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Commencement Address 2016

Friendships Across Great Divides

By Amy Gutmann

Welcome to the 260th Commencement of the University of Pennsylvania!

Chairman Cohen, Trustees, honored guests: I give you the great Class of 2016!

Graduates, during your time at Penn, you have learned so much and grown so much.

Not only that: you have been able to capture it all on Instagram to share with your friends. What an education that has been!

Just think of what you've gained.

You have friends who barely eat a bite of food without taking a picture and sending it to you for approval.

Plus you have friends who believe the greatest single invention in the history of humanity is the hashtag.

These virtual friendships are new and wondrous. But they still do not replace the friendships you make in person, with an open mind and open heart.

Many years ago, at the height of the Vietnam War, I became acquainted with a fellow graduate student who seemed profoundly different from me. He had trained to be an Air Force fighter pilot. I had demonstrated peacefully against the war in Vietnam. He was Catholic; I am Jewish. His father was a lawyer and his family was solidly middle class. My mother and I lived on social security survivors' benefits and her secretary's income, and I was the first generation in my family to graduate college. To many at that time, these differences seemed impossible to bridge. Yet, despite these differences, we soon were friends.

Today, all these years later, no achievement, and no pleasure in my life rivals that unlikely, yet lifelong friendship with my husband, Michael Doyle.

I am a political scientist and philosopher by training. We are in the midst of a national election so vicious that it's been described as The Game of Thrones. But, folks, this is real, and thank goodness, it's without swords.

Why talk about friendship at a time like this?

Because in times of stress and conflict, the gifts of friendship matter most of all – in our own lives, and in the life of our society. Friendships are unique in human relations. They come into being without formal structures or explicit rules. Family, marriage, work relations -- these are defined by legal rights and obligations.

But friendships are unbounded.  They have no restrictions, no formal qualifications, no limits. They can spring up in the most unlooked-for places and cross the most unlikely boundaries. When they do, they lead in surprising directions and achieve unlooked-for results.

When movie star Marilyn Monroe was studying voice, her singing coach advised her to buy a recording of a little-known jazz vocalist and listen to the album a hundred times. She did, and she gained a profound appreciation for the singer's artistry. Monroe later had the opportunity to befriend the singer, who traveled the country singing in small jazz clubs. Her name was Ella Fitzgerald.

At the time, the most important nightclub in Hollywood was called the Mocambo, on Sunset Strip. Its audience was sprinkled with movie stars and its entertainment featured all the great singers of the day.

But it refused to feature Ella Fitzgerald because she was not well known, but more to the point, because she was African-American. So Marilyn Monroe, then one of the most sought-after stars in show business, called up the club's owner and made an offer: if he would book Ella, she would reserve a front-row table every night of Ella's performance. The owner agreed and years later Ella would recall, "Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again."

Friendships open hearts and friendships change minds: not only for each other, but for us all. Like Ella and Marilyn, friends who cross divides advance the wellbeing of our society. We are at our best when we embrace those special friendships that cross religions, races, and all kinds of identities and ideologies.

As it so happens, these are the very kinds of friendships you have been able to forge in your years at Penn. They surround you right now. To appreciate how truly important they are and to really savor this moment, we are now going to take a quick selfie break!

This is for real. Graduates: Grab your phone and grab a friend, pull them in, and capture this moment of friendship forever.

Terrific – some day you'll thank me for that!

The friendships we cherish across divides are at the heart of the Penn ethos. From your countless student clubs, your community outreach, your studies abroad, and from the world that coursed with you every day down Locust Walk, you have generated passionate intercultural connections and friendships. That is the meaning of the image you just snapped. It will become, in the years ahead, more important than ever – not just for you, but for all of us – all of society.

Never in your lifetimes have the walls that threaten to divide us seemed higher.

 Mutual respect across divides has become scarce; understanding, rare; personal viciousness rife.

Those who think differently aren't treated merely as adversaries; they are treated as enemies. But as you know so well from your experience here, it need not and should not be that way.

Shortly after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died this year, an image appeared in the news. It was a photograph of Justice Scalia, riding atop an elephant in India, smiling and waving. Behind him on the elephant was Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, also smiling and waving. But how could this be?

Everyone knew the two were adversaries on the Court, about as ideologically far apart as two justices could possibly be.

In fact though, the two shared a friendship, along with trust and respect, across a great political divide. They shared holiday gatherings with their families and friends. When it was announced from the Bench that Justice Ginsberg lost her husband, Justice Scalia could be seen brushing away tears.

That's what friends do. We share laughs. We share tears. And from time to time, in the jungles of life, we share the odd elephant ride. This is why, in the midst of a bare-knuckled election season, saturated with personal viciousness, I am extolling the enduring value of special friendships.  Friends who don't think and look just like us not only enliven our daily lives; they also enrich our society and the entire world. They enable us to govern inclusively, to make sound policy, to build communities and societies worth living in.

And so we celebrate really good news today. You and your generation of graduates are uniquely well equipped to resist political and social polarization. Studies show that your higher education and your social networking savvy correlate strongly with more robust and diverse networks of friendship.

You understand that the key to achieving great things lies in bridging great divides.

Today is the day the Penn community of family, friends, and colleagues collectively come together to celebrate your great educational accomplishments. Let us today also celebrate those deep lessons in friendship you have learned and offer to all of us. Making friends across divides and despite differences is not just a skill; it is a true virtue that will stand you in great stead for all your years to come. We couldn't be more proud.

So I ask everyone here to stand—family and friends, faculty and colleagues, Trustees and honorees. Stand with me now and show the Great Class of 2016 just how proud we are!