IU Bloomington Undergraduate Commencement

Memorial Stadium

Friday, May 07, 2021

Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie speaks during the IU Bloomington Undergraduate Commencement at Memorial Stadium on May 8, 2021. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

Carrying IU's legacy into its third century

Trustees, Provost and Executive Vice President Robel, Executive Vice President Applegate, colleagues, and members of the Classes of 2020 and 2021.

Last year, Indiana University celebrated its bicentennial.

This historic milestone provided a unique opportunity for the university to highlight all that it has achieved in its 1st 200 years, as it grew to become one of the world’s leading public universities, fueled an engine of opportunity and prosperity for Indiana and the nation, sparked discoveries that have helped solve some of our state’s and our world’s most difficult and urgent problems, and illuminated the boundless possibilities of human imagination and creativity.

The celebration of our bicentennial was, however, interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. This has made the last year of your time at IU very different from the traditional IU experience. But despite the enormous challenges and disruption caused by the pandemic, you remained dedicated to your studies and steadfast in adjusting to the all the public health measures needed to help fight the pandemic with a combination of courage, resilience, and an unwavering concern for others, as we heard described so brilliantly by Provost Robel.

All of us have been enormously proud of how seriously and diligently you have responded to all that has been required of you. Your efforts have been vital to keeping the university functioning with some sense of normalcy in spite of that has had to be endured.  All of us salute you.

The function of the university

As you graduate today, you are among the first graduates to carry Indiana University’s legacy forward into its third century.

You have benefitted from a 200-year legacy of educational excellence that is now the foundation of the present and of the future. But what is the fundamental purpose of a university like IU in the 21st century?

The great civil rights activist, historian, and author W.E.B. Dubois addressed this question more than a century ago in a landmark 1903 book of essays. "The function of the university," he wrote, "is not simply to teach bread-winning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a center of polite society; it is above all to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization."[1]

Certainly, one reason you came to Indiana University was for an education of the highest quality—one that that would prepare you for a personally and professionally rewarding life and career. IU has done much over the last 14 years to ensure that the degrees you earn fulfil this purpose—that they are highly relevant to today’s information-based global society and speak to the issues facing the world. Indeed, many of you have earned degrees that did not even exist a few years ago. But, as DuBois suggested, teaching "bread-winning"—or preparing you to earn a living—while an immensely important outcome, is not IU’s sole function.

And its function goes beyond providing teachers for the public schools—though we take great pride in doing just that. Our schools of education in Bloomington and around the state train excellent, highly-sought-after teachers who are regularly named the best in the state.

Nor is IU’s function, in DuBois’ words, to be a "center of polite society," though the manner in which universities like IU conduct inquiry and public debate has been crucial to civil society and to modern science. Many have lamented the unintended and unexpected effect of modern communications, like social media, to divide and isolate, rather than bring together. Universities must be places that bridge those divides, not to reach agreement on all things, but to improve understanding, sharpen ideas, and, ultimately advance society through dialogue.

Thus, DuBois defined the function of the university as fostering, in his words, “…that broad knowledge of what the world knows and knew of human living and doing, which may be applied to the thousand problems of real life today confronting us.”[2]

More than a century ago, DuBois realized that mitigating the most difficult and vexing problems then facing society would depend on applying the power of logic and reason to the myriad and immense bodies of human knowledge.

This, DuBois maintained, was the function of the university in 1903. And today, over a century later in 2021, it remains one of Indiana University’s most noble functions for the next century.

The world is facing seismic changes—from rapidly changing and unstable geopolitics to the survival of democracy, and from the impact of technology on personal privacy to the health and well-being of the human race.

The demanding, difficult and pressing tasks that must be carried out are immense, and the problems in need of solutions, myriad.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new urgency to the need to improve global public health, prepare for future pandemics, and conquer disease. A highly divisive political environment, at home and abroad,gives new urgency to the reduction of conflict. The racism, bigotry, intolerance, and hatred that too many members of our society, especially people of color, are forced to confront on a daily basis, gives new urgency to the need to create communities where differences of all kinds, whether of race, ethnicity, or belief, are respected, valued, and protected, and where hatred, bigotry, and intolerance are powerfully condemned. The need to address countless other challenges, including responding to the effects of climate change, alleviating poverty, and building prosperity, grows more urgent with each passing day.

Our university’s essential work—as it has been for 2 centuries—is to provide students with the best, most contemporary, and broadest education possible—one that is accessible to all the citizens of Indiana and elsewhere no matter what their means or from where they come. It is to pursue transformative research and scholarship at the highest level of excellence. And it is to serve our state and its regions, our nation, and the world in countless ways. We aspire to learn, to know, to teach, to heal, to build, and to guide, as our forebears have done for 200 years.

As IU’s newest graduates, it is now incumbent on you to grasp and understand problems that exist no matter where you find yourselves, to use the wisdom you have gained to devise with the greatest of skill the best solutions to these, and to summon the courage to respond when you are called upon to advance the common good.

Celebrating the Classes of 2020 and 2021

Today, members of the Classes of 2020 and 2021, we celebrate your place in the history of this great university. All that you have already achieved during your years at Indiana University is testimony to the time you have invested so diligently in your education and to all that you have learned.

The Bloomington classes we celebrate today includes graduates from all 50 states, and from 88 of Indiana’s 92 counties. Our oldest graduate is 74, our youngest 20, and among this weekend’s graduates are 25 sets of twins and one set of triplets.

The Bloomington Classes of 2020 and 2021 also include graduates from 103 different countries, who reflect Indiana University’s fundamental commitment to international engagement and who confirm again that IU is one of the world’s leading international universities.

More than a third of you have traveled around the world for your studies, embracing the world in all its diversity and not shunning it or closing it off.

Many of you whose graduation we celebrate today have already helped to improve the quality of life for citizens of this country and the world during your time as students at Indiana University. Many of you have been engaged through IU’s hugely successful Center for Rural Engagement and through IU Corps, in bringing to bear the formidable resources of this campus to improve the quality of life and address challenges in the areas of health, education, housing, the environment, business and innovation, and the arts in dozens of less-advantaged counties and communities in Indiana. And many of you have helped to raise record amounts in support of the Riley Hospital for Children through your participation in and leadership of the IU Dance Marathon, one of the largest student philanthropic events at any university in this country, that has raised, over 30 years, more than $43 million to support Riley Hospital for Children.

Toward a world you will be proud to have built

In his justly famous Day of Affirmation speech, delivered at the University of Capetown in 1966, even as the horrors of apartheid raged in South Africa, then-United States Senator Robert Kennedy said that all might agree on the kind of world we would want to build.

"It would be a world of independent nations, moving toward international community, each of which protected and respected the basic human freedoms. It would be a world,” Kennedy continued, “which demanded of each government that it accept its responsibility to insure social justice. It would be a world of constantly accelerating economic progress—not material welfare as an end in itself, but as a means to liberate the capacity of every human being to pursue his (or her) talents and to pursue his (or her) hopes. It would, in short, be a world that we would be proud to have built."[3]

More than half a century later, we have made progress toward the world Kennedy described, but there is, unquestionably, much more work still to be done. There always will be. This is not the counsel of despair, but the basis of hope, and—at your commencement from this place and into the world at large—it is my charge to you.

As graduates of Indiana University, you have been preparing for years to become the next generation to discover, to understand, and to apply all that you have learned.

Keep what is good; change what needs to be changed, with wisdom; take pride in your work and the world you will make.

Indiana University takes great pride in you and your accomplishments.

May you carry on the traditions of excellence that have brought you to this moment.

And may it be said in years to come that it was graduates like you—here and around the world—who confronted and conquered the most difficult challenges of today and gained the respect and gratitude of all. 

Source Notes

  1. W.E.B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk, eighth edition, (McClurg, 1909), 84.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Robert F. Kennedy, “Day of Affirmation Address,” Remarks delivered at the University of Capetown, South Africa, June 6, 1966.