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Final Exercises 2002: Warner Speech

Governor Mark Warner
Commencement Address, May 19, 2002
University of Virginia

Rector Ackerly, President Casteen, members of the faculty, parents and family members and most importantly, class of 2002. Congratulations, you made it!

Before I begin, I want to say thank you for inviting me to speak here during my first year as governor. Now, my friends in the news media, that is known as freshman year everywhere else.

My wife, Lisa Collis, as Mr. Ackerly already indicated, is a proud U.Va. alumna of 1977. You know she has often given me grief for not attending U.Va., although I always do point out that I did go to a law school in Boston that was often referred to as the U.Va. of the North.

Congratulations on your graduation. Earning a degree from this university is tough and you deserve to feel proud. It also means you have a tremendous responsibility, because the fact is that most of our six billion neighbors around the world will never be able to dream of going to college.

To graduate in 2002 is to graduate in a world where knowledge is more important than ever. A world where technology advances at Internet speed. A world where the once impossible is now routine. Today, worldwide travel, instant communication and access to information are all options for more people than ever before. These are good things. But with them come fractured communities and a growing digital divide.

Today the Internet economy has opened the doors of opportunity and prosperity wider than ever before. But, it worsens the gap between the rich and the poor and divides the world into information haves and have-nots.

Today, advances in biotechnology offer great promises for the cure of disease and the treatment of illnesses. But, they also raise questions about the very nature of life itself as we face the complex, ethical dimensions of cloning and stem cell research.

Today's opportunities for political participation around the world are greater than ever in human history. But, too often today's political debates are dominated by sound bites, personal attacks and massive over simplification. Today, more people in more parts of the world live in freedom than ever before. But, the fundamental values of civilized society -- liberal democracy, free expression and economic opportunity -- are under assault everywhere. As we all know after 9-11, even here in America.

And at a time when more people than ever live under the principle of religious freedom that Jefferson laid out, one of the greatest threats facing our world comes from those who believe they are acting out God's will no matter what religion they practice.

How do we navigate these uncertain times? I think we start by returning to this university's fundamental commitment, the value of a liberal education. Mr. Jefferson said, "Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error." In a world moved by rapid change, and increasingly uncertain, reason and free inquiry are more important than ever.

In an age where we can do anything, when we can create anything, when we can manipulate anything, the liberal arts should help us determine what we should do, not simply what we can do.

When moral absolutes no longer seem so clear, how do we know how to treat each other?

A liberal education teaches us to study and respect the world's great religions and treat others like we would want to be treated ourselves.

When a decision benefits one person, but could hurt another, how do we decide what to do? A liberal education teaches us to study the lives of those who came before us and we look to examples of people like Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King Jr.

When we can say anything, how do we choose the right words? A liberal education teaches us to look to the words of great writers from Shakespeare to our own Rita Dove.

Each of you has learned critical thinking skills here. No matter what profession you pursue, each of you will need technical proficiency to succeed in the information age. But more than that, in a complex world you'll need wisdom to find your way. And this university has equipped you to develop that wisdom, just as it has done for this country's leaders for nearly two centuries.

When the university has invested so much in you, how do we fulfill our responsibility to pay back those who have invested in us? And when the University of Virginia's history is rich, how do we build a future that is worthy of its past?

I remember the words of Colgate Darden. He served as governor of Virginia during World War II and as a delegate to the United Nations. During his years as president of this University, he moved Finals Exercises from McIntire Theater to The Lawn.

He said,

"Much of what is finest about the University of Virginia is found in its traditions. Acquaint yourselves with them. You will find them of great value. However do not permit yourself to become a captive of the past. Tradition is of worth only so long as it tends to preserve what is valuable and useful in the life of the community."

He said those words more than 50 years ago, but they still apply today. For too long in Virginia, we dreamed of what we once were. It is time to start dreaming of what we can become.

Today's ceremony is a first step. For those of you staying in Virginia, and for everyone who cares about this university, the next step comes in November. As many of you know there will be a $1 billion referendum on the Virginia ballot this fall to help pay for critical capital needs on our campuses. I cannot emphasize how important passage of this referendum is to Virginia's future.

We won't have the laboratories, the classrooms and the dormitories unless we pass this referendum. And we must have those facilities to ensure that those who follow you continue to find a university of excellence. What better way to help this university's tradition than by helping to build its future?

In the same way, each of you will play a role in building the country's future starting today. Whether you will be a doctor or a dancer, a scientist or a social worker, this country needs you and the values of your liberal education.

Now, let's be honest. Perhaps you will remember this insightful speech 20 years -- or 20 minutes from now. Or perhaps not. What I hope you will remember though, besides the Gus Burgers, the football games, the Foxfield races, is the foundation that this university has built for you.

When uncertain times tempt you toward intolerance, I hope you will reject that false choice. When you have the chance to get ahead at another's expense, I hope you will respect the community. When you have the choice between surrendering to a sound bite and wrestling with the nuances of a complex issue, I hope you will choose reflection.

It won't be easy, but the country, our country, needs these values more than ever. And as University of Virginia graduates, I hope you will offer nothing less.

Thank you and congratulations Class of 2002.