Playwrite David Mamet to Speak at Commencement

Commencement is generally of interest only to those who are receiving their degrees, along with their friends and families. That shouldn’t be the case this year, a milestone in UVM’s history. Commencement 2004 will be UVM’s 200th. No more than a couple of dozen colleges in our young nation have sent forth graduates over the full course of two centuries.

UVM graduates have made extraordinary contributions to their professions, their communities, and the world. Consider John Dewey (UVM class of 1879), America’s greatest philosopher of education (“Education is not preparation for life,” Dewey wrote; “it is life”). Or consider our two recent Nobel Peace Prize recipients, Jody Williams (UVM class of 1972, winner of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for leading the International Campaign Against Landmines) and John McGill (M.D., 1978, who accepted the 1999 Nobel Prize as president of the humanitarian organization Mdcins sans Frontires/Doctors Without Borders). What other university had alumni on the receiving end of two Nobel Peace Prizes in the 1990s? UVM stands alone. Such examples should inspire renewed commitment to the values the University of Vermont has exemplified since its founding: intellectual liberty, the practical application of knowledge, social justice, environmental stewardship, and a determination to challenge ourselves-students, faculty, and staff-to reach the highest levels of academic, intellectual, professional, and personal growth.

When we convene our Bicentennial Commencement May 23rd on the beautiful College Green, we’ll be celebrating the graduates of 2004, and we’ll also be rededicating ourselves to the values inscribed in UVM’s proud history. And for that reason we want to urge all of our students who are able to attend to be with us on that day. What we have planned is very special. Commencement returns to the Green for the first time in half a century. I’ll talk about the achievements of the class of 2004 in the context of the University’s two hundredth graduation, after which it will be my great pleasure to introduce a thrilling commencement speaker, David Mamet.

Mr. Mamet has been a resident of Vermont off and on for forty years, since his student days at Goddard College. He has treated Vermont in a novel (The Village, 1994), a film that he wrote and directed (State and Main, 2000), and a collection of essays (South of the Northeast Kingdom, 2003).

He regularly publishes essays, poetry, novels, and children’s books. He is best known for plays such as Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Oleanna, American Buffalo, and Glengarry Glen Ross (his numerous plays have won even more numerous awards, include the Obie, the Tony, and the Pulitzer Prize) and for his screenplays for a wide variety of films, including The Postman Never Rings Twice, The Untouchables, Wag the Dog, The Winslow Boy, and The Spanish Prisoner. Though the street-savvy, tough-guy edginess of the dialogue in his plays and screenplays has attracted much notice, his voice as a writer has enormous range and subtlety, not least of all in his writing about Vermont. We’re in for a treat when he speaks.

Mr. Mamet will receive an honorary degree. So will six other individuals who represent a variety of connections with Vermont. They are Shu Bassett, one of the century’s leading designers, a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts, the owner of a Vermont farm, and a generous benefactor of the University; Edwin I.

Colodny, who served UVM with great distinction as interim president for a year preceding my appointment; Charles Johnson of East Montpelier, who has written extensively about the natural world in Vermont and who served Vermont as State Naturalist from 1978 to 2000; William Lomax, who will soon assume the helm at the United Negro College Fund after seven years as president of historically black Dillard University, which is connected to UVM through the strong role played in its early history by Oscar Atwood (UVM class of 1866) and George Washington Henderson (UVM class of 1877, the first African American admitted to any chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, right here at UVM); Grace Paley, the acclaimed poet and short story writer, of Thetford, Vermont, who currently serves as the Vermont State Poet; and Stephen Rubenstein (UVM class of 1961), who has been, with his wife Beverly, the chief benefactor of the Rubenstein Ecosystems Science Laboratory and who, last fall, made the $15 million naming gift to the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.

So we expect it to be a great morning on the College Green. We’ll celebrate our past and our special values as a distinctive institution of higher learning; we’ll celebrate our distinguished recipients of honorary degrees; and above all we’ll celebrate our wonderful students who are graduating and who, in what they do throughout their lives and work beyond the University, will be adding to the chronicles of achievement that have characterized the sons and daughters of UVM since the first UVM degree was conferred in 1804. We hope you can be with us.