Commencement 2019 Speech

Tulane President Fitts Commencement Speech 2019

Welcome! Faculty, staff, friends, family, alumni, and students.

It is my honor to present to you the Tulane University Class of 2019.

So wouldn’t it be funny if that was my whole speech?     

Thank you and good night!

It would be the most talked-about Commencement in history! I could just go back to my chair there. Tomorrow, the headline… “Fitts… sits!”

So it’s great to be here with all of you. It’s quite a view from the stage as well.

I see everybody dressed in the same cap. Everybody dressed in the same gown.

And I’m here to tell you how different each person is.

Well, I have a way to do that – bear with me.

It starts with this observation: It’s impossible to spend four years to graduate – or six, or seven, and that’s fine – to graduate with the Tulane experience and not be transformed in a wonderful way.

Think about where we are – New Orleans!

The history, the music, the food – the culture. It isn’t just the city of New Orleans, it’s the planet of New Orleans….

That’s a song. Have you ever heard it? It’s a song by Dire Straits your parents probably listened to.

I won’t use my singing voice, but here it is – and I quote:   
“I'm tryin' to place a tune
under a Louisiana moonbeam
on the planet of New Or-leens”

That really captures it, don’t you think? There’s no more poetic, inspiring place to be.

I’ve been the President of Tulane for five years. You are my fifth graduating class, and I have to tell you: this event is the high point for me every year.

It truly is the planet of New Orleans for so many reasons. Think of those historic restaurants – maybe places some of you are headed to after this ceremony.

Antoine’s, which is only six years younger than Tulane itself.

Galatoire’s, where sometimes the wait is six years.

Al fresco in the courtyard at Commander’s Palace.

Or the magnificent menu… at Bruff.

You do know you’re the last class to eat at Bruff, right? Another historic achievement for the graduates of 2019.

New Orleans and Tulane – that’s where you are. But think about where you came from: urban, rural, suburbs, other nations, speaking other languages.

We’re not just diverse in race and gender. We’re diverse in experience… and diverse in ideas.

We have that kind of student body because we attract a particular kind of person.

You chose to be part of an academic community which is quirky and passionate, and which, as Walt Whitman said, contains multitudes.

Just like you.

But too often, that’s where the discussion ends.

What is rarely discussed is what this means when you take this way of living out into the world.

This is a university originally founded by physicians combating epidemics in the 19th century.

We combine service, research, and academic exploration across 1700 classes, 70 majors, and 10 different schools.

The Tulane academic experience is one-of-a-kind.

It has created in each of you a way of looking at the world that makes connections across disciplines, cultures, and experiences.

As individuals, that gives you power. But you have another kind of power as well.

Let me demonstrate.
The Tulane Commencement is well known as a musical event.

I’m not much of a musician, so I’m going to ask for a little help from Dr. Michael White and his band.

You, with your experiences and education – you, by yourself, are a note … and you can create a melody.

By yourself, you’re powerful.

But when you attach your note – your uniqueness – to the uniqueness of others … just hear what you can create. From individual sounds, something bigger emerges –

Something beautiful that would be impossible alone.

You may hear that and think, “That’s fine, but doesn’t that mean my specialness gets swallowed up into something else?”

No way.

Because one change from one person can transform everything.

If even one note bends – a little bit – the whole thing becomes something else.

And someone else makes a change 

And then others join in  … to make something that no one can create alone.

What makes you unique will always come through, because you are the product of every experience, every challenge,
Every triumph, every love,
Every heartbreak, every victory,
Every defeat, every friendship,
Every experience, every intense study session, and every idle hour.

Your time at Tulane weaved your education and life experiences together to make you a soul like no other.

So you can play your own melody, but you’re uniquely prepared to be part of whatever song you choose.

Here you stand today, moments from graduating from a university that has stood in this fabled city since 1834.

When New Orleans itself was barely a hundred years old and the entire population of the city was fewer than the number of people in the Superdome this very minute.

What are you going to remember?

I hope you’ll remember not just facts, but that here at Tulane you learned how to learn

How to think, how to grow, how to innovate.

As you join with others, and connect cultures and disciplines in new ways,

As you take on the perpetual challenges of poverty, human rights, systemic diseases, and coastal erosion, 

As you create solutions,

I hope you’ll remember this:

The notes you play alone have value, but it’s the chords you join that create that better song,

That create that better day  

For the world you are inheriting.

And, in the spirit of this day and this city, I hope that for every low note, every serious moment – that you match it with a high note, a moment of joy.

I hope you remember not only your studies, but also Crawfest and the Bead Tree, may it rest in peace

Tailgating on the quad, spring days at The Fly, Mardi Gras – Everything.

You can bring all that to the world – And become part of a magnificent chord…

A chord that recalls where you came from, in every beautiful way…. Dr. White?
(Musicians play a few bars)

You know, I think you’re onto something. Could you play it one more time? But, this time – let’s see how one small tweak can change everything:

Now that sounds familiar.
(Musicians play “When The Saints Go Marching In”)

Class of 2019, play your best song, and change the world. I am so proud of you. Congratulations.