues to serve as an antidote to the reckless ideology of short-term gain and simplistic Manichaeanism that has contributed so much to the difficulties we now face. These values are needed in the world now more than ever. Collectively, all of us here today must serve as custodians of this precious heritage.

Yet if the year 2009 has brought us challenges most of us in this audience have not previously witnessed, it has also brought an inspiration first embraced by the generation we celebrate today. The class of 2009 helped to inaugurate the breaking of barriers and a sea-change in American politics starting with the re-enfranchisement of young people around the world. The big tent erected on election night in the very spot where we sit today was both literal and symbolic. Paradoxically, at a societal moment that might invite paralysis, college campuses, along with much of the rest of American society, are restored to an activism born less of protest than of service. Despite the very real economic difficulties that greet our graduates today as you enter the next phase of your lives, there is a sense that, to quote Emily Dickinson, you “dwell in Possibility.” As you leave Sarah Lawrence, it is important that you do what you can to expand that dwelling to include others. This, too, is consistent with the deepest values of the College—our emphasis on the individual has always included a commitment to extending the franchise. Sarah Lawrence College has always been an institution dedicated to the development of an individual who can make a difference in the lives of others.

The challenges of 2009 also remind us that no one can forecast the new questions or answers, diseases or cures, problems or solutions that will arise in your lifetime. A few months ago, the College hosted a lecture by Michael Brown, a planetary astronomer at Cal Tech, entitled “Why I killed Pluto and why it had it coming.” Professor Brown was responsible for discovering the existence of a large planetary body beyond Pluto that seriously, in fact fatally, undermined the designation of Pluto as a planet. Who would have thought a planet could be so summarily deposed?

Between the graduations of many of your parents and your graduation today, the world has changed exponentially. Leading the way is the stunning revolution in information technology that both accelerates and connects our lives. With this rate of change, an education today cannot “program” you for the future. But it can help you adapt, anticipate, and in some cases create change. In the intimate forums at Sarah Lawrence both within and outside the classroom, we have tried to help you prepare for the unexpected—to teach you how to think, not what to think and to instill in you the temperament to pursue learning with passion and pleasure for the rest of your lives.

And so, I encourage you to mobilize your passion for learning in the service of multiple purposes:

  • To create a rich inner life for yourself, so that adventure can come from within as well as from without
  • To open yourselves to others, to be unafraid to take emotional as well as intellectual risks
  • To “make new things in empty spaces,” a description I heard from a Sarah Lawrence alumna
  • To stand up for your values even when going with prevailing wisdom would be much easier
  • To make a difference in the lives of others—through your words, your deeds, your creations, your teaching.

We wish you the best as you continue the serious creative work in the world that you have begun at Sarah Lawrence College.