I would like to start by thanking President Fox, the Board of Trustees and the faculty for this great honor. Commencement is always a special day for a St. Lawrence Trustee, or trustee emeritus, as a tangible manifestation of the value and importance of the work of the University in a shared ceremony in a beautiful setting.
Today, I want to offer a few comments on liberal arts and leadership. I have always been a big fan of the movies. In fact, one of my proudest moments at St. Lawrence was putting on a “Three Stooges” film festival in the auditorium of the Noble Center. Charged admission and got a full house, mostly male students, of course. All the episodes featured Curly Howard. No Shemp. Which any Stooges fans out there would certainly appreciate. Hollywood is one of this country’s most successful exports and my work colleagues, and I have often found that a reference to famous movie scenes can bring valuable business insight to life.
With that as a warning, a few thoughts, first on the oft-used concept in liberal arts of lifelong learning. In the Abbott and Costello classic, “Who Dunnit,” Lou Costello is running through the set and smashes into his partner in comedy Bud Abbott. Abbott grabs him and says “Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” To which Costello replies: “I don’t know, I guess I’m not inquisitive.” The most effective business executives and the most successful investors I have dealt with over the years are intensely inquisitive. They want to understand a business broadly. When we evaluate executives for greater responsibility, are we interested in someone narrowly focused on their own particular area, or someone with a more comprehensive and informed view of the business in all its facets? And, it’s not just curiosity, but the intellect and skills to make that curiosity actionable. To turn it into insight and sound business judgment. A good liberal arts education feeds both intellectual curiosity and the skills to make curiosity actionable.
A second important element of leadership is the ability to persuade. When I became CEO of Priceline many years ago, a friend said: “Jeff, this is great. Now you can just tell people what you want them to do and they have to do it.” Yeah, Right! If only it was that simple. In the “Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy finds out at the end of the movie that if she clicks the heels of her Ruby Slippers, she will get back home to Kansas. Naturally, she is a little irate that she was not told this before having to deal with witches, being doped up in a poppy field and an attack of flying monkeys. But, the Good Witch of the North wisely explained that she had to learn for herself. In today’s world of polarized politics, partisans not only can’t be bothered to try to persuade an opponent, they often take the position that the opposing point of view may not be heard. Better decisions are made when all sides are aired out; and people work harder and with conviction when they believe in what they are doing. Sometimes, you have to go so far as to convince your colleagues that the idea was their own. “Star Wars “fans will understand why we refer to this as the “Jedi Mind Trick.” Persuasive writing and speaking are at the bedrock of a liberal arts education.
Finally, I want to talk about character, which is an important part of the curriculum that is probably nurtured mostly outside the classroom, in social settings, student activities and athletics. Character is tested under fire and shines through, for better or worse, in times of great stress. I think we can all agree that the greatest movie of all time about a liberal arts education is … “Animal House.” Toward the end of the movie, the gentlemen of Delta House are all being thrown out of school (you remember: “Six years of college down the drain!”), and John Belushi, as Bluto Blutarski, gives an impassioned speech to rally his sagging troops, “This could be the greatest day of our lives, and you’re going to let it be the worst. … When the going gets tough [pause] the tough get going.” When you run into rough water in your careers, and you will, ask yourself these questions: “Did I remain calm and think clearly? Did I put the organization and the team first, or did I think primarily about my own position. Did I play it straight, or pursue a dishonest or ethically suspect solution in the heat of an emergency?” Your experiences here at St. Lawrence should help you find the right answer to those questions.
I will conclude with words or encouragement to the Class of 2019. Make a dent. That’s right—make a dent. Now I don’t mean go out and crash your car. A dent is a noticeable impression that is the result of impact or the application of force. You have all had professors here who made a positive and lasting impression. We all remember the protagonists of great movies because of the difference they made.
Our own Kirk Douglas played Spartacus in the film of the same name, leading his people from bondage to freedom. In the making of that film, Douglas, who was also a producer, courageously hired a screenwriter who had been blacklisted as a communist in the era of McCarthyism. President-elect John F. Kennedy crossed an American Legion picket line to watch that movie, which helped end blacklisting. Now that’s making a dent.
I believe acts of kindness that help only one person can be as profound as those that start movements. These acts can also be the subject of feature films. In “Green Book,” a movie set in the segregated South of the early 1960s, Don Shirley, an accomplished and erudite African American pianist played by Mahershala Ali, has a transformative impact on Bronx tough guy Tony Lip, played by St. Lawrence alum Viggo Mortensen. The movie generated some controversy and an Academy Award for best picture.
Let me summarize. One, not everyone can be a movie star. Two, remember Abbott and Costello and be inquisitive. Three, St. Lawrence is not Faber College of Animal House, but show character, especially in times of strain when others need your leadership. Four, make a dent. And five, Congratulations to the Class of 2019.