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Commencement 2004

UC Berkeley Web Feature

Commencement stage

Commencement 2004 offers grads an only-at-Berkeley celebration

Graduates at commencement  Sights & sounds of graduation: An audio slide show

– Wednesday’s Commencement Convocation at the Greek Theatre melded tradition, innovation, homilies, profundities, earnestness, flippancy, poetry, protest, and celebration into something both instantly recognizable as a conventional graduation event and distinctly Berkeley.

After all, it would be impossible to imagine that anywhere but Berkeley could put on a ceremony that begins with "Pomp and Circumstance," is interrupted by demonstrators wearing Chancellor Berdahl masks, features a nationally known speaker who proudly proclaims his Stanford loyalty, and includes oratorical references to Otto von Bismarck, Dick Cheney, Earl Warren, gay and lesbian rights, and the Patriot Act – and then concludes with thousands of voices singing "Hail to California."

On what Berdahl, in his welcoming remarks, described as "a beautiful, beautiful day," the procession of graduates in cap and gown unfolded across the Greek Theatre stage in a time-honored fashion, the scene modernized only in the widespread use of cell phones, by students and audience members alike, to locate one another in the crowd.

Robert M. Berdahl
'Let us recognize that truth is never served by secrecy; that justice is never served by the denial of due process. Let us remember that the light is never served by a cloak of darkness.'
-Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl

"Go ahead and hoot it up!" Chancellor Berdahl told the initially decorous graduating class, setting a festive mood. That mood shifted briefly when he said, in mock seriousness, "Of course, you haven’t all finished finals yet, so my congratulations may be a bit premature." An authentic groan rippled through the senior class before Berdahl added that having the convocation before finals just shows the confidence the campus has in its seniors.

Turning serious, Berdahl recalled the "terrible day" in September 2001 that, he told them, has caused the world to "change dramatically since you entered Berkeley." He revisited his words at the campus memorial event following September 11, where he said, "We have been scarred by this tragedy, and we have been changed. But let us resolve here today not to be changed too much." He had urged that gathering to preserve the university as a place where truth comes to light "by the exercise of free and open conversation, a discussion free of rancor, a discussion liberated from the strictures of dogma, a discussion emancipated from the demands for the acquiescence of others."

Berdahl told the graduates that he believes "even more today" in those words. "Let us not permit those who would exchange our freedoms for a false sense of security to do so," he said. "Let us not allow anyone to measure our patriotism by silence in the face of injustice, or our loyalty by our acquiescence to policies we believe to be wrong. …Let us recognize that truth is never served by secrecy; that justice is never served by the denial of due process. Let us remember that the light is never served by a cloak of darkness."

In mid-flight, as Berdahl was urging his listeners not to acquiesce in policies believed to be in error, four protestors stood in the back of the audience, loudly chanting their objection to Berdahl’s recent decision to accept the recommendation of an interdepartmental budget committee that tenure be denied to Ignacio Chapela, assistant professor of microbial biology. Though the demonstrators were quickly urged to silence by the crowd and a pair of UC police officers, they were permitted to remain in their seats, and to keep wearing their paper bags decorated with cut-out images of Berdahl — who, for his part, never broke his rhetorical stride during the brief incident.


'There are decisions that will be addressed or ignored over the next few months that will set the course of human and civil rights in this country for years to come.'
-Ted Koppel, ABC News anchor

Keynote speaker Ted Koppel, ABC News anchor and longtime host of its "Nightline" program, was introduced to cheers not unlike what one would encounter on the red carpet at Oscar time. When a cry of "We love you, Ted!" was heard, he cautioned, "Before you get too nice about it, wait to see what I have to say next."

Koppel then characterized as "horse manure" the customary assurance offered to graduating classes that "You are remarkable … extraordinary … the world, indeed, has never seen your like before." Instead, he said, he is "much more impressed" by the "remarkable, extraordinary generations" that preceded and supported this year’s graduates, the people of many lands who "planted all of the hopes and dreams that they would never realize in us, and in you."

Turning his remarks to "war and patriotism and dissent," he said, "And before I go any farther, I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding between us. I know that many of you here today oppose the war in Iraq [substantial applause]. I do not," he continued emphatically, to somewhat less applause. "I have many questions and reservations about how that war is being conducted, but I don’t oppose it."

The current debate over the legitimacy of the war, whether U.S. forces should have been sent to Iraq in the first place, and "whether ultimately the war is even winnable," he said, comes "terribly late. That is a debate we should have had 18 months ago. Still, here it is, and my concern is over how it should be conducted."

Koppel predicted with near-certainty that "chemical, biological, and even nuclear weapons … will almost surely be used in an act of terrorism against the United States — in the United States" at some point in the next few years. The imposition of martial law in this country would inevitably follow, he said, and he urged that we not defer a national debate over "what we will do" after such an attack.

He then criticized the national focus on such political minutiae as George W. Bush’s National Guard service (or lack thereof) and "the value of John Kerry’s military service" in Vietnam, which has left little room for more important public discussion on the guidelines — "set much, much further up the command chain" — that led to the human-rights abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.

"What madness!" he exclaimed. "Do we really believe we can rise to the great challenges that confront us by endlessly questioning one another’s motives and patriotism? There are decisions that will be addressed or ignored over the next few months that will set the course of human and civil rights in this country for years to come. There is a direct correlation between the perception of threats to America’s security and the contraction of our rights and freedoms. We need to critically examine the nature and scope of those threats, and where they exist we must be prepared to calibrate our rights, and even our freedoms. If we fail to do that now, in a time of relative sanity when it is still possible for voices of moderation to be heard, then we will have condemned ourselves to having those choices made in a climate of national hysteria."

"You’re smarter than I am," Koppel told the graduates. "You’ll have to be. This is one hell of a mess that we’ve created for you." He ended his comments with a plea for tolerance all around and a desultory "Go Bears" that the Stanford graduate promised he would deny having uttered if questioned. (A transcript of Koppel's remarks is available on the NewsCenter.)

Emily Kagan
Emily Kagan, poetry slam veteran and the students' choice for Commencement speaker

A highlight of the ceremony was poetry slam veteran and graduating senior Emily Kagan, who strode to the podium, unleashed her poem "Note to Self," and delighted the crowd.

"Write down your goals," she remembered having been counseled as a new freshman,

And paste them to your palms
so that everything you touch
feels like promise. …
This is what they told me. …

On my right arm I’ve written down
the definition of the word ‘ecumenical,’
And on my left
I have instructions on how to make my voice
lose its shake when I ask a question in class. …

I have slept way past lunch,
and stitched all those daydreams into a blanket
for my shoulders. …

I have a factpack full of instructions on how to
cultivate fertile 19-year-old self-slaughter and reconstruction,
And on the backs of my eyelids I’ve written down
midnight promises of commitment to organic chemistry
that I have broken at 5 p.m. promptly.

But the other day I saw a man in the rain
begging for change on the way to econ class,
and I don’t think I have a place to put that. …

Norman Myers
'Don’t be content to be simply human beings; try your hand at human becomings.'
-Norman Myers, winner of the Haas International Award

Internationally renowned environmentalist and alumnus (Ph.D., 1973) Norman Myers, who has been ahead of the curve on such issues as tropical deforestation, species extinction, and the effects of worldwide consumerism, received the Elise and Walter A. Haas International Award, presented to an international alumnus who has made significant contributions to society. He won the crowd with his rapid-fire delivery in a rolling north-of-England brogue.

"Don’t ever be like those sad folks who quack with the flock," he urged the graduates. "Quack your own noise, your own song. Bear in mind that, thanks to the electronic revolution, this is a time when everybody can be somebody, and nobody need be nobody.

"Don’t be content to be simply human beings; try your hand at human becomings. … I get the impression that you folks don’t deal with problems; what you see are challenges and opportunities. More power to you! No matter how large and numerous the problems, you’ll have a go at them! I would not like to be a problem that gets in the way of Berkeley students. So there!"

Margaret Ann-Chia Chow
'Don't worry so much about what major you are or what path you might take.…Your interests will change, and time will influence so many things.'
-Margaret Ann-Chia Chow, 2004 University Medalist. Read profile

Berdahl returned to the still-smoking podium to introduce Margaret Ann-Chia Chow, the winner of the University Medal, the campus’s highest undergraduate award. Chow urged her fellow graduates to "remain courageous in the face of opposition and extremes." Though "we came in here timid," she reminded them, "we leave with voices and the courage to use that voice." She applauded the recent decision by the campus Academic Senate to challenge application of the Patriot Act at Berkeley, and chided the Bush administration for having "disbanded technical advisory committees responsible for counsel on arms control and nuclear weaponry when their advice ran contrary to the government agenda."

The chancellor also recognized the other five finalists for the medal: Deann Lynn del Rio, Jesse Gabriel, Maria Esteli Garcia, Perin Gurel, and David Young. (Profiles of the medalist and finalists are on the UC Berkeley NewsCenter.) Also honored were winners of other major campus awards: Camilo A. Romero (the Kenneth Priestley Leadership Award); Gustavo A. Mata (Meritorious Distinction for the Priestley Award); Christopher R. Peabody (the Mather Good Citizen Award); Kim Yokers (the Anna Espenschade Prize); Christopher Murphy (the Jake Gimbel Prize); and Ryan Buckley (the Ina K. and Roy B. Christie Award).

Other speakers included California Alumni Association President Nadesan Permaul, who welcomed the graduates to the "long blue line" of illustrious Cal alumni. Class of 2004 Gift Committee co-chairs Carolyn Damonte and Juan Davalos presented a check for $47,850 to Berdahl, representing the contributions of 1,420 graduating seniors to support undergraduate programs.

Finally, student Kenny Chen, chair of the Commencement Convocation, recognized "one very special person who is ‘graduating’ from Cal this year" — the chancellor himself, who, Chen said, "has worked tirelessly and selflessly in maintaining, improving, and growing the university since 1997." Berdahl received an unhesitant standing ovation from students and the entire Greek Theatre crowd.

The event closed with two choruses of "Hail to California." What began as a murmur in the first verse grew stronger by the second, reaching a peak with the lines "Fighting ‘neath her standard / We shall sure prevail…" For once there was no mention of Stanford, or of Iraq, or of gifts and individual accomplishment; there was only unity and good feeling. And then, somewhere beyond the Greek Theatre gates, "real life" began for the Class of 2004.