Commencement Speaker Deval Patrick: Make Human, Not Just Internet, Connections

May 18th, 2014

Massachusetts governor warns BU grads against being “not present” for others

Before nearly 7,000 BU graduates Sunday, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick delivered a provocative message for young people: social media isn’t all you crack it up to be.

“Modern society is awash in information and grappling with how to make the most of social media,” the possible future presidential candidate said at the University’s 141st Commencement at Nickerson Field. “It is a force in casual communication, in business marketing, in celebrity. It transformed politics in my first campaign, in Barack Obama’s, and in many campaigns since. But does it help us to connect as human beings? Does it enable us to be present?”

Patrick (Hon.’14) ran through a litany of people communicating through social media, but who are nevertheless “not present”: his always-texting younger daughter, whose right thumb “seems to have a life of its own,” a young acquaintance constantly absorbed in his computer and iPad “while you are standing in the same room talking with him,” and even his own staff during meetings.

“Sometimes, the open-ended question is not about getting to the answer, but rather about the journey, and Google has little to do with that,” the governor said. “Real human connection, the nuance of empathy and understanding, is often more gradual and elongated than Twitter. It requires intimacy. And I worry that the demands of constant communication and infinite information through social media are crowding out intimacy.”

Patrick, who similarly lauded human intimacy and community at last month’s memorial service for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing victims, invoked BU graduate student Lu Lingzi (GRS’13), one of those killed.

Intimacy depends “on looking someone in the eye, touching them, actively listening,” he said. In the weeks after the attack, “we were all reminded how few degrees of separation there are between us. Surely, the loss of Lingzi reached deep into the psyche of this community. But the fact is that the loss and senselessness touched the familiar and total strangers alike, because we each knew someone, or someone who knew someone, who was directly affected by what happened.

“One of the duties I assumed…was to comfort the survivors, our neighbors, and friends. That wouldn’t work by text or tweet. It demands intimacy.”

The governor concluded his Commencement address by asking a promise of his listeners: “Sometime today, put your tablet or smartphone aside, look your Mom and Dad in the eye, and tell them that you love them. Hold your roommate’s hand and tell them you appreciate them for helping get you through to today.…Thank one of your teachers in person. Be present—and see what a difference it makes in your lives and the world.” His remarks earned a standing ovation from the graduates and guests.

Patrick, who leaves office in January after two terms, received an honorary Doctor of Laws. Emmy-winning actor and education advocate Bill Cosby, recipient of a Doctor of Humane Letters, responded to graduates’ chanting for a speech with just three baritone-voiced words from one of his most famous characters, Fat Albert: “Hey hey hey!”

Also receiving honorary degrees: BU trustee Rajen Kilachand (GSM’74), Doctor of Humane Letters; City Year CEO and cofounder Michael Brown, Doctor of Humane Letters; Emmy-nominated actress and writer Mayim Hoya Bialik, Doctor of Humane Letters; and MIT molecular biologist and this year’s Baccalaureate speaker Nancy Hopkins, Doctor of Science.

President Robert A. Brown presented the University’s highest teaching honors to three BU professors. The Metcalf Cup and Prize for Teaching Excellence went to Stormy Attaway, a College of Engineering assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Metcalf Awards for Teaching Excellence to Terry Everson, a College of Fine Arts associate professor of music, and Alan Marscher, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of astronomy.

In the student address, Taryana Gilbeau (COM’14) spoke of her background as the child of a teenaged mother who was told she’d never attend a four-year school, yet succeeded by tapping “my unique story as my motivation” and with the University’s support.

Beefed-up security added last year after the Marathon bombings paid off when Boston University Police arrested a 28-year-old man, Andrea Massa, of Marshfield, Mass., with two handguns on Harry Agganis Way. Massa was on his way toward the security checkpoint at the time of his arrest. He faces charges that include creating a disturbance and carrying firearms on school grounds. Police are investigating the incident.

Author Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.