Commencement 2017 Speech

Tulane President Fitts Commencement Speech 2017

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my distinct honor and privilege to present to you the class of 2017.

Graduates – usually at this moment I would tell you how proud we are, while trying not to sound like every graduation speech ever written.  This year, I want to try something different.  I asked my student interns to help me express how I feel in the words I’ve heard you all use.  Bear with me, because I don’t understand most of what I’m about to say.


Dear graduates: I remember the day you first “slid into tulane’s dm’s.” Your high SAT scores had me “shook.”

You seemed kind of “extra” -- but your “aesthetic” was hashtag “on fleek.” So we shrugged our shoulders, and “swiped right.”

From that point on – what we had was something truly “lit.”

At first I thought of you as “bae.” But it wasn’t long before you felt more like “fam.”  And today, all i can say is, I remember when you “started from the bottom -- and now, you’re here.”

How’d I do?

Now – back to the language you’ll actually have to use in your future jobs.

We are all very proud of you. This is a most surreal and special moment, and i know that each one of you has a whole village to thank. All of those people sitting behind you who loved you, and supported you, and helped get you here today.

Every mom, dad, sister, and annoying little brother. Every poppy and nana and memaw. Every person who stepped up to the plate like they were your family.  Every amazing camp counselor, high school chemistry teacher and basketball coach.

Graduates: let them know that you remember on whose shoulders you stand.

To the parents, and all those who filled that role:  I have stood in your shoes.  Not long ago I watched my own daughters graduate, absolutely bursting with pride.  I was thrilled and grateful at the people they had become, but I couldn’t believe that time flew by so fast.

I have one story that will tell you everything you need to know about the class of 2017 and how special they are.

A few months ago, a group of Tulanians entered a NASA contest to design a new spaceship.  NASA had a real-life problem they needed to solve – how to bring more cargo up into space.  They decided to hold a “big idea” contest to see if students might be able to help.

Most of the teams who had the chutzpah to enter came from the top aerospace programs in the country.

The Tulane team was a little more “bad news bears” than the New York Yankees.  Some of them were engineering students, but tulane doesn’t have a specific aerospace program. Our team also included students majoring in engineering, engineering physics, economics and even architecture.  They all got together and decided to give it their best.

They were shocked to make it to the final round.   The Tulane team watched as the other finalists each presented a clever variation on the traditional NASA concept: imagine a satellite, with rectangular flaps that can fold outward.

Then, it was Tulane’s turn.  Our students came up with something entirely unique.  Like pringles, they loaded a bunch of hexagons into a tube that could be projected into space.  Once it got there, the hexagons would unfold outward like a flower, exposing the solar panels to the sun for fuel.

You could hear a pin drop. The judges had never seen anything like it.

The students told me that -- at that moment -- they knew they were either going to come in first place or dead last.

You know what I’m going to say next, don’t you? They won!

It was an incredible upset. And two members of the team are graduating today – Otto Lyon and Ben Lewson.  You’ll find them, and the rest of the team, interning at NASA this summer.

Most people would argue that the Tulanians were underdogs because they didn’t have any aerospace experience.  But at Tulane, we know that it was actually an advantage. They were able to reimagine the problem by thinking about it from the perspectives of physics and economics and architecture. And in doing so, they completely threw out the rule book.

At Tulane, we don’t just encourage you to think outside of the box – we ask you to take the box apart, cut it up and use the pieces to build something the world has never seen.

We teach you to look at the world from a million different angles.  We push you to work across fields. To double-major in amazing combinations like neuroscience and dance. To get joint degrees in medicine and public health.

We also teach you that the way to create a team to solve the world’s toughest problems is to bring together as many different perspectives as possible.  Remember that! Surrounding yourself with people who think differently than you makes you better.  It makes you smarter.

There is a reason that Tulane graduates created the first satellite, co-founded Yahoo!, proved the dangers of smoking and invented the heart-lung machine.

Why is that?  Where do Tulanians get the kind of gumption it takes to enter a NASA contest?  Where do they get the creativity to win a NASA contest?

I have a theory.  It’s an epiphany I had a couple of months ago at the Muses parade at Mardi Gras.  Like you, I was desperately trying to get a shoe.  I actually held up a sign that said “throw me something if you love Tulane,” and I did pretty well.

Watching the parade go by, I saw an utter willingness to push boundaries -- a reimagining of what the world should look like.  And, to be frank, a very serious dedication to glitter.

New Orleans is unrelentingly creative. It is daring and quirky and magical.   It has all the qualities that fuel great innovation.

And in that moment at the Muses parade, I realized how that magic has infected Tulane, and all of you, too.

New Orleans will be a part of you, wherever you end up. You’ll remember the first time you walked down Magazine Street. You’ll remember your first beignet -- and your tenth -- and your twentieth. You’ll remember your first sunset at The Fly. The first time you peeled a crawfish. Your first second-line.

But not only that, you will remember the ways that your own service to this city has transformed you.

More than any lesson we taught you in a classroom, you have learned from the bright eagerness of the children you tutored, and from the determination of the disabled.

You will remember the resilience and strength of the neighborhood you helped after this year’s tornado.

In these experiences, you learned the ultimate leadership skills: how to listen more than talk, how to be humble, how to live out the Tulane motto, “not for one’s self, but for one’s own.”

Graduates, together you performed more than 300,000 hours of service.

Medical students helped the homeless and law students represented domestic violence victims.  Architecture students designed mobile farmer markets for underserved communities and social work students taught risk-management around the globe.

At most graduations, they would tell you to “go out and change the world!”

But here at Tulane, you’ve already changed the world. You brought your determination and your ideas out of the classroom and into our city and beyond -- and you made it a better place.

And you demonstrated resilience of your own.  This graduating class tragically lost several students.  They were your classmates and your friends.   In the face of that sorrow, you came together with compassion, strength and resolve.  You supported each other and bound together as a tightknit community.

We remember these students and their families in a special way, today.

Graduates, you have learned the lessons of new orleans: to meet the challenges of the world with determination, with creativity and with unmatched joy.

And you have learned the lessons of Tulane: to serve one another; to bring your minds and your hearts to solving the problems of the world; to look beyond your own perspectives and to seek out the solutions others miss.

I want you to go out there and show the world what tulane means; armed with a brilliant education, with spirit and pride and with as much glitter as you need!

You have been given the tools.  I can’t wait to see what you do with them.

Good luck, congratulations, and Roll Wave!