50 Years Later, Another Delayed Commencement
The Class of 1970 shares advice with the Class of 2020
In 1970, Boston University canceled Commencement amid the nationwide turmoil of campus antiwar protests. Today’s crisis is quite different: an invisible enemy, a deserted campus. BU looks forward to celebrating the Class of 2020 with the best Commencement possible, when safety permits. Meanwhile, here’s advice from the Class of 1970.
Replies have been edited for brevity and clarity.
My heart goes out to the Class of 2020.
You are bright, ambitious young people who have spent years of your lives earning this degree. To be denied that final moment of closure and reward—with all your family and friends around you, helping you celebrate your accomplishments—is very hard.
I know that, because I experienced it myself. Fifty years ago, in 1970, our Commencement was cancelled. I remember that time so vividly. There was so much controversy and upheaval about the Vietnam War, then there was the tragedy at Kent State, and shortly after that, protesters took over the administration building at Boston University, which meant that there couldn’t be a Commencement. And we became the forgotten class. It wasn’t until 40 years later that we celebrated our Commencement.
The good news is that Boston University today is much better prepared to deal with this terrible situation than it was back then. I prefer to think of it as a postponement of Commencement, rather than a cancellation. Several of us on the board, along with President Brown, have been pushing hard to find a way so that those of you in the Class of 2020 who want a Commencement can experience that. President Brown’s team is now looking at the options for making that happen. [Editor’s note: BU has since announced it will give the Class of 2020 an in-person Commencement next May, on or around the same weekend it says farewell to the Class of 2021.]
So I do hope that your class gets that opportunity. Equally, I hope that your families get the chance to celebrate. As a parent, this is one of the great moments in your life. You’ve worked so hard your whole life, and to see your son or daughter succeeding like this is so very special. I’m sure that this is especially true for the families of our first-generation college kids. It’s inspiring to think how far those families have traveled, on their way to this milestone. Let’s resolve to celebrate together!
I myself am celebrating a second 50th anniversary this year. In May 1970, I joined the business that I lead today. What have I learned, in the ensuing years? Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned is that most success grows out of adversity. It’s the resourcefulness of individuals, in dire times like these, that earmarks certain institutions for success.
Some of my own greatest successes have come out of disastrous moments. I made the biggest investment of my life on September 8, 2008, when I bought a company that I hoped would take us in new directions. I had borrowed a lot of money to make that purchase. Then, a week later, the entire economy collapsed. At that point, I honestly didn’t know what would happen. I said to my associates, “Well, we just have to look through the moment to try and see the future.”
That first year was really tough. But it turned out to be the best investment I ever made. We made it work, and it’s a core part of our current business. In fact, if we hadn’t done that, we probably wouldn’t have a company today.
So I conclude that you have to look around you, size things up, and do your very best to make things work, to make things better. You have to do that. And at the same time, you have to figure out what you can’t control and then not lose sleep over that. We can’t control this pandemic. But we can control our lives. We can look for opportunities and steer toward them.
I’ve always been very optimistic. I think we’ll come out the other side of this crisis as better people, and a better society. And the key is to be forward-thinking. Of course, we can always look back, play the blame game, and find fault. But if we want to move ahead, we have to be forward-thinking.
Congratulations to you, the members of the Class of 2020. We support and embrace you, and welcome you to a very special community: the alumni of Boston University.
Kenneth J. Feld (Questrom’70)
Chair, Boston University Board of Trustees
A piece of advice from Professor Howard Zinn, offered in a class at the very end of our senior year, has stayed with me: “Remember what we’ve done together over the last several years, but understand that no one of us can change the world. And so I encourage you all to carry on the fight by going home and carrying on our work by being good citizens in your own communities.” My advice to you is inspired by this message. While taking care of yourselves and your loved ones, focus on what you can do to contribute to your hometowns and communities.
Howard Altarescu (Questrom’70, LAW’74)
Members of the Class of 2020 might best recalibrate their relationship with this one-of-a-kind pandemic, to gather each person’s unique meaning from it, as well as to best make use of the available time: as a blessing to know thyself, to assist the multitude of less advantaged, and at the same time contribute to greatly improving our world, which the young and educated hold in their hands.
Christina Atkin (CAS’70)
Our situations are different, but you are feeling let down nonetheless. You will be stronger for it. You may not want to hear that, but you will go through tougher times in your life, so don’t stress. Be grateful for the time you had at BU, the friends you made, and the teachers you had. When the day does come that you get to wear your cap and gown, think how much more special it will be.
Irma Cole (Wheelock’70)
Consider yourselves a significant part of history, global and American. Make plans for your future—you will have one! Your generation will be our leaders. The most important lessons come from learning to roll with the unexpected and discovering ways to bounce back. Be bold, discover your strengths, find your community, and stay connected. Pay attention to the sources of inequality; old ways that no longer serve us can be changed. Find mentors; they will help you discover your path.
Lorrie Fink (COM’70, Wheelock’73)
Celebrate your achievements with your families and friends. They were your support over these years and will be there for you going forward. This time will pass and we will need people who have seen the worst so you can help us move forward and make our communities better and safer.
Carol Stern Gendel (Wheelock’70)
Commencement is a meaningful one-day celebration—a tiny part of the BU experience. My BU experience occurred in classrooms, seminars, dorms, libraries, and making new friendships over four years. This is the lasting BU experience that matters and is memorable even 50 years later.
Leonard Glantz (CAS’70, LAW’73)
Your degree is priceless. Looking back over 50 years, I can honestly say, I lost nothing by not celebrating; I gained everything by having a BU diploma to focus and inform my further career.
Clark Howland (Questrom’70)
Don’t be complacent. No one six months ago would have ever opined that a virus would shut the world down, let alone the United States or Boston University. You can never count on things going along the same way forever. And it is important that you recognize this and you prepare yourself to be flexible for things to occur, to think about them, do what you can, and to live with the rest.
Peter Kravitz (CGS’68, CAS’70, LAW’73)
It may be hard to understand now, but as time goes by, not having a graduation ceremony will become less important. Eventually, it will become a conversation at parties and family gatherings—revisiting the historical events of the time.
Arleen Kline (Questrom’70)
Although there were very different circumstances that caused the cancellation of graduation in 1970, use this seminal experience to know that there will always be challenges ahead. Hopefully, what is occurring now with the COVID-19 pandemic will open up new perspectives on your life, your community’s life, and conditions around the world. Use this time to reflect on what you can do to adapt and make things better. Then act.
Julian Lipsher (CGS’68, Wheelock’70)
Those of us born shortly after the close of WWII were perhaps the most privileged generation this world has ever seen. We hoped to make a positive impact on the world. In some ways we did, but overall, our record is mixed. The Class of 2020 is unique in a different way: leaving school at a time of challenge. Pandemics, climate change, distrust in the institutions that formed the background of the world order (such as it was) mean there is plenty to do for motivated, imaginative young people.
Henry Sturcke (COM’70)
Congratulations to all of the 2020 graduates!!! This should be an exciting time for all of you, but not in this way. I feel complete empathy for what you and your families are experiencing right now. As a graduate of the Class of 1970, I remember all too well how it feels to be disappointed and in limbo. I look forward to your being able to return to campus when this is over for all of us to celebrate your accomplishments and successes over your career. Again, congratulations and stay well during this difficult time.
Sharon Ryan (Sargent’70)