Commencement 2023 Speech

Tulane President Fitts Unified Commencement Speech 2023

Good evening!  

Faculty, staff, family, friends, alumni —

And our honored Tulane University Class of 2023 —

It’s here! You made it!

You’ve studied for hours, you’ve found new friends, you’ve made Tulane and New Orleans your home,

And you’ve figured out how to pronounce Tchoupitoulas…

And it’s all led up to this. Tonight, you’ll walk out of Yulman Stadium as a graduate of Tulane University.  

You won’t be walking alone. You’ll be surrounded by family members and loved ones who’ve dreamed of this day and watched you make it happen.  

Please take a moment to give them a wave and a whole-hearted “thank you.”  

You’ll also walk out with all of your friends and classmates.

From so many different places, you came together to share incredible experiences in this one-of-a-kind Tulane community.  

Your paths will diverge once you walk through those gates,

But you’ll carry those experiences with you wherever you go.

As you’ve already shown, the world has a way of bringing Tulanians back together again.

After all, this is a class that came back together during a global pandemic — when others said it couldn’t be done.

This is a class that came back together after being displaced by Hurricane Ida.  

This is a class that came back together — only to defy expectations, defeat the odds, and question the status quo.

And that’s before we won the Cotton Bowl.

Last year, the class of 2022 — no strangers to adversity themselves — found their sonic soulmate in Queen’s classic stadium anthem “We Will Rock You.”

Class of 2023, I think there’s another Queen song that’s a real fit for you.

Take it away, Freddie!

That’s more like it!

And even if you wouldn’t consider yourselves champions of the world just yet, being champions of the Cotton Bowl is another reason to be proud —

Proud of your school, proud of your team, and proud that your class —

The Class of 2023 — is the class of champions.

That’s just another way you and your class broke with convention.

When you first told people you were going to Tulane, they probably thought, “Wow, you must be really smart and accomplished.”

They probably did not think “Tulane — now there’s a classic football school.”

But class of 2023, you represent how quickly things can change.

When your classes first went virtual in a matter of days…

When the deep wounds of racism and injustice were once again exacerbated on a global stage…

When you went from sheltering from a storm to evacuating from a hurricane…

When your team made one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history…

No matter how quickly things changed, you adapted. You endured. You saw it through.

And you overcame it together, as a team.

That’s the stuff of champions.

And I fully expect each of you in the class of 2023 to take these lessons of resilience and use them.

But how? It’s a big, complicated world with thorny, complex problems.

How do you expect to change things when you’re just one person?

Well, I don’t have any easy answers. And I don’t have a roadmap, because everyone’s path looks a little different —

And really, who uses paper maps anymore?

But I do have a playbook.

A playbook gives you options and a strategy.

So, this evening, in the spirit of defying expectations and inspired by the success of Tulane football coach Willie Fritz,

I want to share my playbook with you.

Let’s call it “Coach Fitts’ Playbook.”

Now, this playbook is pretty short.

After all, we’re not your classic football school, and I never said I was a brilliant football strategist —

Coach Fitts is a poor substitute for Coach Fritz.

In fact, my playbook is a list of penalties to avoid.

Our first penalty to avoid…

Delay of game!

If this were an ordinary commencement speech, I’d tell you: “You have your entire life ahead of you.”

But this is clearly not an ordinary commencement speech.

A football game is sixty minutes long, excluding any overtime.

But life? That’s harder to quantify. And overtime? That’s not on the clock.

The truth is, you don’t know how much time you have to make a difference on this planet.

You don’t know how technology will change your career field —

I mean, had anybody heard of ChatGPT just six months ago?

You don’t know what will happen from minute to minute, day to day, year to year.

You learned that here, during your time at Tulane.

This is not an excuse to never make plans, but it is a reminder the clock is ticking.

So don’t hesitate. Things don’t have to be perfectly arranged and aligned before you begin them.

It’s okay to start and fail, then try again.

You can change direction — you just can’t quit.

You’ve proven over and over again that you can adapt, and you can turn things around.

But you cannot watch the clock run down.

Go for it on fourth down — and above all, don’t delay the game.

It happens faster than you think.

The second penalty to avoid in the Fitts playbook…

Intentional grounding!

In this case, grounding doesn’t apply to a ball — it applies to you.

Often, when we start a new job or move to a new city and try to figure out how and where we fit in…there’s a tendency to make ourselves small.

To downplay our interests, our quirks, and our vulnerabilities.

To play it safe. To get by, instead of thriving.

To be unobjectionable, to the point of being indistinguishable.

Class of 2023: I have no doubt you will stand out.

Tulanians are unique. You’re quirky. And you’re ready to continue flourishing in your lives and careers.

But to be clear, this does not mean going into your first job unwilling to listen and unwilling to learn.

Humility and graciousness are seldom the wrong first impression.

But it does mean being brave enough to share your unique perspective and your unique talents with the world.

There’s no substitute for you —

No one will ever see, think, or experience the world exactly like you do.

So don’t diminish the gift. Share it.

Don’t undermine your accomplishments, your dreams, or your plans.


There will always be obstacles that challenge you —

People who say you can’t, places that make you feel like an outsider, and things beyond your control.

But you should never be an obstacle to yourself.

Have faith in your abilities and everything you can offer.

Have faith in what you accomplished and overcame in your time at Tulane.

And when you’re ready to go, don’t hold yourself back.

The last page in the Fitts playbook — I told you it was short! — is one final penalty to avoid…

Unsportsmanlike conduct!

Today, there are many people whose approach seems to be based on being unkind.

Malice and spite have infected politics, entertainment, and public discourse.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the right way to live your life.

In fact, I would argue that it makes your world smaller —

Confined to people you never disagree with.

That’s not how you break down barriers or establish commonality.

It’s not how you think for yourself, or offer grace and compassion.

It’s certainly not how you succeeded at Tulane — and it’s certainly not what makes our community unique and special.

Maybe kindness seems like a Hail Mary play — a thing you do when there are no other options.

But what if kindness was the line of scrimmage; the place where every play starts?

Or better yet — what if it was the goal?

Kindness is connection — which is why it’s elemental to success.

Your relationships — which you built, living and learning side-by-side —

Are what transform communities, drive change, and create networks.

You take these connections with you wherever you go — and kindness adds to them along the way.

So, keep in touch with your classmates, help those connections thrive.

Cultivate kindness wherever you go.

Share it with everyone.

I know you will be the first to throw the penalty flag at any unkind, unsportsmanlike conduct you encounter in your remarkable future.

And that’s it. That’s the playbook:

No delay of game, no intentional grounding, no unsportsmanlike conduct.

The rest is up to you. You call the plays, you call the fouls, you build yourself a team.

You practice, knowing you will sometimes fail.

You compete, knowing you will sometimes lose.

But never lose sight of the possibility of victory beyond the odds.

And never lose sight of what you encountered, what you learned, and what you accomplished at Tulane University.

You never give up. And that’s how you win.

That’s how you become a champion.

Class of 2023, you are a class of champions.

Congratulations. We are so proud of you.

Riptide — that’s roughing the president!