Family and friends of Emerson’s newest alumni gathered in Boston University’s Agganis Arena on Sunday, May 14, to congratulate the graduates and hear advice and insight from esteemed honorary degree recipients, stellar students, and respected faculty.
Led by the rhythms of drumming group Grooversity, about 975 undergraduate students streamed into the arena Sunday morning to receive their bachelor’s degrees. Later in the afternoon, roughly 270 master’s degree recipients did the same.
Bestselling novelist and TV writer Dennis Lehane received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the College and gave the undergraduate commencement address. He told graduates that the country is “addicted to the myths and narratives” of what once was, but it would be up to them to change the world, so they’d better “get off [their butts] and vote.”
Three other luminaries in their fields received honorary degrees Sunday morning: Anita Hill, lawyer and advocate for racial and gender equality; David McCullough, Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning historian; and Claudia Rankine, poet, playwright, and MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner.
Associate Professor Emeritus John Dennis Anderson, who retired last summer after teaching in Emerson’s Communication Studies Department for 27 years, gave the graduate address.
Anderson gave a brief history of public speaking at Emerson College, which was founded as a school of oratory and elocution in 1880, and specifically of the Chautauqua movement, popular around the turn of the 20th century, which sought to educate and entertain people in what Anderson described as “secularized tent revivals.”
Since the early 1990s, when the National Endowment for the Humanities helped renew the Chautauqua movement, Anderson has performed as several American writers, including Henry James and William Faulkner, both of whom he channeled at the Agganis on Sunday.
He said their words “provide equipment for living to us as communicators.”
Neither men considered themselves public speakers, Anderson said, but they each spoke out when they felt it became necessary: James, during the early years of World War I, when he advocated for the United States to enter the war to help Great Britain, and Faulkner, at his daughter’s 1951 high school graduation, when he warned against “the forces in the world today which are trying to use man’s fear to rob him of his individuality…trying to reduce him to the unthinking mass.”
“Learning to resist the forces that use fear to manipulate the masses is useful equipment for living in our present moment,” Anderson said.
Here are excerpts from some of the day’s other speakers:
Anita Hill, honorary degree recipient
“Thank you to the Board of Trustees for their commitment to higher education…President [Lee] Pelton and Provost [Michaele] Whelan for their commitment to inclusive excellence in higher education. Of course, that goes to the faculty here at Emerson as well, because as a faculty member [at Brandeis University], I know it all happens because of you and your work.
Congratulations to the Class of 2017. You are the embodiment of that inclusive excellence, and I am so honored to be a member of this graduating class.”
David McCullough, honorary degree recipient
“It’s an honor and a privilege and a generator of new ambition to be so celebrated in front of so many people who believe in the importance of learning.”
McCullough then read a letter from Abigail Adams, the first First Lady to occupy the White House, and “one of the most remarkable Americans I’ve come to know.” She had received a letter from a friend who had met her son, John Quincy Adams, and found him intelligent but with an “overinflated opinion” of himself.
Abigail Adams fired off a letter to her son, pointing out that he had every educational and material privilege available to him. “How unpardonable would it have been in you to have turned out a blockhead?” she wrote.
“We cannot turn out blockheads, nor raise blockheads, nor forget to express our gratitude for all that we have been provided with education and opportunity and to live in this great country,” McCullough added.
Claudia Rankine, honorary degree recipient
“When I think of a community that honors artists…at all stages of their careers, I think of Emerson. This world, in all its realities—alternative or not—needs invested young people like you now more than ever.”
BS, Political Communication
Undergraduate Student Speaker
“I don’t have to say we will go on to do great things. That’s not a question. I am more interested and excited to see if we will go on to do the right thing.”
“Remember that we will have a responsibility, arguably more than other generations, to fight injustices and bring people together. I know we got it.…Go forward and act with love and respect, and in return you will be well fed. You will be the change you wish to see in the world. The universe is waiting for all of you.”
MA, Theatre Education
Graduate Student Speaker
“The cool thing about grad school is some of those [economic] pressures fade. Not that bills disappear, but these past few years, life’s focus became about feeding that creativity with new questions and ideas.
How often in the real world can we say to our boss, ‘I’m not going to work that extra shift because I have a project I really want to finish, or a book I want to finish reading, or a chapter in my novel I want to complete.”
“I don’t think any of us want to let the hurdles and difficulties of life be cruel and pull us into the center of necessity, forgetting our passions. I want to take up this tension as my personal form of resistance. I would love for you to join me.”
President Lee Pelton
“In this modern-day ecosystem, those who adapt will survive, those who are nimble will thrive, and those who are neither will become obsolete. You have been educated to run toward the future, because there really is no other way…We will depend on your moral courage and drum major instincts to solve the problems [that face us] and change the world.”
“If you leave Emerson believing you have lived the best years of your life, we have failed you miserably. Because the best is ahead, not behind you.”
During the undergraduate ceremony, the College conferred emeritus status on four faculty members, in addition to John Anderson: Jonathan Aaron, associate professor, Writing, Literature and Publishing; Robin Riley Fast, associate professor, WLP; Melinda Robins, associate professor, Journalism; and Ted Hollingworth Jr., MA ’68, associate professor, Communication Studies.
Hollingworth, with 54 years under his belt, is Emerson’s longest-serving living faculty member.
The Dean’s Award for “outstanding contribution and commitment to Emerson” went to Gabriela Kula, BS, Journalism, and the President’s Award (undergraduate) for the student who demonstrates “qualities that define our core values [of] integrity, intelligence, creativity, and most importantly, commitment to civic engagement and community service” was given to Emily Solomon, BA, Media Studies.
Paul Haney, MFA, Creative Writing, won the Dean of Graduate Studies Award, and Kimberly Forero-Arnias, MFA, Media Art, won the President’s Award (graduate).