Many people have asked me to share the text of my remarks to convocation today. You’ll find them below.
But first – I really, truly, and strongly believe that all of our experiences from our adventures at university have been influenced by the people that we’ve been lucky to go through them with. All of you — from my closest friends to those of us who really just wave ‘hi’ in the hallway — have been a part of my experiences at SFU, and you all have contributed in some way.
When I started writing these remarks, I wanted to think of some way that we could all be a part of the event. In the end, much of what I wrote and said has a connection to many of you – my friends – because I have been influenced by you, because you are all amazing people, and because we’ve managed to somehow spend some part of the past five years together. There are a number of references in the speech that I meant to be associated with specific people.
So many of you are not letting the world ‘just be’. You are not passively ‘thinking of the world.’ You are all, truly amazing.
Thank you for sharing yourselves with me during our adventures so far, and I’m looking forward to the ones to come.
with love and solidarity and all the best wishes,
Mr. President, Mr. Chancellor, faculty, staff, guests, and friends and family,
Thank you all for coming together, here at this [rarely sunny / often dreary] concrete campus, to celebrate the graduation of this class of Simon Fraser students.
While it is next to impossible to speak for such a diverse body of students, I would like, on their behalf, to offer a very sincere and very heartfelt thank you to the staff of the university who make sure it works, to the faculty who help us learn, and to our friends and family who have supported us in many ways. And, of course, my most heartfelt congratulations to all of us who are graduating today.
Today is a day of celebration. We are graduating with BAs, MAs, or PhDs, in subjects that vary from Anthropology to Women’s Studies. Our graduation marks our successful completion of programs of study in what many term to be an institution of enlightenment – the university. Our experiences here, despite the all too common fog, rain, stairs, and concrete, have brought light into our lives. That the university is an institution of enlightenment is uncontroversial.
But today is also a day of reflection. And on reflection, I want to suggest something that is perhaps a bit controversial. The parchment that each of us is receiving today may not be worth anything at all.
To understand this, we need look no further than the university’s corporate slogan, emblazoned on every business card, letterhead, and program in this space.
What does it say? “Thinking of the world.” This is what we proclaim we do here. It is a slogan that seems worthy of greeting cards. It is not enough.
When we are just thinking of the world, we may say we understand exploitation, but we may not do anything to change the fact that there are more slaves today than at any time in human history.
When we are just thinking of the world, we may say we think of the value of the university as a place where conventional knowledge can be challenged, but we might tolerate actions that chill debate and dissent in the academy, turning it into a place that reinforces the dominant ways that harm so many.
When we are just thinking of the world, we may say we see the value of a public education, but we may not challenge the creeping corporatization that sees publicly funded research as something to be privately sold for private profit, that sees the workers at the university as costs to be managed and minimized, and students as products to be produced as quickly and plentifully as possible.
To twist a philosopher’s words, we have hitherto merely thought of the world. The point, however, is to change it.
Paulo Freire has said that “true reflection leads to action.” We must do the same. We, as SFU graduates, have thought a lot about the world. We must now start to change it.
It seems absurd to stand here and extol the virtues of education and of the university; this supposed institution of enlightenment. The light that is education and the university, as a way to see past the way things are now to see how things ought to beis powerful and empowering. It is passion and compassion. It is so much more. With it, we can transcend thinking of the world and go from here and change it. But a terrifying darkness is encroaching.
A good friend of mine stood in this place and told a different graduating class the story of how his family witnessed the destruction of the Old City Library in Sarajevo, as they were forced to leave. He told his graduating class that his family wept, because as they watched the library burn, they knew that their and other lives were about to slip into a blinding darkness without freedom, beauty, justice, or the prospect of things to come. This is the darkness.
War is with us. For now. Oppression is with us. For now. Exploitation is with us. For now. The creeping corporatization of the university is with us. For now. Surely we have thought so much about the world that this is obvious. The darkness is encroaching. For now.
This does not have to be the case. We have been thinking of the world, now it is time to change it.
It seems both impossible and terrifying to challenge you to change the world. How can we do this? How can we change the world? Live this question, live the change. Ignore the supposed impossibility of changing the world and do it – and then, after we have done it, we can check back to see if it was so impossible.
Some of us are already doing this. Students from SFU are building schools in Ghana and around the world. They are working for non-profit organisations in Canada, working to erase poverty, bring education and equality to disadvantaged populations, to save the environment from destruction. Some of us are researching cures to diseases, on more just ways of organizing society, and some are fighting for public education. Whether it be fundraising or researching or standing up for what they believe in, they are working to change the world.
We have a variety of skills that we have learned in our various classes. We can change the world. Some of us are already actively working at this. The rest of us can start today. To repeat Paul Hawken: YOU ARE BRILLIANT, AND THE EARTH IS HIRING.
We who are graduating today have a particular challenge. We are receiving congratulations, but we also receive a responsibility. We have been given a gift, a gift of light. We must now protect it, we must guard it, we must cherish it, and we must share it.
Without this light, in the darkness, the parchments that we have are worthless.
Therefore, I have a simple message; one that I ask you, that I beg you, that I plead with you, to take to heart. Do not just, simply, passively, only think of the world. Change it too. Guard and share the light. Think of the world. Reflect on it. Change it.
It is our responsibility. We can change the world. Nous sommes prêts. We are ready. Let’s change the world.
Thank you and congratulations.
As is common with me, the conversation drifted during the interview, from what the president’s legacy might be to what it should be and why education in general was so important. Standard discussion material.
We somehow turned to the university’s wordmark: “thinking of the world.”. It appears on the website, on business cards, and everywhrere. It’s supposed to imply that we are a worldly university, that we are engaged in the world, that the world is not something abstracted from us.
But it’s an unfinished thought.
To drag a haunting spectre out of the shadows, Karl Marx wrote, “hitherto, philosophers have merely interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it.”
SFU certainly hasn’t taken the idea to heart. We’re merely “thinking of the world” while the point is to change it. The motto of the university lacks action. It is passive.
There are a number of links between the passive motto and the reality of the university–I’m not going to say cause and effect, or even correlation, but the university seems to have been passive lately. Passive in our reaction to creeping corporatization, passive to insidious underfunding, passive to a lot of evil.
Why? Well, our letterhead proclaims the answer.
We’re merely “thinking of the world.”
The point, however, is to change it.