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Delivered by Gene Nichol, Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law and Director of the Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity, at the Spring 2015 induction ceremony on Monday, March 30, 2015.


Do you mind if I start just by saying what an honor it is to be here? Phi Beta Kappa at Carolina. Good Lord. The very best, the most accomplished, literally, the most accomplished students, of the best public university in the United States of America. It’s hard to get your brain around that.

Think about it. If we just focused on this state. Which is too confining, I know, by far. But think of the untold thousands and thousands of young North Carolinians graduating, with you, a few short years ago. Then think of the tiny percentage of them who were offered admission to this, their flagship university. The tiny percentage. Then, of the thousands who came here, in this room sits this extraordinary, little handful of the unsurpassed. The best and the brightest ends up being sort of buffoonish understatement.

For me, there’s a different way of putting it into perspective. I wasn’t fortunate enough to go to Carolina. In college, I was a football player at Oklahoma State University. I was roasted at a dinner a couple years back and the federal judge giving the talk said it was only because I had grown up in Mesquite, Texas that I could have considered Oklahoma State University to be an institution of higher learning.

That’s not true, of course. But I was apparently the only Oklahoma State football player ever to major in philosophy. Which meant I had two very different sets of friends. One group weighted about 85 pounds apiece, were almost all from India, spoke with thick accents, and we sat around talking about Hinduism and ahimsa. The other group weighed, on average, about 320 pounds, and, as far as I could tell, spoke no ascertainable language whatsoever. So I learned the values of diversity at a young age.

But my wife did go to Carolina. And she was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate. I can report that, in 30 years of marriage, I’ve never once won an argument with her. So I know something of how smart you are. And I know better to get into an argument with any of you.

Now I’ve been to enough ceremonies of this sort to know that, as the speaker, my main obligation is to be brief. Though not perhaps as brief as Salvador Dali – who reportedly said, in the world’s shortest graduation speech: “I will be so brief I have already finished.” And sat down. I know you’d be delighted if I did that. But I can’t resist the temptation to talk to you for a minute.

I’m not, though, going to give you lot of advice. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, it’s easy and cheap to give advice. Twain was right that “to do right is noble. To advise others to do right is also noble, and much less trouble to yourself.”

But, most of all, I’ve decided people of my generation don’t have a lot of standing to dole out life-guiding counsel. You may have read about us. The children of the sixties. The Age of Aquarius. The love children. A few of your parents may be among us – though most are probably too young. We believed in opened doors, no property, no conflict, no boundaries, free love. Modest intoxicants. We ‘imagined’ a world without possessions. ‘I wonder if you can?’ A green and vibrant utopia of peace and joy and idealism and selflessness enlightenment. Kumbaya.

Forty years later, my generation, we’re driving SUVs; living in McMansions; leveraging buyouts; building security systems; starting wars; hiding assets offshore; demanding government bailouts; talking incessantly on cell phones — with nothing meaningful to say; surfing 900 TV channels, with nothing meaningful to watch; living in fear of sexually transmitted diseases; and desperately begging our children not to do what we did.

I trust you’ll do better. If I were a betting man, I’d go with you – the Facebook folks, the Twitterites, the You-Tubians.  More Gaga than Guthrie; more Colbert than Cronkite. More J-ZEE than Jackson Brown. But, we can always hope, a little more Shakespeare than Game of Thrones.

So, I won’t offer much in the way of counsel. But, like your professors and your colleagues, I’m not without my hopes for you. Let me mention only three.

This is an unparalleled day of celebration, of accomplishment. Of the challenge nobly mastered. Then dramatically surpassed. The satisfaction of reaching high and making the measure. More than the measure. Doing things many thought not possible. Actually things any sensible person thought impossible.

You have learned much from world-class teachers – but even more, I would guess from one another. You have developed what I trust are unbreakable habits of curiosity. Amidst ambitions that burn hot. And talents that amaze.  The poet writes that “the truth must dazzle gradually, [lest] every man be blind.” But you have dazzled quickly, impatiently, powerfully. And still we see. This will not be the last time you’ll reach beyond prescribed boundaries. You’re not capable of being turned aside.

But as we mark your laurels, I wish for you, first, the gentle grace to think, for a few moments, of those who have gone before.

Like some of you, I was the first of my clan to go to college. I think much of my father on days like this. As a depression kid, he was lucky to finish high school. He worked for the same printing company from the age of 14 ‘til he retired. But I hereby certify something that all in my family know to be true:  That, despite having been a university president, a dean, and various other oddities, I am no smarter, no more talented, no tougher, no more dedicated, no more capable, no more hard working, no more worthy, no more deserving – than my parents, or their parents, or their parents – or the long line of farmers, day-laborers and factory workers who came before them.

The difference has been, in Neil Kinnock’s phrase, that, like you, I was given “a platform on which to stand’. An accessible, affordable, exquisite public university education – one that will open doors otherwise welded shut forever. In a compact, that cannot be lost or diminished, between excellence and opportunity, between democracy and promise.

Given that, I remind only of John Kennedy’s claim over a half century ago “that public universities are not maintained by the people merely to give their graduates an economic advantage in the life struggle. [Though that] they do. [But] unless those who are given a running start in life are willing to put back the talents, the broad sympathies, the compassion, into the service of the republic, [then] the presuppositions on which our democracy is based” will surely fail.

Or as my mentor and hero the late Bill Friday would constantly put it – “a million North Carolinians living in poverty have paid to subsidize your education. What are you going to do to pay them back?”

Second, and more peculiar, along with this grace, in another sense, I hope that you’ll be restless, unsatisfied, you’ll be ‘maladjusted.’ Dr. King said repeatedly that he ‘never did intend to adjust’ himself ‘to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.’ So he called on ‘all Americans of good will’ to become ‘maladjusted.’

Maladjusted, perhaps, to the fact that this, the richest nation on earth, the richest nation in human history, allows far more of its members, and many, many times more of its children, to live in wrenching poverty – than any other advanced western democracy. As if any theory of justice or virtue could explain the exclusion of innocent children from the American dream. That, despite our constant testaments to equal dignity, we have become, without contest, the richest, the poorest and the most unequal nation in the world.

Maladjusted to the fact that, in this, one of the most economically vibrant states of the richest nation on earth, to 41% of our children of color living in opportunity-crushing poverty. Think on that. Over 4 of 10 of our babies, our middle-schoolers, our teenagers of color. A simple declarative sentence that shames us as a people. Or ought to.

Maladjusted to the fact that North Carolina has the second highest number of hungry babies in the country – just a shade back of Louisiana. Or that Greensboro is the second hungriest city in America. Though our leaders never mention it. Mums the word.

Forgetting, apparently, that somewhere we read of “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’ That ‘history will judge us on the extent to which we’ve used our gifts to lighten and enrich the lives of our fellows.’ That ‘whenever you did these things for the least of these, you did them for me.’ That no, we are not adjusted, we’re not content, we are not satisfied –‘and we will not be satisfied, until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ Maladjusted.

Finally, a brief third wish. When my daughters were young, I loved reading to them from “The Little Prince”.  “Le Petit Prince.” And my favorite line, the one I would repeat over and over, to their great annoyance, was ‘what is essential is invisible to the eye.’ The most important things in life are the invisible ones. What Emily Dickinson would earlier call the necessary “phosphorescence”. I wish for you, then, most of all, excellence in the things invisible. The “phosphorescence.”

Think of those who have taught this lesson by the ennobling gift of their lives. Those who did not confuse wealth or fame or success or pedigree with character or commitment or honor or purpose, or, finally, love. Of Ghandi, of King, of Bonhoeffer, of Chavez, of Heschel, of Ebadi, of Mandela, of Tutu. Those who followed, ceaselessly, the paths of courage and heart. Who cast their gaze higher. Beyond the horizon. Those who saw service to their fellows as the literal purpose of life.

Those invisible things, those permanent things, fill this room today. Wrap yourselves inside them. They lift us up. They mark our lives. They infuse us with power, and purpose. They send you out. They fill your sails. They propel you forward — in hope and belief. Keep ‘em with you. Make ‘em last. In your fabric. Encircling your heart.

They seek the larger contribution. The tougher path. Neither small nor frightened. They are the wages of your wonders; the foundations of our best selves. The platforms of our better angels. They are, and will remain, your best traveling companions.

And if you would, on occasion, doubt your way, your promise. Given the barriers and struggles that lie ahead. And if you would wish for a smoother path; one more certain of success and acclaim; more accurate and demonstrative of the effort and achievement you now rightly prize. That I would understand.

I remind only that the ease and clarity of the road ahead is never exactly what good sense and ancient calculation would assume. I’m pretty sure that Fannie Lou Hamer didn’t do an opinion poll before she founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and Rosa Parks didn’t conduct a focus group, before she sat down for freedom. Cesar Chavez didn’t ask whether it would be cheered or lauded before he launched his famed hunger strike. He said, instead, ‘si, si se pueda.’ This is not the first time young people of bold heart and selfless bravery have been called upon to move the world. It’s in your DNA. It is our DNA.

And casting your view more broadly, think of your bold and breathtaking young colleagues – across the globe, pressing new visions of freedom and equality and brotherhood – in the face of bullets and bombs and bloodshed — with their own sinew and heroism, measuring by new metrics.  Unbounded by the tired failures of their parents and their past.

Who would sensibly bet against you? None. Certainly not me. Like Ms. Dickinson – you “dwell in possibility.” “A fairer House than Prose … For Occupation – This – The Spreading Wide My Narrow Hands – To Gather Paradise.”

So I’m hugely honored to join you. For me, the only thing better would be if I could lock arms with you, we could set out together, beginning our strides to re-make the world. So I’m immensely proud of you, and just a little bit jealous. I can’t wait to witness what you’ll do.

Congratulations and godspeed.