U.S. Senator Susan Collins urged Colby College graduates Sunday to choose respect for civil discourse over divisiveness, adding that she believes polarization in the United States created the opportunity for Russia to meddle in U.S. elections and undermine confidence in American democracy.
Collins received a standing ovation following her speech to a crowd of more than 3,000 at Colby’s 197th Commencement, as the College conferred degrees on approximately 480 graduates.
“Russia drove a wedge between the American people, but we created the crack that they exploited,” Collins said.
One of a shrinking number of centrists in the U.S. Congress, Collins decried the “era of ever-worsening divisiveness” that threatens the sense of community that has characterized our country. Within Congress, the 24-hour news cycle, and social media, “hyper-partisanship, insult, intolerance, and accusation are poisoning our discourse, turning us against one another, and preventing us from coming together to solve problems,” she said.
This modern-day tribalism, Collins told graduates, divides society into “us versus them,” isolating us from those with whom we disagree. Increasingly, we talk only to those who mirror our viewpoints and reinforce what we truly believe. Instead, she said, our society should adhere to the tenets that have for centuries been central to Western democracies: “the centrality of fact, humility in the face of complexity, the need for study, and a respect for ideas.”
“Your Colby education, fortunately, strengthens those values,” Collins said, pointing to a sense of community and respect for diverse viewpoints as “the first line of defense against post-truth tribalism.”
President David A. Greene recalled granting an honorary degree to Collins early in his tenure at Colby and beginning his presidency with the Class of 2018 four years ago. He called the graduates remarkable in their achievements, their personal transformation, their willingness to contribute to the greater good of this community.
“The world is indeed open to these graduates,” Greene said. “They fill me with optimism. This is a group that combines the joy of spirit with a capacity and a drive to take on the toughest issues. The world needs these young people to go out and do their work.”
Class speaker Marnay Avant, of St. Louis, Mo., urged her classmates and the audience to work to change a world where injustice is ubiquitous and institutions thrive by fabrication and targeting of “the other.”
Citing the work of social-justice scholar Barbara Love, Avant called for “a liberatory consciousness” that is marked by awareness, action, and accountability to combat inequality, discrimination, and injustice. “Racism, classism, sexism, and transphobia—to name a few—did not create themselves,” she said. “People did. Only if we commit to fighting against these structures will we be able to potentially say that one day that we live in a just society.”
The first member of her family to graduate from college, Avant thanked her mother for teaching her about strength, vulnerability, resilience, hard work, humility, and forgiveness. “My degree may have my name on it, but I accept it on behalf of you,” Avant said, speaking to her mother in the crowd. “I hope I made you proud.”
Collins cited the ongoing partnership between Colby and the city of Waterville to revitalize the city’s downtown as a real-world effort to rebuild a sense of community, and pointed to the Harold Alfond Foundation’s support for the downtown project.
The chairman of the foundation, Gregory Powell P’15, was the recipient of one of three honorary degrees conferred Sunday. Also receiving honorary degrees were Rebecca Corbett ’74, assistant managing editor of the New York Times, who led the reporting team that investigated Harvey Weinstein and catalyzed the global #metoo movement, and Theaster Gates, a renowned artist who is the first distinguished visiting artist and director for artist initiatives at the Lunder Institute for American Art at Colby.
The Class of 2018, which includes 49 members of Phi Beta Kappa and students representing 39 states and 45 countries, was led in the procession by Kyle McDonell. As the student with the highest grade point average, McDonell, a mathematics and computer science double major from Belmont, Mass., was the class marshal.
Adrienne Carmack, of Veazie, Maine, was given the Condon Medal for constructive citizenship, the only award presented at commencement.
Sunday’s commencement followed a weekend of activities at the College, which included an address by Theaster Gates at Saturday’s baccalaureate ceremony, where he urged graduating seniors to use their brains and hands to make the invisible visible, create an abundance worth sharing, and change the world for the better.
Full coverage of commencement, including video and transcripts of the speeches and a photo gallery, is online at colby.edu/commencement.