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On My Mind: Chancellor Christ reflects on commencement and our civic obligations

Column from Chancellor Carol Christ reflects on the last year at UC Berkeley

A group of people on stage look at a screen

Chancellor Carol Christ watches a video about public service during Saturday’s commencement. (UC Berkeley photo by Megan Lee)

This past weekend, I had the great pleasure of presiding over the winter commencement ceremony for UC Berkeley’s extraordinary graduating class of 2018.

Having been immersed in the seasonal rhythms of higher education for a long time, I find a pleasing familiarity in the customs and traditions of commencement — “Pomp & Circumstance” plays on the speaker system; bright-eyed graduates-to-be arrive in their gowns, eager to move the tassels on their mortarboard caps from the right side to the left; professors in their formal robes line up in procession, bidding a bittersweet farewell to another set of brilliant scholars. It is a ceremony whose beginnings date back to the Middle Ages, rooted in the longstanding belief that the attainment of knowledge is a cause worth celebrating.

‘On My Mind’

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Of course, all commencement ceremonies are unique as well, and that comes in part from the various addresses delivered to graduating students by their invited speakers. This year — in addition to hearing student speaker Mahnoor Mian ’18 talk about how there is nothing in the world to fear once you’ve spent time at Berkeley, and Cal grad and Olympic swimmer Nathan Adrian speak jovially about mentorship, teambuilding and the importance of failure on the road to success — we heard from former United States Ambassador to Australia Jeff Bleich, a 1989 Berkeley Law graduate, who received Berkeley’s Peter E. Haas Public Service Award.

Jeff spoke beautifully about the need for our graduates to maintain a commitment to public service.

“The life we make,” he said, “is the accumulation of the lives we’ve helped others make.”

He should know. After graduating from Berkeley Law, Jeff quickly became a partner in a major law firm, but took on almost as many pro bono clients as paying ones. He represented homeless San Franciscans, defended the rights of Native Americans, supported LGBT service members…and still found opportunities to work with a local law clinic on matters as small as landlord/tenant disputes. He has continued to give his time to the public good in many ways: he took unpaid positions in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, and of course served the nation as Ambassador to Australia from 2009 to 2013.

Jeff’s wittiness helped bring his points to life: “Don’t be a Kardashian,” he said, to laughter, at the start of his speech. “If fame and fortune are your sole end, you may find your soul end.”

Watch Chancellor Carol Christ’s complete speech to the Winter 2018 graduates. (UC Berkeley video)

In my own remarks to the graduating class, I spoke on similar themes. I warned students that it will become all too easy — privileged as they now are with a Berkeley degree — for them to retreat into their own lives, into getting a decent job and making enough money and playing tennis after work and calling their parents on weekends.

Those things are important, of course. But just as each one of us has both a professional life and a personal one, we also each have a civic life, and it should be just as central to our identity as the other two. An active civic life does not mean simply voting in elections — in fact, even those who cannot vote can live immensely important civic lives — but is instead the sum of all the good that we do in and for our communities.

We build up our civic lives when we volunteer to tutor students two towns over, when we develop a thoughtful proposal to address a community need and bring it to the city council, when we knock on doors in support of a state proposition we think will be best for California, when we turn out in protest to oppose something that won’t.

The need to invest in one’s civic life is advice that I would give to anyone — Berkeley faculty and staff just as much as our graduates. I think, though, that those of us building our careers at this great institution are already substantially feeding our civic life alongside our professional one. We are not constructing widgets here at Berkeley; we are helping lift up talented young people from all backgrounds and setting them on a path towards success in life.

We are creating a research ecosystem that allows new technology and new ways of thinking to flourish, leading to hugely important innovations now and in the future. Certainly we should continue to look for other opportunities to give back in our communities, but we should also take pride in what we’re doing for the world right here.

Ambassador Jeff Bleich, a graduate of Berkeley Law, won the Peter E. Haas Public Service Award, which is given out each winter. (UC Berkeley video)

As the holidays approach and we each prepare for some well-deserved time off, we also have an opportunity to reflect on the year that has passed and to give thanks to those who made it special. I am deeply grateful for every member of our community, for your commitment to Berkeley, and for your energy and optimism and hard work in support of the ideal of excellent, accessible public higher education. Thank you, and Fiat Lux!