Good morning! First of all, congratulations and warmest best wishes to the Class of 2019. You are a special class… an indelible piece of the rich, ongoing history of this special place.
I am going to tell you a few brief alumni stories to illustrate what I mean by special. We start with Paul Robeson, on the centennial anniversary of his graduation from Rutgers College.
Born in Princeton, New Jersey, Robeson was 21-years old and, at the time, only the third African-American to attend Rutgers, when he stood before the audience assembled at the Second Reformed Church in New Brunswick in 1919 to deliver the farewell commencement address as class valedictorian. In his speech, he thanked recent World War I veterans for forging a “new American spirit,” where, ideally, success for people of all backgrounds is assured based on the merit of hard work. Over the course of his very public life, Robeson went on to become a scholar, an actor, an artist, an activist… and in ways that still resonate deeply today, our social conscience 100 years later. The history of Robeson’s extraordinary journey inspires us all to advance the causes of “diversity, inclusion, equity, and excellence” here at Rutgers.
As a graduate of the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, you’re connected – as our newest alumni – to another distinguished graduate closely associated with the very fabric of our school – Dr. Charles Hess. Another New Jersey native, Charley – as he was known to many and to me these past nearly 40 years – passed away at the age of 87 on April 13th. He earned his bachelor’s degree in plant science here at Rutgers (Class of 1953) and his master’s and doctoral degrees at Cornell.
After a stint on the faculty at Purdue, he returned to Rutgers as chair of the Department of Horticulture and Forestry, later serving as the acting dean of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Science, and subsequently the founding dean of Rutgers’ Cook College – which in 2007 became the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. The initial search for the first dean of Cook College was not successful, as the committee decided that “none of the candidates had a record with the proper mix of research and teaching in the biological, environmental or social sciences, and demonstrated leadership in administrating a land-grant college.”
Charley, who had all of those traits, was encouraged to become a candidate… and the rest is history. He went on to be Dean of Agriculture at UC-Davis for 14 years and served in many different roles thereafter, including as a member of the US National Science Board and assistant secretary for science and education at the USDA.
Few individuals have had such transformative influence over the direction of our school as did Charley. He set us firmly on a path of interdisciplinary studies that survives, still grows, and has become an iconic characteristic of our school and your education. His years as dean at Rutgers were at the awakening of environmental ethics. Rachael Carson’s The Silent Spring was published in 1962. Lester Brown (Rutgers Class of 1955) published Man, Land and Food in 1963. The first Earth Day was in 1970. All of these, and more, presaged the sustainability movement that we are in the midst of today.
You are all recipients of a wonderful Rutgers education. You bear witness to and are worthy beneficiaries of the extraordinary legacy of Hess and Robeson. Their examples – in the very public ways in which their lives and examples have unfolded – paved the way for the deep reservoir and tradition of service and social action on campus that continues today.
In closing, let me reflect for a few minutes on what I have called the sustainability movement to illustrate in another way what sets the Class of 2019 apart.
This graduating class has been part of a transformative period here, and closely tied to the theme of sustainability.
We have embraced the framework of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as the unifying theme for collective action.
Katie Parrish, Class of 2019 and recent winner of the Chancellor’s Leadership award, working with the Rutgers Sustainability Coalition on a BIG IDEA proposal wrote, “These goals provide a holistic blueprint to address the world’s most pressing issues, from poverty and hunger to climate change, in order to protect our people and our planet.”
From the importance of soil in carbon sequestration, to the value of the human microbiome, to the importance of compost in nutrient cycling, you see opportunity in undervalued things.
But, who could imagine that a Compost Club would become so popular? Graduating senior Dorothy Lee’s vision about compost led to the formation of the Compost Club and ignited a passion in other students for dealing with food waste, and for considering how to address important issues like food insecurity.
You have used the campus as a living laboratory to try out ideas and to make the invisible… visible. Some of you yarn-bombed trees at the Rutgers Gardens to combat tree blindness and to call attention to the ecosystem services provided by trees.
Inspired by her students’ enthusiasm for sustainability and her passion for experiential learning, Jill Lipoti, teaching professor in the Department of Human Ecology, brought “experiences” to the Sustainability curriculum. Her students have remarked that they will never forget cricket cookies made with cricket flour (very high protein); lessons with Legos; field trips to Duke Farms, Hackensack Meadowlands, and the Joint Meeting sewage treatment plant; tastings of “Toast” (beer made from food waste!) and many more activities that combined environmental solutions with social outcomes.
In all these ways and more, you are indeed special!
We know what your leadership, your passion, and your commitment to sustainable change have achieved on our Rutgers campus.
I can’t wait to see what you have in store for the rest of the world. Thank you and congratulations!