Commencement 2022 Speech

Tulane President Fitts Unified Commencement Speech 2022

Good morning!  

Faculty, staff, family, friends — And our honored Tulane University Class of 2022, Welcome to Commencement!

From where I stand, it’s a spectacular sight.

I see friends who were strangers just a few years ago,

I see professors whose wisdom sparked countless conversations,

And I see family members and friends who can’t believe this day is here—and wonder how it happened so fast.  

Class of 2022: Turn and wave hello. Take a moment to say thank you to all the people who were part of your journey here today.  

Thank you all for joining us here in New Orleans – the home of humidity, king cake, and po’boys.

It’s also the home of mosquitos the size of your hand, and festivals for every occasion.

But perhaps above all, it’s the home of music.
It’s where jazz was born, where R&B grew, where hip-hop created a new southern sound.

Music is everywhere in New Orleans.  

It leaks out the doors at Preservation Hall, and struts down the crowded sidewalk.  

It echoes across the Fairgrounds, the sacred grounds, the neutral grounds.

It calls to you as you go about your day, begging you to join in a second line.

Once you hear that New Orleans beat—once you move to its rhythm—you’ll never get it out of your head.

As the poet Langston Hughes wrote: “the rhythm of life is a jazz rhythm.”  

And maybe that’s why you were drawn to Tulane.

In the birthplace of jazz, you found your rhythm.   

With this quirky, individual, singular beat, we are all part of this rhythm called life — and life’s rhythm is very much a part of us.  

And because this is New Orleans, and because this is Tulane,

And because it’s not a Commencement celebration without the President giving you advice…

I want to share three iconic beats with you.

I want to explain why they each matter,

And ultimately, I want to show how they can teach you to find your rhythm in life.

Our first beat was born in New Orleans in 1953 to James Crawford.

He called the song “Jock-A-Mo,” but it didn’t reach commercial success until a second band from Louisiana recorded it eleven years later.

They called it “Iko Iko.”

They tapped the beat on a table-top, a Coke bottle, and an aluminum chair.
Dr. John, Cyndi Lauper, and Ringo Starr all made that song their own.  

If you haven’t heard it in the streets of New Orleans, you may have heard it in movies like Rain Man, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and The Hangover.

The point is, almost 70 years after its creation, with all the transformative changes in our culture and society, that song has endured.

Class of 2022, you too have endured.

Two years ago, you left campus in a hurry — not knowing if or when you’d return.  

But despite COVID-19 and Hurricane Ida, you were drawn back to this place — a place where you could make an impact and leave a legacy.  

The friends you made, the problems you solved, the things you created, the lessons you learned — by themselves, they may seem isolated.  

But they are the beginning of enduring connections and profound understanding.  

The things that you create today can and will endure, just like “Iko Iko.”

And they will evolve in ways you could never imagine. 

That leads me to the lesson of our second beat, from James Brown’s 1986 song “Funky Drummer.”

The song itself is more than seven minutes long…but the magic happens a little over five minutes in, when drummer Clyde Stubblefield played this.

Over the next 36 years, that beat would reappear in more than 1,700 songs.  

That’s almost one every week since it was released.  

The “Funky Drummer” beat would be sped up, slowed down, looped, and slashed into whatever story its creator was trying to tell.  

What does “The Originators” by Jay-Z have in common with Ed Sheeran’s song “Shirtsleeves?”

Answer: The Funky Drummer.

How about the theme song to The Powerpuff Girls and George Michael’s “Freedom”?  

Yes, The Funky Drummer.

Hit songs by Kenny G, Dr. Dre, Britney Spears, and Public Enemy?  

More. Funky. Drummer.  

You see, the original song was good, but the drum part was great.

And thousands of artists took that beat, built on it, and made it their own.

What do we take from this?

Being an original and creating original work is great.  

But you cannot let it blind you to the creativity around you.  

You can build on the ideas of others, and you can welcome others to do the same to yours.  That’s how progress occurs.  

Once again, you had a front-row seat to this lesson during the pandemic.  

Tests and vaccines changed how we confronted, treated and lived with this disease.  

But they didn’t appear out of thin air.  

They were the product of collaboration and experience.

People at Tulane and elsewhere worked across disciplines to learn lessons from past infections and to develop new methods of treatment.  

Some of you, like our future scientists and medical professionals, will build on these lessons when humanity faces the next dangerous virus.  

But it’s not just the future scientists and medical professionals here today who will follow this example – it’s for everyone.

The innovations that help us flourish will arise from all fields and disciplines,

Because the greatest human achievements come from these intersections of our experiences —

When people make a catchy beat their own, and when they share their rhythm with others.  

It doesn’t take away from your talent – it expands it beyond measure.  

It pumps up the volume, strains the amplifiers, until the sounds of creation echo off the stadium walls.

And that brings us to our third and final beat.  

Queen’s “We Will Rock You” is a timeless rock anthem, played in sold-out stadiums to frenzied crowds.

Its beat is driving, audacious, and unmistakable.  

There are also zero drums in that song.  

That’s right.  

One of the most famous rhythms in the world…and the beat is driven by humans, clapping and stomping.  

It’s simple. Straightforward. It begs the audience to clap and stomp along.  

Until the next thing you know, everyone is stomping and clapping,

And very, very confident that we will rock you.  

That’s the power of a beat. That’s the power of people. That’s the power in you.

Class of 2022, there is so much that could have beaten you down—COVID, hurricanes, and a world full of conflict and chaos.  

But you have not been diminished by your circumstances.  

You have persisted fearlessly, with creativity and confidence.

You’ve kept the beat.  

Now, keep the lessons:

Create something that resonates and lasts—that’s the lesson of “Iko Iko.”  

Collaborate freely and fearlessly — that’s the lesson of “The Funky Drummer.”  

And know in your heart that together, you have the power to make an impact and drive life forward.
That’s the lesson of “We Will Rock You.”

Now it’s up to you to use that power — to push the edges of a limitless future.

There has never been a class like yours.

You are committed to community.  

You are connected to each other in ways that outlast time and distance.  

You are smart problem-solvers in a time when people are seeking answers.

You are leaders and barrier-breakers, collaborators and beat-makers.  

I can’t wait to see what you do next.  

And world, get ready — because the Class of 2022 will rock you.  Let’s start now.  

Class of 2022, family, faculty and friends — join us!

Congratulations, Class of 2022!

I’m so proud of you.