Six-term Vermont governor, one-time presidential candidate, and recent leader of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean told the 2009 graduating class of the University of Vermont that, "your generation has remade America already."
"This country has been multicultural for a long, long time," Dean said to the more than 9,000 people attending the commencement ceremony, "but you are the first multicultural generation that see itself as multicultural – and the first thing you did was to elect a multicultural president."
His speech praised the activism of the young "pragmatists and doers" who propelled Barack Obama to the White House – and contrasted it with the "confrontational" politics of his own political upbringing in the civil rights battles of 1960s and '70s. He noted how in 2008, for the first time in his lifetime, "more people voted who were under the age of 35 than over the age of 65."
Dean cited poverty, climate change, and the humanitarian crisis in Sudan as examples of a broadly shared agenda for change that extends beyond the traditional membership of his own Democratic Party. "The core message of your generation to my generation: would you stop fighting about the things you've been fighting about for thirty years and get something done about the things that need to have something done about them?" he said, to loud cheering.
"We need you to stay involved in politics," Dean said to the graduates, warning against a retreat from civic engagement as career and family responsibilities develop. "Now that you've elected your first president," he said in conclusion, "don't blow it."
A sunny forecast
Courage in the face of cosmic darkness was the theme of an opening reflection given by UVM professor of English David Huddle. He recited a poem, "Screech Owl," by Nebraska poet Ted Kooser that describes the owl's "small hope from the center of darkness."
The poem "speaks to and for all us living creatures," Huddle said, "whose lives are so absurdly tiny and insignificant in the great glooming blackness of our galaxy."
In striking juxtaposition, the morning's festivities began with storm-lines in retreat, glorious bells in the Ira Allen Chapel pealing like musical rainfall, and golden sunlight playing across the fresh-leaved trees and be-robed graduates on UVM's Main Green.
In recent commencement ceremonies, "there has been rain and chill to challenge the mettle of our Yankee fortitude and test the perils of high heels on sodden ground," said UVM president Daniel Mark Fogel, smiling broadly in the full sun from the raised stage in front of UVM's Waterman Building. He noted that the choice to return to the tradition of an outdoor ceremony on the Green over the last five years has been marked by several years of wet weather.
Yet, "it seems right that we should celebrate on this beautiful Green, on the very piece of land upon which Ira Allen founded this university," Fogel said.
Fogel conferred degrees on an estimated 2,781 graduates, including 2,266 bachelor's, 313 master's, 82 doctoral, and 103 M.D. degree recipients, in addition to 15 post-baccalaureate certificates. Degree recipients included students from 45 states and 45 international students from 20 countries. Approximately 1,109 graduates are from Vermont. The graduating class also includes 189 African, Latino/a, Asian and Native American (ALANA) and bi/multi-racial students.
Fogel also conferred five honorary degrees, with the first going to Howard Dean. Fogel noted that Dean took the national stage as a candidate during the 2004 presidential primaries, drawing wide voter interest early with his strong stand against war in Iraq. Though his run for the nomination was not successful, the Dean campaign's use of the internet to build support revolutionized the use of technology in presidential campaigns. As chair of the DNC, Dean spearheaded the "50 State Strategy," which is widely credited with contributing to Democrats' gains in elections of 2006 and Barack Obama's election in 2008.
Receiving honorary degrees this year along with Dean were Dr. Ben R. Forsyth, who has served the University of Vermont as professor of medicine, senior vice president, trustee and advisor; Anthony J. Marro, a member of the UVM Class of 1965 and an award-winning reporter and longtime editor of Newsday, one of the nation's largest newspapers; Gretchen B. Morse, a member of UVM Class of 1975 who has spent 30 years working to improve the health and well-being of Vermonters as director of the United Way of Chittenden County, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services, and Vermont State representative; and William Pickens III, founder and president of Bill Pickens Associates, Inc., an international consulting and executive search firm, and also the founding president and chief executive officer of the Paul Robeson Foundation.
President Fogel also bestowed a new title on four of UVM's top professors. Burton Sobel in medicine, Mark Nelson in pharmacology, Rex Forehand in psychology, and Judith Van Houten in biology, became the first faculty members to be named University Distinguished Professors, a new honorific title conferred upon a select number of professors who have attained an international reputation in the areas of teaching, research, scholarship, and service. Read more about the program.
Five students were honored with university awards. Caroll Spelke won the Mary Jean Simpson Award, honoring the senior woman who exhibits the highest qualities of leadership, academic competence and character; Benjamin Bezark won the F.T. Kidder Medal, honoring the senior man ranking first in character, leadership and scholarship; Kristen Millar and John Soltys won the Class of 1967 Award, presented to seniors who best exhibit leadership, academic competence and character, and who have earned the respect of faculty and fellow students; Emma Kennedy and Julie Kwok won the Keith M. Miser Leadership Award, recognizing outstanding service to the university; and Daniel Lim and Jennifer Nival won the Elmer Nicholson Achievement Prize, recognizing the greatness of the students' UVM experiences and the expectation that they will make a major contributions in their fields of interest.
The UVM Alumni Association honored Elaine McCrate, professor of economics, with the George V. Kidder Outstanding Faculty Award. The university's top teaching honor, the Kidder is presented by the university's Alumni Association. McCrate, a professor of economics and women's studies, has been a member of the faculty since 1985. In nominating her for the Kidder, former students lauded McCrate's work in the classroom and as an adviser/mentor who melds her academic endeavors with a strong commitment to social justice issues. Upon receiving the award, she spoke of teaching as an acquired skilled that has taken her 25 years to develop and of the marriage between effective teaching and good scholarship.