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Dr. David M. Oshinsky
Commencement Address

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David M. Oshinsky

Thank you, President Powers, distinguished faculty and visitors, graduates, proud and financially relieved parents.  I appreciate this opportunity to share my thoughts with you on this momentous occasion.

In truth, I am humbled and honored to be here.  Commencement speakers are usually big-time celebrities—a movie actor, a controversial talking head from cable news, a rising national politician.  But I do possess three assets that these people lack.   I work for free.  I wrote my own speech.  And—best of all—I actually know many of the graduates who are assembled here tonight.  I’ve taught them in class; I’ve scrutinized their written work; and I’ve conversed with them for hours on a vast range of subjects.  Thus I can assure you all, from my close personal experience, that the future of Texas, of America, and of the great world beyond is in very good hands.

I feel a strong attachment to this class of 2007.  I came to the University of Texas at Austin as a visitor in 2001, and as a full time faculty member the following year.  Virtually all of the undergraduate courses I’ve taught here have included the wonderful faces looking at me right now.  Most of you will soon be leaving these Forty Acres for another destination— I truly hope it’s
not your old bedroom at home— while I get to teach a new
generation of Longhorns.  We’re both lucky for very different reasons.

Commencement speeches are usually a time to pontificate, to give vacuous advice, and, increasingly, to sketch out an alarming current state of affairs.  To be honest, I don’t much like these topics during a time for celebration, and I suspect you don’t either.  We get enough doom and gloom every day in the news.  There are soldiers your own age fighting a bloody war thousands of miles from home; last year, two of my best students had just completed their tours of duty in Iraq.  There’s a nuclear threat from Iran, and another from North Korea; famine and genocide in Africa; corporate corruption that has shaken the business world in Texas and beyond.  There’s the ever-present threat of terrorism, the fears of global warming, and a growing clash over immigration that will test our national character in new and difficult ways.  It’s hardly a secret that you’ll be leaving this cloistered, nurturing campus to enter a messy, unpredictable world.

But here’s the good news— our world has always been messy.  The problems you face today are no more ominous than those faced by previous generations of Americans.  These problems have solutions, and it is up to you to figure them out.  Indeed, if I may make a modest prediction, it is this: fifty years from tonight, when you return to Austin to watch your ninth grandchild graduate, only one vital question from our current era will remain unanswered: Were the Houston Texans insane, or simply incompetent, when they decided not to draft Vince Young?

I attended college in the 1960s.  In that period, four major American leaders were assassinated—President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King.  Four Assassinations!  The war in Vietnam had badly divided the nation.  A few years later, for the first time in our history, an American president resigned his office to avoid being impeached in the infamous Watergate scandal.

As I look back now, I can clearly recall how overwhelming these problems appeared—yet how successfully our democratic nation moved to get beyond them.  The civil order was repaired, the Constitution held fast, the system survived.  Whatever the excesses of my generation, we, too, came to understand that freedom is a gift to be cherished, not abused— a gift to be passed forward, with solemn confidence, to those who sit here tonight.

As an historian, I also have a good sense of what the college generation before mine must have felt on the eve of World War II.  Try for a moment to imagine their worries about the challenges they would have to face, and the courage they would have to muster, in a world darkened by the atrocities of genocidal dictators from all parts of the political spectrum and from all regions of the globe.  And recall how courageously they met their responsibilities to their nation and to the future.  It’s an unending cycle in which you—the class of 2007— will now play your part.

And let me make a few judgments about the role you will play.  First, you have been very well prepared; you have the ability to compete with anyone.  Here at the University of Texas at Austin, we do some things so well, with so much public fanfare, that we tend to forget other important matters.  Everyone knows that, in your years here on campus, we won a national championship in football, in baseball, and in women’s track and field, and that we are ranked in the top ten in many other sports. 

That is part of our heritage; it’s important for our university—for student bonding and morale, for fund-raising and alumni pride.  But the University of Texas at Austin is so much more than this.  We have one of the finest library systems anywhere, and absolute treasure troves at the Harry Ransom Center and the Blanton Museum of Art.  Our professional schools in law, business, engineering, pharmacy, and education rival any in the world.  Many of our individual departments—including my own in history-- have earned national distinction.

What this means is that you have been taught by an outstanding faculty, buttressed by solid academic resources.  If you took your studies seriously, your education has been first-rate.  You have learned to expand your imagination, to combine professional skills with ethical concerns, to compete successfully without sacrificing the essentials of fairness, tolerance, and compassion.  I can assure you, from my thirty-five years of experience in academics that the graduates sitting before me tonight can match up against their peers anywhere in the country.  And that the very best among you are superior to any I’ve met in my college teaching career.

But more needs to be done.  The stated goal of the University of Texas at Austin is to take its rightful place among the elite of state universities in the United States—the very top tier that includes the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia.   These are the universities we aspire to emulate, to compete with, in the academic sphere. 

But this will not be easy. To be blunt, our university, at present, does not receive the funding required to get us where we hope to go.  We need more full-time faculty to service our growing student population, and greater diversity among the people we hope to hire.  We need additional resources to attract and retain the very best professors, to encourage their cutting edge scholarship, and to successfully compete for the world’s top graduate students.   As citizens of Texas, and men and women who want the very best for our university, we must insist that closing the gap on Michigan in the national academic rankings is every bit as important to us as beating them in the Rose Bowl.  

These goals are not mutually exclusive; athletics and academics are both essential parts of our educational mission.  I trust that those gathered here tonight will strongly support the University Texas at Austin in all of its future endeavors, including the hard but vital push to reach its full academic potential.

For me, bleeding burnt orange has many sources.  It comes from knowing that a graduating senior tonight, who walked into my survey class four years ago as a tongue-tied freshman from the Rio Grande Valley, is now headed to Washington to study foreign relations and national security.  And knowing, too, that another of my graduating students is putting his law school plans on hold so he can go back to teach school in that same Valley.  It’s the perfect symmetry of it all, the endless chain of commitment, the passing of knowledge from one to the other, that makes our work here so special.

According to recent statistics, college graduates today are back in demand.  The strong economy means that 2007 will be among the best hiring markets in recent years.  This translates into more jobs and higher salaries for college graduates.  It means that many of you can afford to be choosy.  It means you may have the opportunity to try new things—even change careers in your lifetime—in search of the vocation that will both please you and put your talents to work in ways that will benefit us all.

So there’s good reason to be optimistic—to savor this moment, to breathe it in slowly, and to dream big dreams.  I only ask these things of you: be civil to those with whom you disagree and be generous to others along the way.  Fully understand how privileged you are to be graduates of the University of Texas at Austin; be mindful of this gift and willing to share the bounty it will bring you.  And remember how much your parents and family members have sacrificed to get you here.

And you can start this process at dinner tonight with them by picking up the check.  If not, at least stay with your parents through dessert before heading down to Sixth Street or the Hula Hut to celebrate with your friends.

I’ve been on the road a lot this year.  Last week, during a speaking trip to Boston, I took time off each afternoon to go for a jog.  As always, I wore my Longhorn T-shirt and running shorts.  And, as happens everywhere I’ve been, I couldn’t jog more than a few hundred yards without someone stopping to yell, “Go, Texas” or to flash me the horns salute.

There’s something magical about this university.  In working on my commencement speech, I came across an anecdote I’d like to share with you.  In 1918, as American soldiers were bravely turning the tide during some of the hardest fighting of World War I, a veteran of that war—a recent University of Texas graduate named Casey Jones—was given a six-week furlough to recover from serious wounds he had suffered in France.  Captain Jones used that time to return to Austin to see his beloved University of Texas.  “I only left a year ago last month,” he said, “but it seems so far away-- so far back.”  He paused for a moment, then added: “When I saw the campus [today], I wished I could be starting in again as a freshman.”

It’s a feeling all of you will soon share.  Like Captain Jones almost a hundred years ago, you are now about to join one of the largest and most special orders in the world—that of University of Texas at Austin alum.  It is time for us to say goodbye for a while.  Remember well what you have learned here.  And continue to make us proud.  HOOK ‘EM.


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