My Weekend At Williams

(Paul Guillotte/
As you can see from the commencement speech we posted earlier, I was given the honor of addressing the brilliant and diverse Williams class of 2007 yesterday. I thought I'd take a moment to tell you a little bit about the experience — and how hopeful it made me about young people and about our country's future. (Although talk about feeling old — I was speaking to people who were born after I graduated from college.)

First of all, I had an incredible time. Williams is a very special place — a liberal arts college devoted to great athletics as well as great academics, and a vibrant intellectual community. Its president, Morton Schapiro, was an amazing host. In addition to being an accomplished scholar, particularly about higher education issues, Morton is a dynamic leader — and a fun and funny guy. It was a privilege to get to know him, his wonderful wife, Mimi, and their daughter Alissa.

Up on the stage during the graduation ceremony were several other honorary degree recipients — all of whom are just incredibly distinguished in their fields:

  • The Sri Lankan Supreme Court Justice Shiranee Tilakawardane is a pioneering leader and the first woman in so many important legal jobs in her country, especially in the field of gender education and children's rights.
  • Douglas Bennet is the retiring president of Wesleyan University; he served as a diplomat in the Clinton administration and is also known for a successful decade leading National Public Radio.
  • Robert Engle, whose models have become indispensable tools for analysts of financial markets, was awarded the 2003 Noble Prize in economics.
  • Neil de Grasse Tyson is a brilliant astrophysicist and writer who is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History.
  • Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson has been called "the new Darwin" for his path-breaking new theories of evolution and ecology — and for his work decoding the chemical communication of ants!

    If you want to feel like you haven't done anything worthwhile in your life, I'd encourage you to Google their biographies. It was, needless to say, an honor to be in their company.

    And Williams chose to recognize not just the bold-faced names, but also some quieter heroes who are making an equally important difference in the world: American secondary school teachers. Williams' Olmstead prizes go to four teachers who had an impact on the lives of Williams students. The winners get $3,000 for themselves and $2,500 for their schools.

    The New York Times writer Tom Friedman, one of my predecessors as a Williams commencement speaker, wrote about these prizes in one of his columns. He very correctly pointed out that "the best way to ensure that we have teachers who inspire their students is if we recognize and reward those who clearly have done so." This year's honorees include Worcester, Mass., drama teacher Diana Canterbury; White River Junction, Vt., social studies teacher Roger Maynard, Jr.; Danville, Calif., science teacher Kathryn Chang; and Vestal, N.Y., science teacher Tracy Suggs. All of these teachers found innovative, creative ways to make their students more passionate about these subjects —and all of them are examples of dedication and service.

    Finally, there were the Williams students. This was the most international and truly diverse group of young people I've ever encountered — not to mention among the most accomplished. One part of my speech that really seemed to strike a chord, though, was when I emphasized the importance of hard work and humility. Too many young people today have been perceived (sometimes unfairly) as spoiled and entitled. To the extent that that's true, much of the blame goes to my generation — to the kids' parents, not only to the students.

    These students will have more chances than ever to defy those stereotypes — because the news from the job front is good. Employers will hire 19.2 percent more new college graduates this year than a year ago, and they'll pay them four to 10 percent more. The rapid retirement of Baby Boomers has opened doors for the class of 2007.

    As I said in my speech, I can't wait to find out what this amazing generation of young people will do with their lives — and the ways that they will continue to serve their communities and our country. I just hope that all of them find happiness as well as achievement, and recognize that "success" — the brass ring that everybody is trying to grab — is so much broader than money and fame. It's about knowing yourself, pursuing your passions and loving what you do. It's also about giving back to those that didn't have the same opportunities you did — including the chance to attend a remarkable school like Williams.