June 11, 2021
Well, we made it. You made it.
And here we all are together … finally rounding third and heading for home.
True, in this case, home plate’s in South Philadelphia instead of West Philly.
But even if it feels a little strange being here at the ballpark without the Phanatic running around on top of the dugout, it’s even greater to see thousands of proud Dragons taking over the place tonight. And I have it on good authority that the Phanatic’s a Drexel alum, too!
In welcoming you, the Classes of 2020 and 2021, and all of us here to celebrate you, let me start by suggesting you take a moment to recognize and thank the people who really helped make this day possible … Your parents and families — both those who are here and those who couldn’t be.
So, please, go ahead and unmute yourselves one more time and give them a hand.
Let’s also pause for a moment to recognize what a year of painful loss this has been for far too many families …
Here in our country and around the world, including for some members of our own Drexel community …
We mourn the lives cut short; honor the daily heroism of our healthcare and frontline workers; and dedicate ourselves to supporting the families and communities that have been so disproportionately hurt by the pandemic.
Now, as you and we finally look forward to better, healthier days, I think it’s also worth looking back — to remember that we’ve come through other challenging moments in our history, when not only our economy but the very idea of democracy was under real threat, both at home and abroad.
It was actually 85 years ago this summer, in the very depths of the Great Depression, at another stadium much closer to our campus in University City, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted his party’s 1936 nomination for re-election.
He gave a rollicking, high-spirited address, proudly embracing the moral responsibility of a sometimes-imperfect government to try bold, innovative solutions to improve the lives of millions of hard-pressed American families and give people confidence in our democracy.
Regardless of your views about the New Deal, it’s the poetic way FDR spoke to Americans about that difficult moment in history that really struck me when I think about what you — the Classes of 2020 and 2021 — have lived through and yet still accomplished:
“There is a mysterious cycle in human events,” Roosevelt said, “To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”
During our own year of loss and hardship, we know just how much has been expected of you, in this generation of Drexel students:
The sacrifices you’ve made to keep moving forward to this moment; the lost time together, living on campus, learning in class, studying in the library and working in the lab.
The co-op experiences that, like so much else this past year, suddenly became virtual.
You’ve lived through a time of crises: Not just a global pandemic, but an economic crash, a long-overdue national reckoning with systemic racism, the rise of ethnic and religious intolerance, an election that fulfilled — and an aftermath that challenged — our most basic democratic values.
And now, you too have your own rendezvous with destiny, because of what you’ve achieved through it all — with a relentless spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that’s always been at the core of a Drexel education.
In every school and course and co-op, you got the job done, under the most difficult of circumstances. Even when physically apart, you’ve come together as a community.
I mean, what better symbol of that than not just one but four champion basketball and lacrosse teams, women and men, who made it to the NCAAs this year -- and made us all proud?
None of us can predict the future, but one thing I’m sure of is that you’ll always look back at this tumultuous moment in history that you lived through — and you’ll have every reason to remember the incredible pride we all feel today at the perseverance, creativity and sheer determination that will forever define the Drexel classes of ‘20 and ‘21.
Fact is, you’re champions in so many ways.
Let me just close with a few words about our extraordinary Commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient, Prof. Elijah Anderson — a pioneering urban ethnographer who’s made it his scholarly calling to provide us all with a deeper understanding of the social and economic forces confronting communities like West Philadelphia.
I was lucky enough to have met him a few blocks up Walnut Street when I worked at Penn more than two decades ago.
And Eli gracefully agreed to share his uniquely expert insights with me and shape my understanding of how an urban university can truly serve its community.
And while West Philly may have lost him to New Haven, he’s continued to generate award-winning scholarship at Yale that could not be more urgently relevant to this moment.
He has, quite literally, followed in the steps of the great scholar W.E.B DuBois, who came here as a young man a century earlier to research and publish the first path-breaking study of Black Philadelphia — for which Prof. Anderson so appropriately provided a new and insightful introduction to the centennial edition.
In it, he quoted Dubois’s own autobiography, explaining his once-hopeful view that: “The world was thinking wrong about race, because it did not know. The ultimate evil was stupidity. The cure for it was knowledge based on scientific investigation.”
Today, after another century of struggle, we can no longer claim we did not know. Whether about the impact of racism or so many other challenges we face as a society.
We’ve learned, as DuBois himself did, that scientific investigation won’t on its own deliver the cure for the challenges we face.
We have to be willing to stand up for science. For evidence. For historical facts. Defend them. And act on them.
You can’t study, teach, research or work at a great university like ours and not believe in a deep way that the open-minded search for new knowledge is an essential starting point for a healthy society to function and solve its toughest problems.
It should be clear to all of us that we wouldn’t even be sitting here together today if not for the decades of biomedical breakthroughs made in academic research centers that ultimately yielded a new set of vaccines in astonishing record time.
We should be proud of that because we’re an institution dedicated to finding practical solutions through evidence-based research, basic and applied science.
And that’s not unique to higher education.
Businesses can’t succeed, artists can’t create, teachers can’t teach, and society can’t develop solutions without candidly seeing and responding to the world as it is — to actual facts on the ground, not alternative ones that get spread online.
Whether it’s public health or climate change, racial injustice or economic inequality, the civic conversation and honest debate at the heart of a democratic society fundamentally depend on a shared acceptance of some truths to be self-evident, regardless of our politics.
So if there’s one thing I hope you take away from your time here — from your professors, from your work experiences, and from one another — it’s the capacity and dedication to “living in truth” as the late Czech playwright Vaclav Havel put it.
What we do with that truth as a free society, is up to all of us. And now, whatever path or profession you choose in the years to come, it’s up to you.
Congratulations, Drexel Classes of 2020 and 2021.