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President Walter Harrison's Undergraduate Ceremony Remarks

May 15, 2016

Let’s begin today’s undergraduate commencement ceremony with the most important item on our agenda: please join me in a big round of applause for the class of 2016! Today is your day, graduates. You’ve worked hard, taken advantage of opportunities and overcome obstacles and challenges, and earned the honors and the celebration that you will experience today. All the credit to you, and the spotlight should be on you.

But today is a big day for me, too. Today is my 70th birthday. Seventy years old. I am shocked! I do not feel seventy. OK. I know in my head that I am 70, and I know in body that I am not as young as I used to be. But in my heart I believe I am 39. I also think I am still skinny and that my hair is still black!

So my heart tells me I am not old, but I do know that I was born 70 years ago today in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at 5:15 p.m. In American culture, as in most cultures, wisdom is supposed to come with age, so I feel compelled to give you young’uns some sage advice. (And most of you—not only the graduates—are younger than me—don’t remind me!) So, my advice comes from the greatest of all American philosophers: Yogi Berra, Hall of Fame catcher for the New York Yankees from 1946 to 1963. (OK, baseball sticklers, he had a few at-bats for the New York Mets in 1965. Those of you who know about Yogi Berra know that he was famous for his one-liners and malapropisms. So, his advice—and mine today--is: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

My point is this: your faculty and the University’s staff and administrators—and our Board of Regents—believe we have prepared you well for this day. We believe you have the skill, education, and talent to lead you to successful professional careers. We believe you have had experiences in the classroom and outside of it—in the residence halls, clubs and organizations, student unions, libraries, and fields and courts—to allow you to function successfully as a citizen in a participatory democracy, and we believe through your academic and co-curricular activities you have learned to reflect on yourselves so that you may have rich and rewarding personal lives. That is what any University of Hartford education—in any of our schools and colleges, in any of our majors—should lead to.

But my advice is this: situations will arise many times in your lives—as they have in mine—when you will be faced with complex and perplexing professional and personal choices. There are big ones, small ones, ones you expect and ones that you never saw coming. You won’t know what to do. You may feel paralyzed. My advice is: don’t let that bother you. You’ve acquired the critical analytical skills here to analyze your choices, you have come to understand your heart and your head, you have learned right from wrong. Think through your choices, seek advice, and then make a decision. Like Yogi Berra’s fork in the road, take it. You can never know fully where it will lead—but you can be successful down any road you take if you apply yourself and give it your best.

Just one example from my life: in the winter of 1998 I was a vice president at the University of Michigan. I was fully engaged in the very difficult and satisfying work I was doing. I was not looking for a new job. A search consultant I knew called me and asked: “Could I interest you in becoming a candidate for the presidency of the University of Hartford?” Now, truthfully, I had heard of the University of Hartford, but I knew next to nothing about it. Even though I had gone to undergraduate school at Trinity College across town, when she asked me this question I couldn’t remember where in the city the University of Hartford was.

So, she sent me some information, and I said I would think about it. I was extremely busy, so I did nothing until seven weeks later when she called again and said, “If you want to be considered for the University of Hartford, you need to submit your application by noon tomorrow. I was really consumed at the moment as part of a team responding to a law suit that would eventually become a U.S. Supreme Court case, so I went to bed without doing anything. I woke up at 4:00 a.m. (those of you who know me will know this is a very rare occurrence), and said to myself: you know you want to apply. Do it! So I did, and 18 years later I’m still here! It was, for me at least, absolutely the right decision.

So, that’s my sage advice. And now, let’s turn to the business at hand. We’ll proceed by honoring a group of students and faculty who have distinguished themselves through their activities on campus and their learning and teaching success. They have won a variety of prizes and honors that we will explain. And then we will bestow honorary doctoral degrees on four individuals who have led exemplary lives and enjoyed wonderfully successful careers, making the world better for us all. We will then hear remarks to the graduates by one of them. And after that we will get to what most of you came for: bestowing degrees on the Class of 2016.