President Michael A. Fitts Tulane University May 16, 2015
Members of the class of 2015, it is my great pleasure to welcome you today and honor you on the day of your graduation. I offer you my heartfelt congratulations. You make me so very proud. And to the friends and family who supported you along the way, you also deserve my congratulations and my thanks. Your support - both emotional and otherwise - helped make all of this possible.
Graduating is a hard won victory. Especially from a school as rigorous as Tulane. For most of you, it hasn’t been easy to get here. It’s taken a lot of hard work and many sleepless nights. No doubt you had to push aside the many enticements of New Orleans to maintain your laser like focus. I was impressed to hear some of you went to Jazzfest - obviously immersed in field research for musicology class. Great work.
This has been a challenging time for me as well since this is my first Tulane graduation. I’ve presided over commencements before, but those were different. For one thing, there were no jazz bands or beads. There is nothing like a Tulane graduation. And there are more of you. We have 2,800 graduates today, from 10 different schools, ranging in age from 20 all the way to a youthful 70.
I’m also feeling quite a bit of pressure with such an amazing headliner, Maya Rudolph, speaking later. CNN named her one of the biggest commencement speakers in the country this year.
So I’ve got a different type of problem. As the warm-up, I’ve got a really tough act to precede.
What can I possibly say that is useful and meaningful? Graduation is one of life's great inflection points, where gratuitous advice is frequently given and -- if truth be told-- frequently ignored. So I set out to study some of the best past commencement speeches, looking for inspiration.
I could encourage you to trust your heart and your gut as Ellen DeGeneres did. “Follow your passion, stay true to yourself,” she told Tulane graduates in 2009.
This is great advice, I thought. Until I found Steven Colbert’s Northwestern address.
“You have been told to follow your dreams,” he explained to the class of 2011. “But - what if it’s a stupid dream? If we’d all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses.”
Obviously, it is impossible to follow all of the advice you hear.
As I did further research, I began to relate deeply to the words of Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune, when she wrote that the only solid advice she could give graduates was to always wear sunscreen.
“The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proven by scientists,” she wrote, “whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.”
So forgive me. I did look to my own meandering experience for guidance. As you venture onward from here, my advice – here it comes – advice – is to keep listening.
It’s ironic, I know. Here I am in the middle of giving a speech, and I’m telling you to listen. Pretty subtle of me.
You may think that you already know the importance of listening. After all, you wouldn’t be here today if you hadn’t fine tuned the art by mastering the lectures of Tulane’s remarkable faculty.
But the importance of listening doesn’t end once you leave the classroom. Indeed, it is one of the most powerful tools you will have as you build your lives after Tulane.
There are three fundamental reasons. First, we live in an era of information overload. Listening skills help you cut through the clutter to find meaning. Second, we live in a society of increasing polarization. Listening makes you a bridge-builder, and in turn can make you a more effective leader. And third, we navigate the world through our personal interactions. Listening has always been at the core of strong relationships.
Let me explain. Obviously, we are all living in an amazing moment in history. The explosion in platforms spreading new information and ideas has made this the best time for taking in knowledge. But our fast-paced, technology-saturated world can overwhelm us. We may be able to hear more, but we are listening less.
A Tulane-educated psychiatrist wrote about a CEO who, despite the rise of digital communication, felt his hurried team was becoming less connected and less effective at sharing information. He turned the company around with a simple solution: Having his people meet face-to-face at a weekly pizza lunch. There, they could take a breath. And truly listen to each other.
Today’s information overload also makes it easier to access only the information we agree with. We filter out views unlike our own.
Count on the political arena to provide a telling example. Members of the Democratic and Republican parties have always disagreed on a number of issues. But now they disdain one another. Recent studies at Stanford have shown that almost half of the members of each party now view members of the other as less intelligent and more selfish than themselves. And up to half even say they don’t want their children marrying members of the other party. So we’re struggling to get engaged in more ways than one.
That is one reason you so often find great leaders – those who can transcend divisions to achieve common goals - described as great listeners.
Abraham Lincoln had this kind of emotional intelligence, which he extended to those who did not share his point of view. He stocked his cabinet with opposing views, people who would question him and argue.
When Lincoln considered ending slavery, he first brought the idea to his cabinet to ask what they thought. Then he listened to them debate, without offering his own opinion. After months, Lincoln convened his cabinet and gave them the text of the emancipation proclamation. He told them he no longer needed their opinions, but he would listen to their ideas on how to implement the proclamation.
His cabinet members, though divided on politics, felt that they’d been heard. He won their support in his greatest endeavor, even their admiration.
So listening might sound like a passive activity, but in fact it’s one of the most powerful means of participation. Psychologists have even found that the great listeners are more effective leaders than great talkers.
My last, and most personal, observation is the importance of listening to members of your family and others closest to you. They’re the ones who often give you the most candid insights on the world. Pay special attention to listening across generations. Perhaps my most formative conversations were with my own mother when I was growing up - and my two daughters years later - on many of the same topics.
My mother was born in the early part of the 20th century and initially pursued a career as an economist at the Federal Reserve. However, as was expected of women in her generation, she ultimately left that path to raise a family. In retrospect, I realize she struggled with this decision, given her 1960s commitment to social change. I recall dinner table discussions with her about her aspirations, which, as a young male, I didn’t fully understand.
Years later, these same themes emerged in conversations with my own daughters.
They are building careers in a completely different world, but still face a work environment that is not entirely supportive of personal aspirations. I now see how listening to generations of women in my family has taught me to be a more thoughtful manager. When these conversations repeat at millions of dinner tables, society advances.
I can say with great confidence that Tulane has sharpened your ability to listen. As students here, you have lived in a resilient and culturally vibrant city, pressing you close to people with different backgrounds, experiences, social classes, and races.
As graduates of Tulane – the university with the greatest commitment to service - you are tuned in to recognizing the needs of others. This graduating class performed well over half a million public service hours. Our graduates today listened to the children of New Orleans, discovering what would inspire them to thrive. They listened to non-profit groups to understand their greatest needs. They listened to each other to organize a thousand classmates in service projects.
It fills me with optimism to know you are, as a result of your education and this social involvement, the world’s next great leaders.
So, do not to lose your curiosity, your empathy, and most of all, your power to listen.
And, if you chalk up my advice as bluster and hyperbole, I do have a backup plan in mind.
Members of the class of 2015: May good fortune and happiness be yours.
And remember: you can never go wrong with sunscreen.