Monday, May 17, 2010

Saturday's commencement

Tulane's 2010 Commencement - Click on image to expand to full size
It's been two days since Tulane University's 2010 Commencement and what was quite probably the most extraordinary commencement to which I've ever been witness. Yes, it took up approximately half the interior of the Louisiana Superdome with huge black backdrops that could have covered small skyscrapers. Yes, the monumental theatrical display and dais from which the graduates on the floor and the crowds in the stands were addressed was modeled after iconic Gibson Hall, the gothic building that graces the historic St. Charles Avenue campus. Yes, the commencement music was traditional jazz by Dr. Michael White and the Liberty Brass Band with special guest Wanda Rouzan singing "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" at the very end. Yes, the university presented honorary degrees (Doctor of Humane Letters) to Harlem community advocate Geoffrey Canada, medical activist James Ruffin and U. S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin. Yes, the President honored the New Orleans Saints and their entire organization with the President's Medal given to the team's part-owner Rita Benson Leblanc, Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams and Tight End Jonathan Vilma. And, yes, the keynote address was delivered by none other than Anderson Cooper, the son of Gloria Vanderbilt and Wyatt Cooper, himself a former resident of New Orleans. Cooper gave one of the best speeches I've ever heard relating his own experiences in which he failed to get an entry level job at ABC News right out of college. His advice to graduates was they should look forward as the failures of one day may prove to be an opportunity for another. Cooper related how he financed his own work as a foreign correspondent for two years in Burma, Somalia, Bosnia, Afghanistan and on other dangerous assignments, building up expertise so that he was eventually hired as the youngest correspondent ever by ABC. "In retrospect, not getting that entry level job was one of the best things that ever happened to me," he opined. "Had I gotten that entry level job that I wanted, I would never have become a network correspondent. I probably would have never become one at all." Aside from Cooper, perhaps the most impressive figure on the stage was Tulane University president Scott Cowen, who once called Cleveland home and who has been instrumental in bringing about the university's rapid rise to the 43rd best school in the nation. This is especially significant given the severe damage the university suffered during the Hurricane Katrina crisis. As a matter of fact, this was the class that chose to attend Tulane the uncertain year following the destruction. As part of a tough series of measures imposed by Cowen and the university board of governors, many professors were terminated, the formerly separate Newcomb College for women was merged into Newcomb-Tulane College and the engineering school was gutted. The endowment at Tulane under Cowen's direction after Katrina ballooned to well over $700 million and its academic stock rose appreciably too. His address to the graduates was read from the heart and seemingly without any notes or aids. Although the event took nearly two hours, the drama surrounding it and the extra touches like indoor fireworks, confetti and hundreds of dropped balloons and green and white commencement beach balls made the festivity of what might have been just another boring commencement exercise an exciting and attractive affair. For those who would like to view the entire show from start to finish, click here.
In the meantime congratulations to my son David, who received his B.A. degree from the Liberal Arts college on Saturday during the second part of the unified commencement ceremonies at which the diplomas were actually passed out to the graduates. David started his college career at the University of Kansas, but the destruction of his hometown following Hurricane Katrina caused him to lose focus on his studies at the beginning of his sophomore year. He left K.U. and traveled first to Cleveland, where he lived with my sister at the same time as I lived and worked there. After his return to New Orleans, he first began to study at the School of Continuing Studies, eventually accruing enough hours and good academic work to allow him to enroll full time. Thankfully, the long ordeal is now over. He took six years to do what most do in four, but I am not upset. Understandably, this road less traveled has been the one he chose to take and, given the recovery in the city and his commitment to be back here, I am pleased that he took this path. I am a proud papa and I wish him and his new bride much success in the future.

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