Douglas J. Bennet Delivers Final Commencement Address as Wesleyan
The following remarks were made by by
Wesleyan University President Douglas J. Bennet during the 175th
commencement ceremony May 27, 2007.
Welcome to the 731 members of the Class of 2007.
Slava! Slava! Slava!
And if you don’t know what that mean’s you’ll have to ask one of the
students. They obviously knew of my love of Russian history.
Welcome parents, family members, friends, and well-wishers.
Welcome to our distinguished honorees.
Welcome Wesleyan trustees, faculty and staff.
Welcome alumni and your families, including
Welcome to Wesleyan’s 175th Commencement.
This is the last time as president I will have the honor to address the
Wesleyan community. The class of 2007 and Midge and I will depart together,
all of us sharing enduring Wesleyan educational values. I want to talk about
those values and particularly the interrelationship of individual liberal
education and concern for the common interest. Having received a dose of
both at Wesleyan, I have found the combination incredibly enabling.
Willbur Fisk, Wesleyan’s first president, spoke at the opening of Wesleyan
University on September 21, 1831. Education has two objectives, he said,
“the good of the individual and the good of the world.” This dictum has been
much quoted at Wesleyan commencements ever since, but there is more to this
passage, so that education for the public good becomes the superior goal and
essential to an individual’s success in life. President Fisk went on to say,
”As people are too disposed to consider their own separate interests and are
prompted by selfishness to act in exclusive reference to that interest, the
only safe course is to provide for the education of youth in direct
reference to the wants of the world…. For, although a fatal error may result
from consulting only what appears to be the interest of the individual, yet
he or she cannot be educated wrong, for any of the purposes of life, who is
judiciously educated in reference to the public good.“
In reality, education, then as now, is intensely individual most of the
time. The process of finding out, learning, testing, articulating is
facilitated by good teachers and mentors, but it is eventually sustained by
inquiring individuals. You will find that these individual intellectual
capabilities are not lost through life but refreshed and sharpened.
The individual side of education obviously contributes to the public good
side of the equation. There are a lot of courses you have taken that will
directly reinforce your civic capabilities. But beyond the classroom and the
study carrel, there is something in this place that produces strong civic
At this point I find myself wanting—perhaps for posterity, when some future
president tries to figure out what we were thinking at the turn of the 21st
century—a Bennet-era statement of what a Wesleyan education is supposed to
achieve. Here are some lines from a plan the faculty and I worked out just
after I became president: It was the best we could do to envision the world
a Wesleyan education would address:
"Wesleyan graduates will live in a world of plurality and change. They will
change jobs, communities, countries. They will work on a turbulent frontier
of new information and technological advances. They will have to make
ethical and moral judgments based on the reliability of their own
gyroscopes, more than on received wisdom. They will need confidence to
choose their own directions. They will need the ability to capture the
energy of change rather than being captured by it. They must be able to
prosper in a global economy. Their success as individuals, citizens, and
leaders will require both enduring skills and a platform of knowledge and
values against which to assess an explosion of new information and
"The task of liberal education, as we see it, today, is to instill capacity
for critical and creative thinking that can address unfamiliar and changing
circumstances, to engender a moral sensibility that can weigh consequences
beyond self, and to establish an enduring love of learning for its own sake.
We intend that Wesleyan’s graduates have a strong sense of public purpose
and responsibility for the global future. Wesleyan education for the 21st
I have great confidence in the civic education you have received and
developed at Wesleyan. You care enough to act. You will know enough to find
the levers of change. You will figure out ways to capture and direct the
forces of change that are all around us. I have already seen you take action
in residential life, in the classroom, and in the community, and you have
shown that you are the people who will affect change. This has been your
response to Hurricane Katrina, to the Indian Ocean Tsunami, to the tragedy
in Darfur, to Virginia Tech, to your Middletown neighbors, and to issues
here on campus including your leadership on environmental concerns. By
working together, by transcending geographical, cultural, economic, and
political boundaries to promote positive change, you have given each other
valuable peripheral vision that will help orient you in these struggles.
I have traveled a lot during these twelve years, meeting with Wesleyan
alumni/ae of all classes. They are accomplished academically, but they are,
in addition, risk takers, change makers and people, individually and
collectively, with an extraordinarily high level of concern for the welfare
of society. The class of 2007 will find a lot of kindred spirits.
Fisk saw being “educated in reference to the public good” as an antidote to
selfishness that might allow people to err. Having been educated in
reference to the public good at Wesleyan, I suggest that its importance is
positively empowering or, as I said earlier, enabling. It nourishes breadth
of vision which helps you make life choices that are important and valid. It
draws you to common enterprises that are stronger than separate ones. Those
common enterprises will, if they are sound, be populated with the kinds of
diversity of colleagues who have learned to appreciate Wesleyan.
Whatever your daily work or profession, your influence will be greater if it
includes public commitments. Reference to public good can provide regular
There is one more thing I want to say to the class of 2007, Midge and send
our love and congratulations and expect to stay in touch.
Thank you very, very much.