You are here

Commencement Address 2019

Honoring CLA's 150-year legacy: past, present, and future
May 23, 2019

Dean John Coleman at Commencement 2019

Dean John Coleman at Commencement 2019
Dean John Coleman at Commencement 2019

Excerpts from Commencement Address, May 19, 2019

All of our graduating classes are special, of course, but you have the distinction of graduating as we celebrate 150 years as a college.

From 1869 to 2019. 150 years. It’s quite a legacy. In that time CLA has changed tremendously, as has the world around us. 

In 1869, the institution we now know as the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota was in its first year. The Civil War had ended just four years prior. Minnesota, as a state, was 11 years old. And though women attended the University of Minnesota in 1869, they did not yet have the right to vote in Minnesota.

In 1917, World War One was raging in Europe and America entered the fight. The first-ever Pulitzer prizes were awarded. And for the first time, CLA implemented standardized admittance policies and standards for the College. 

In 1954 Coya Knutson became the first Minnesota woman elected to the Congress of the United States. In 1963, the College of Science, Literature, and the Arts became the College of Liberal Arts. In 1969, man landed on the moon. That same year students on campus occupied Morrill Hall -- a vital moment which ushered in an era of greater inclusivity at the U of M, from the makeup of our student body to the disciplines we teach.

50 years later, here we are. At the tail end of a remarkable legacy. 

What will the next 50 years bring? The next 100 or 150 years? What will the world look like then? What will be the challenges of those times? What will have stayed the same? How will the College of Liberal Arts change? 

Of course no one can say. The world will change in ways we can’t even imagine. But while we can’t predict what will come, I want to share with you three things I know for sure.

The first is the College of Liberal Arts’ primary mission will always be to give back and do the most good it can for others. 

150 years ago, CLA was founded as a land-grant institution. The vision of the land-grant system was to empower individuals who would then go on to empower their communities. This vision was about extending the learning of a liberal arts education to a larger population in a growing country. It was profoundly democratizing at its core, spreading skills and knowledge beyond the elite strata of society. 

The land-grant tradition will always be about educating individuals for the good of communities. As a college, we will always aim to be better, to train the finest minds, to graduate the most accomplished students -- not to pat ourselves on the back, but because the better we are at our work, the better our research, the more ready our graduates, the greater good we can do. 

As long as CLA is around I know that that will remain the core of who we are: a liberal arts education for the betterment of individuals, families, and future generations.

The second thing I know is that the future of CLA’s legacy of service is bright, because of you. 

In your time at CLA you have learned about people, places, and viewpoints vastly different from your own and to see the world through others’ eyes -- one of the most powerful assets you bring to the world of employment and the world beyond. You have practiced how to disagree respectfully. 

You have become confident enough to innovate and create solutions while remaining humble enough to learn from others. You have come to understand that success is measured not just by what individuals accomplish, but by how much they contribute to others.

You have taken all of that -- all that you’ve learned here -- and you have already used it to be of service. 

Class of 2019, I’m not sure you know just how special you are. Among you, you have logged many thousands of volunteer and internship hours at organizations like Advocates for Human Rights, the Minnesota Department of Health, the Science Museum of Minnesota, and the Special Olympics, just to name a few.

You’ve worked in the offices of state and federal elected officials. You’ve conducted research on topics from drug addiction relapse to psycholinguistics to monetary policy.

You’ve worked on issues such as hunger, homelessness, environmental protection, human trafficking, domestic violence, and more.

You’ve led organizations and efforts on and off campus, proving yourself to be leaders in every sense of the word.

You are already change makers. And in the years to come I know that you will take your knowledge and experience and continue to push, to question, to create -- and most of all to contribute -- to the well-being of those around you.

You are precisely the students the land-grant creators envisioned 150 years ago. You will be our ambassadors, and the future of CLA’s legacy of contribution and giving could not be in better hands.

The last thing I know is that the future -- for everyone --  is bright, because of you.

You graduate at a time when your work -- whatever it will be -- has the potential to have enormous impact on some of the most pressing problems we face today --  from polarized politics to poverty to disease and beyond.

But because of your liberal arts education, your Liberal Arts Advantage, I know you’ll have the ability to ask creative questions to help us size up and resolve these challenges. 

Because of what you have learned here I know you’ll be able to analyze disparities and conflicts, to place them in historical, economic, and social context.  

I know you will gather, interpret, share, communicate, debate, and express ideas and information.

I know you will offer direction and clarity in the face of what others may perceive as insurmountable obstacles.

I don’t give in to doomsday depictions of the future -- because here I stand, in front of you. I know that the future is bright, because, here you are.

I stand before all the wonderful things you have already accomplished, and I’m already proud. You make me, those of us on the stage, and your family, friends, and supporters in the stands hopeful for what the future will bring.

I started out talking about our 150-year-old legacy. But let me end by saying that the future is not written. The past is only there to remind us how far we’ve come. Your legacy is your own. And what you’ve begun in your years here at CLA -- it’s already great. Yours is already a legacy of excellence. Of giving back. Of service. 

150 years ago, CLA was founded with a vision of a liberal arts education to be used as a tool towards a better life for all.150 years ago, CLA was more a dream than reality. It was small, untested, unproved.

You are the fruition of 150 years of hard work and passion. 150 years of dedication and brilliance. 150 years of questioning: how can we be better? Where are we going? And where will we go next?

Today, we send you out with that legacy in hand. We send you out to carry its message on. We send you to live out its principles. 

Graduates, I thank you for what you have already done -- for our college and for our communities. I can’t wait to see what you will do out in the world.

Congratulations, class of 2019!