Graduation events reflect concerns about moving forward in an ‘age of rage’

Many students stood with their backs to George Will *68 as he delivered the Baccalaureate address from the Chapel pulpit.
Noel Valero ’82 *85
Civility, respect, tolerance. These were themes driven home to members of the Class of 2019 throughout the year-end activities surrounding Commencement.

President Eisgruber ’83 titled his Commencement speech “Civil Virtues,” while Baccalaureate speaker George Will *68 decried an “age of rage” as more than 100 seniors stood and turned their backs on him to protest one of his writings. Valedictorian Kate Reed ’19 counseled her classmates to approach what is different or challenging in their worldview “with a desire to understand  ... and openness to change.”

Noting how “political contention” had surfaced during the weekend’s Reunions and graduation events, Eisgruber said we live in an “ill-tempered time” in which people “too often prefer to issue provocations or denounce opponents rather than engage in vital civic work required by deliberative processes that are fair and inclusive to multiple interests and points of view.”

Virtues such as civility and truthfulness are not glamorous or exciting, Eisgruber explained in his seven-minute address, but “require us to respect others rather than draw attention to ourselves.” Civil virtues are the “foundation for any democratic society in which people seek to learn from one another and pursue a common good that unites them across differences.”

His remarks followed a month in which supporters of a movement  to ban questions about criminal history on application forms interrupted a meeting of the Council of the Princeton University Community, and students conducted a nine-day sit-in in  front of Nassau Hall to protest the University’s sexual-misconduct policies and procedures. 

During the Baccalaureate ceremony in the University Chapel, Will, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author, said, “The nation is awash in expressions of contempt and condescension. What are called ‘social media’ — and which might more accurately be called ‘anti-social media’ — seem to encourage snarky expressions of disdain.” 

The antidote to anger, according to Will, is “intelligent praising  ... the virtue of recognizing virtue, and saluting it. ...  And developing a talent for admiration is how we become less susceptible to feeling envy, which stokes anger.”

When Will began to speak, more than 100 students stood and faced away from him in a show of dissatisfaction with his views — as expressed in a 2014 Washington Post column he wrote —  on sexual misconduct on campuses.  The protest was one of several ways in which students kept a focus on Title IX issues over the weekend, including wearing purple clothing and “Listen & Act” buttons. In May, in response to the sit-in, the University authorized an outside review of its Title IX processes and agreed to meet with students over the summer. (See On the Campus,  June 5.) Title IX is the federal law prohibiting discrimination based on sex.

On Monday at Class Day, Eisgruber referenced Will’s speech and added,  “I hope, as does he, that your great  class will distinguish itself by accepting the responsibility to engage civilly  and respectfully even with people  whose opinions are very different from your own.” 

But, speaking immediately after Eisgruber, class president Chris Umanzor ’19  said he was “miffed” by Will’s address. “For me, some of the starkest takeaways ... were that our generation — even some in our class — are entangled amid a culture of contempt and stubbornly reject or do not relish the base principles of free speech.” Will had ended his talk by thanking all members of the Class of 2019, “including those who have helped, if inadvertently, to illustrate some of my points”  — a comment that some students took as a direct swipe at them.

With Nassau Hall as a backdrop, Class Day speaker Ellie Kemper ’02 urged graduating seniors: “Go be nice to one another!”
Denise Applewhite/Office of Communications

In a speech sprinkled with self-deprecating humor, Class Day speaker Ellie Kemper ’02, an actress, author, and comedienne, said she’s a person who likes to stick to a plan, but life never quite goes according to plan. Relating some of the obstacles she has encountered in her career, she said she realized that “more important than career accomplishments is the ability to help one another.” 

“In the age of Instagram, you might sometimes see your classmates as your rivals or your competitors,” said Kemper, who plays the title role in the Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. “You might feel pressure to have the best life ever. … But being sensational is not the same thing as being happy. Trust me: I have lived longer than you — not that much longer, I’m still incredibly young — but long enough to know that trying to be a kind, thoughtful, hardworking person will ultimately make you much happier than trying to be an impressive person.

“So, Class of 2019, go be nice to one another!” she said.

The University awarded degrees  to 1,282 undergraduates in the Class of 2019 and two from previous classes  who completed requirements this year. There were 562 graduate degrees granted, of which 398 were Ph.Ds.