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Honorary Degree Recipients
Week of 31 May 2002 · Vol. V, No. 34

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Westling tells Class of 2002 to build on nation's democratic institutions

Calling on the members of the Class of 2002 to "preserve your freedom and the democratic institutions that make freedom possible," this year's Commencement speaker, BU President Jon Westling, told more than 25,000 people gathered at Nickerson Field on May 19 that a changed world confronts the University's 5,500 graduates.

President Jon Westling delivers BU's 129th Commencement address. Photo by Albert L'Étoile


President Jon Westling delivers BU's 129th Commencement address. Photo by Albert L'Étoile


Eight months after the tragic events of September 11, this year's Commencement "is an especially mixed evocation of achievement and loss, hope and anxiety," said Westling.

The main Commencement ceremony evoked a range of emotions, from somberness to celebration. During Westling's address, there was a solemn moment of silence in memoriam to the 28 BU alumni who were killed in the September 11 attacks -- made all the more poignant by the mournful but brave faces of the parents of terrorist victim Lisa Frost (SHA'01, COM'01) when they were escorted to the podium (see page 5). Michael Bavis (CAS'93), whose twin brother, Mark (CAS'93), was on the second plane that struck the World Trade Center, was also on the podium, as were Lee and Eunice Hanson, parents of Peter Hanson (GSM'94). Peter Hanson, his wife, Sue Kim Hanson (GRS'92, MED'02), and their two-year-old daughter, Christine, were passengers on the same plane, as was Lisa Frost. Westling read the names of the other 24 BU alumni who died in the attacks.
On the celebratory side, there was cheering during highlight footage of honorary degree recipient Bill Russell's stellar basketball career. And there was laughter during comical film clips of Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei, who also received an honorary degree, and applause when Baccalaureate speaker Rev. Michael E. Haynes, received his honorary doctorate. (See page 5 for biographies of honorary degree recipients.)

In his main speech, Westling compared today's United States with the fledgling nation of 1783, an experiment that many expected to collapse. "In fact, it came close to failing: it struggled; it teetered," said Westling. "Yet it survived." Not only did it survive, it prospered remarkably in the 20 years following the Revolutionary War.

Westling told the graduates to do their part to not only preserve, but build on the nation's democratic institutions. "You, the Class of 2002, face a grave challenge," said Westling, "but also the opportunity to invent a freer, more just, more secure society, and a better, deeper, and more fulfilling culture for America and for all humanity."

The complete texts of Westling's two speeches, the commemoration of the victims of the terrorist attacks and the main Commencement address, appear below.

A university properly celebrates human achievement, but it also must be mindful of all that it means to be human. Our lives are limited by death and our joys are tempered, both by natural tragedy and by mankind's own evil acts.

At the beginning of this academic year, thousands of innocent civilians were killed in savage attacks on the United States. Among the dead were 28 alumni of Boston University. More of our alumni died on September 11 than in any civilian tragedy; more died that day than in either the Vietnam or Korean Wars. Today, in our hour of celebration, it is proper that we remember them, commemorating their lives with a small portion of our own.
One of those who was killed on September 11 was Lisa Frost, who, last May, sat where you are sitting. Lisa graduated summa cum laude from the College of Communication and the School of Hospitality Administration, and was the student speaker at the school's Commencement exercises.

After spending the summer in Boston, Lisa was headed to her hometown of Rancho Santa Margarita, where she was to visit her parents before starting a new job in San Francisco. She was a passenger aboard United Airlines Flight 175, the second of the two planes that struck the World Trade Center on September 11. The Boeing 767 that Lisa was aboard hit the South Tower at 9:03 a.m.

I would like to ask the University Marshal to escort to the podium Lisa's parents, Mr. Tom and Mrs. Melanie Frost.

Mark Bavis, a 1993 graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences, was also on board Flight 175. A former star of the University's hockey team, Mark was returning to his job as a scout for the National Hockey League's Los Angeles Kings. Mark's twin brother, Michael, was his teammate on the Terriers hockey squad and is now an assistant hockey coach at the University. I ask the University Marshal to escort to the podium Mr. Michael Bavis.

Finally, I ask the University Marshal to escort to the podium Mr. Lee and Mrs. Eunice Hanson, parents of Peter Hanson. Peter, too, was traveling on Flight 175 with his wife, alumna Sue Kim Hanson, and their two-year-old daughter, Christine. Peter Hanson graduated from the School of Management in 1994; Sue Kim Hanson received a Master of Arts in 1992. Sue was enrolled as a graduate student in the School of Medicine at the time of her death, and receives her Ph.D. posthumously today.

Please rise.
For today, Lisa Frost, Mark Bavis, Peter Hanson, and Sue Kim Hanson stand for all those who lost their lives on the hijacked flights, in the collapse of the World Trade Center, and in the attack on the Pentagon.
I am deeply grateful to Tom and Melanie Frost, Michael Bavis, and Lee and Eunice Hanson for their courage in standing here. Their presence pays tribute to all our losses and helps us to see more clearly the precious individuality of a daughter, a brother, a son, a wife, a grandchild.

We also remember the twenty-four other Boston University alumni:

  Myra Aronson
Thomas More Brennan
Caleb Arron Dack
John Doherty
Karleton D. B. Fyfe
Heather Ho
Ralph Kershaw
Judith Larocque
Adriana Legro
Joseph Daniel Maio
Tom McGuinness
Raymond J. Metz III
Carlos "Beto" Montoya
Sonia Puopolo
Richard D. Rosenthal
Richard Ross
Robert E. Russell
Dianne Bullis Snyder
Saranya Srinuan
Craig W. Staub
Edward W. Straub
Steven F. Strobert
Brian Sweeney
Michael Theodoridis

Let us pause for a moment of silence as we remember the sons and daughters, the brothers and sisters, the friends, the loved ones, and all the other innocent victims of this enormity.

What more is there to say? We have seen the pictures endlessly repeated: the second silver plane flying at jet-speed yet somehow in slow-motion into the skyline; the wreaths of smoke rising ink-like against the blue September sky. We have heard the stories a thousand times: of smirking killers and last calls home, of firefighters overwhelmed but undeterred, of men and women who boarded a plane or went to work one morning never to return, their lives snapped off by malignant men.

What more is there to say? Life calls us to be about our business.
Part of the business of the University, of course, is taking stock of the past, and I should like to turn for a few minutes to an epoch seemingly far removed from our current troubles.

In 1783, the newly formed United States signed a peace treaty with Great Britain that ended the Revolutionary War. But the new country faced agonizing difficulties. Eight years of war had left a number of cities badly damaged; the economy was in ruins; in New England, a substantial portion of the more prosperous merchants who had sided with the Crown had fled to Canada or to Britain; the soldiers of the disbanded Continental Army were paid in doubtful dollars and sent home to unemployment.

And the newly United States themselves were neither united nor fully states. The country, governed by the largely ineffectual Articles of Confederation, had, as yet, no established body of law and not even much of a common culture. Many expected the American experiment in self-government to collapse.

In fact, it came close to failing: it struggled; it teetered. Yet it survived. And even more amazing than its mere survival, consider the record of social and cultural accomplishment in the years following the Revolution.

Virginia, in 1786, adopted Thomas Jefferson's Statute for Religious Liberty, which enunciated the principles of religious freedom that later became the basis of the First Amendment. In 1787, the Constitutional Convention completed its draft of the United States Constitution. Today, when people speak of the United States as a young nation, they fail to realize that ours is the oldest constitutional democracy in the world.

The young republic also set about rethinking established ways of doing things. The new states, for example, abolished the old rules of primogeniture and entail, under which only the eldest son inherited his father's estate. They adopted instead the rule that, unless directed otherwise, an estate would be divided equally among the sons -- and in some states the daughters, too. In a stroke, this wiped out the economic basis of aristocracy and gave substance to the new nation's principles of egalitarianism and individualism.
And it created the basis for women's rights. Some states extended the principle further to allow women to control their own property after marriage. These were revolutionary changes that set us on a course of social and political change that continues to this day.

The new nation was thriving with other kinds of innovation. 1783 was also the year that Noah Webster took his first step to create what he hoped would be a new American language by publishing his American Spelling Book. If the English still listen to r-u-m-o-u-r rumors, while Americans scoff at r-u-m-o-r rumors, it is because Noah Webster fixed our language and our Bill of Rights, which dates from 1791, secured our free press.

In the realm of education, we no sooner started to spell things our own way than we found important matters to write about. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences was founded in 1780; and the world's first chemical society was founded in Philadelphia in 1792. In almost every town in the new nation, printing presses began churning out new newspapers. New colleges and universities were founded across the new nation. And we inaugurated a new artistic life. The first musical competition in America, for example, took place in 1790.

The new nation was also alive with technological innovation. The mid-1780s saw John Finch launch one of the world's first steamboats on the Delaware River and Ezekiel Reed invent his machine for making nails. Eli Whitney dramatically changed American agriculture with his invention of the cotton gin in 1794, and three years later laid the basis for mass production by introducing interchangeable parts.

Rather than succumbing to its disorders, the young nation gathered its confidence and went in search of new horizons. In 1803, President Jefferson acquired a vast new territory west of the Mississippi through a deal with Napoleon, and to explore what we had gained through the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806.

Looking back from today on the two decades following the American Revolution, what stands out is not the image of a people exhausted by war and riven by factionalism, but a nation brimming with new ideas and eager to seize the opportunity to try them out.

The 20 years from 1783 to 1803 may have been not only the most creative in American history, but among the most creative in human history. The world we know today -- a world of constitutional democracy, respect for human rights, individualism, and religious toleration -- was born in that era.
I have ventured to remind you of all this history in order to offer a fresh perspective on the situation that confronts us today. In 1783, the United States was newborn; today it is the world's oldest continuous democracy. But that is merely a cold fact. The warm truth is that in May 2002, the United States is once again newborn.

Democracies do not exist like insects preserved in amber. Rather, they must continually re-create themselves -- or, if they fail to re-create themselves, they die.

So in May 2002, this American democracy urgently calls upon your creative energy, your intelligence, your discipline, your imagination, and your vision.
I do not presume to know what rule of primogeniture you will abolish to create greater equality; what steamboat you will launch to revolutionize transportation; what cotton gin you will invent to create a new industry; what dictionary you will write to create a new American language; what statute you will draft to ensure religious freedom. Whether you discover a new way to make nails or found a new university, whether you publish a new newspaper or explore a new continent on a new planet, you will be the founding fathers -- and mothers -- of American democracy in the coming century.

This image applies in a very particular way to this class in this year. It applies because you are the class that must reinvent American democracy in the face of the challenges we now face.

The troubles of our time are not of your choosing. You might prefer to put them aside and turn instead in pleasurable anticipation to the challenges of your own lives and careers.

And indeed the joy you feel today in the completion of a hard task honorably done is fully deserved. But joy is an emotion that cannot exist except side by side with the darker shadings of human experience. And Commencement for the Class of 2002 is an especially mixed evocation of achievement and loss, hope and anxiety.

The Al Qaeda terrorist attacks that so cruelly took the lives of our friends and family, your fellow alumni, and thousands of other innocent men, women, and children, were the opening of a war that will inextricably involve each and every one of us. And it is a war that from the start is over the fate of your democracy and your civilization.

You have come of age in a time when it was unfashionable to think in these terms. The institutions of democracy were, for many of your teachers, matters to be taken for granted, or worse, objects of cynical scorn. But when we see that something so basic as our freedom to move in safety from one American city to another can be turned into a weapon against us, we have to reassess.

If you want to continue to live in a free and tolerant society, you will have to do a lot more than praise the idea of diversity. Other people who do not believe for one moment in the worth of diversity are filled with murderous hatred for your society, and are ready to lay down their lives to destroy your democratic freedoms.

How will you respond? I cannot tell and I do not believe that you have even begun to take this matter as seriously as you will have to.

You were, of course, horrified by the terrorist attacks, but as the months went by, the reality of what happened slowly began seeping away. The events, patterned into submission, became a name -- a date -- and were embalmed in the simple past tense of what was past -- and gone.

But that past was only eight months ago and the people who committed the atrocities are still heroes to millions. Turning your attention exclusively to your own pursuit of happiness is not an option -- at least, not for long.
If you would preserve your freedom and the democratic institutions that make that freedom possible, you will have to begin now -- as the American founders did in 1783 -- to imagine and to build those institutions once again.

Those institutions cannot -- they will not -- survive without your full commitment, your heartfelt advocacy, and every ounce of your intelligence.
The good news is that from the darkest and least promising moments sometimes dawn our brightest mornings. You, the Class of 2002, face a grave challenge, but also the opportunity to invent a freer, more just, more secure society, and a better, deeper, and more fulfilling culture for America and for all humanity.

You have all the capacity of mind and spirit that you will need. The degrees you receive today mean that you have acquired the tools. You are ready.
We are counting on you.


31 May 2002
Boston University
Office of University Relations