The New Yorker editor says Rutgers’ diversity could serve as a national model in his address for the university’s 256th anniversary commencement
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Remnick told the Rutgers Class of 2022 that they are confronted by a different, darker, more fragile world and are graduating at a charged moment in history for the individual, country and planet.
“So much of what we cherish – democracy, essential institutions, economic security, even the Earth itself – appears fragile,” Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, said Sunday during the first in-person commencement held for Rutgers University-New Brunswick and Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences in two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While speakers struck a serious tone at times, the scene was joyful as students flooded into SHI Stadium Sunday morning for the 256th anniversary commencement. The occasion was a particularly special moment for the Class of 2022 who were sent home two years ago when the university shifted to remote learning at the height of the pandemic and were mostly not able to return to campus for in-person instruction until this fall.
“I think this is the first time anything has felt normal in a really long time,” said Jocelyn Schwartz, from Northfield, N.J., a biochemistry major in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and student in the Douglass Residential College. “It was tough being home during the pandemic, but it makes seeing everyone now so much brighter and better.”
It was a sentiment echoed by many at graduation.
“It is very nice to be able to come back and be in person and be with all my friends and get together and really feel the graduation,” said Emmanuel-Shammah Momplaisir, from Rahway, a finance major in the Rutgers Business School-Newark and New Brunswick. "I know not everyone got that opportunity. It’s a great feeling.”
Remnick addressed a spirited crowd, highlighting his Jersey roots and acknowledging some of the characteristics that set Rutgers apart.
“Here at Rutgers, you’ve lived among what is one of the most diverse student bodies in the entire country,” Remnick said. “Without idealizing it, the student body here could and should serve as a model for so many other schools and American institutions. And yet, the struggle for greater diversity still meets with enormous resistance. That, too, is part of the American fragility.”
Before Remnick delivered the keynote address, President Jonathan Holloway bestowed upon him an honorary degree of humane letters. Former Rutgers President Robert Barchi was also awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters degree and NASA scientist Aprille Joy Ericsson and scholar Alondra Nelson were awarded honorary doctor of science degrees.
I think this is the first time anything has felt normal in a really long time. It was tough being home during the pandemic, but it makes seeing everyone now so much brighter and better.
Jocelyn Schwartz, Rutgers Class of 2022
Remnick spoke to the thousands in attendance about the early days of his journalism career, as a correspondent in Moscow, where he watched countries liberated or on the road to liberation. Today, those same countries are shifting backward to authoritarianism. In that same period here at home, he said we are witnessing a threat to freedom in America by a divided, overheated, infuriated and often intolerant country.
“The thing is, you’re not free when you’re poor or sick or lacking access to education. You are not free in the face of impending environmental disaster,” Remnick told the graduating class of 13,381 during the ceremony.
Remnick also made several references to Rutgers’ 250th anniversary commencement speaker, then-president Barack Obama, who said history doesn’t travel in a straight line, it zigs and it zags and progress can be “bumpy.”
Obama’s speech at Rutgers in 2016 now seems to understate the perils the nation experienced after he left office, Remnick said.
“While you’ve been studying here, you have lived through a hard passage of history. Think about what we’ve all witnessed and been through lately,” Remnick said. “There are times – with a pandemic, the overheating of the planet, incessant acts of racial and social injustice like we just saw in Buffalo, the brutal invasion of Ukraine – there are times when it seems like the troubling news is just too much, too relentless.”
The future of freedom, he insisted, relies on the participation of everyone because freedom is fragile, rare, and provisional. “All of you have a stake in the future of freedom,’’ he said. “There is no life of freedom without some sense of communal responsibility.”
Holloway touched on similar themes during his first in-person commencement as Rutgers president. He told graduates that they had “successfully navigated the most uncertain moment in higher education’s history.”
Holloway first asked the graduates to celebrate the people who have shaped their lives, including those no longer with them and people outside their family who helped in their academic journey. He then asked graduates to stand and yell out the names of mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, and sweet abuelitas who were key to this day.
“I think you've now done the most important thing you can do today: express your gratitude. You've done so silently, you've done it through saying a name, and then you've yelled it to all of your family. This was beautiful for me to watch; I hope it was beautiful for you to experience.”
It is very nice to be able to come back and be in person and be with all my friends and get together and really feel the graduation. I know not everyone got that opportunity. It’s a great feeling.
Emmanuel-Shammah Momplaisir, Rutgers Class of 2022
Holloway, an American historian who specializes in post-emancipation U.S. history, shared remarks delivered by his university president during his graduation 33 years earlier. The speech focused on “The Educated Citizen,” a talk given by politician Adlai Stevenson almost 70 years ago. It’s just as pertinent today because it focuses on why individuals need to remain involved and vigilant, Holloway told the crowd.
“I beg of you, augment your socially-mediated life by being an educated citizen. Fight for your values, in person. Register to vote, then actually vote. Help others register to do the same, then fight for their right to have easy access to the voting booth,” Holloway said. “Get involved in local politics or nonprofits or service agencies. Advocate for those who are routinely left behind or ignored. Get them involved, too. This is not an easy thing I ask of you. But nothing worth having comes easy. Democracy does not come easy. Your freedoms do not come easy.”
Nikhil Sadaranganey, president of the Rutgers University Student Assembly, told his fellow graduates that their generation needs to pick up the mantle and do what is necessary to protect the world.
“We are a generation that has a greater stake in our future than any generation before us, whether it be working on racial equality, saving our democracy or combating climate change,” he said. “Looking out at the crowd today, I don’t just see friends and peers who I stayed up late studying or grabbing food in the dining hall with. I see doctors, lawyers, scientists, programmers, artists and businesspeople all ready to make an impact right now.”
An estimated 19,371 graduates received degrees, certificates and diplomas from Rutgers this year – the most, 13,381, from Rutgers University-New Brunswick and Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences.
We are a generation that has a greater stake in our future than any generation before us, whether it be working on racial equality, saving our democracy or combating climate change.
Nikhil Sadaranganey, president of the Rutgers University Student Assembly
Another 3,978 will graduate from Rutgers University-Newark on Monday, May 16, at a ceremony that will be held at the Prudential Center in Newark. Rutgers University-Camden will hold its commencement ceremonies on May 17 and May 18, graduating 2,012 students.
At the end of his keynote address, Remnick told graduates not to forget that a free society is built out of contributions great and small.
“What you do in your daily, seemingly private, lives helps to create the textures of a free society, a generous society,” Remnick said. “Not only are we here to celebrate the accomplishments of your years at Rutgers, but to anticipate the astonishing things that you are bound to do in the greater world – a world that has been long imagined, and one that you so richly, at long last, deserve.”