College awards 1,782 degrees at 241st Commencement

by Jay Webster | 6/12/11 10:00pm

by Patton Lowenstein and Patton Lowenstein / The Dartmouth

Among the ceremony's nine honorary degree recipients were former President George H.W. Bush and comedian Conan O'Brien, who delivered the Commencement address.

Although the selection of O'Brien as Commencement speaker had been met with some controversy by students and faculty who questioned the comedian's relevance, Sunday's audience of over 12,000 people received O'Brien's speech with tremendous applause and laughter.

"I pray I never witness a more damning example of what is wrong with America today," O'Brien joked regarding his selection as Commencement speaker.

O'Brien cleverly referenced Dartmouth's social culture and playfully mocked the College's isolation and weather, but also offered more earnest personal advice to the graduates. He shared what he called "a hard but profound lesson" that he learned during his recent career struggles after losing his job as host of NBC's Late Night in 2009.

"There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized," O'Brien said, adding that he has "never had more conviction" about his career than in the past year.

He also stressed the importance of maintaining a flexible perspective on one's "constantly changing" dreams.

"Your path at 22 will not necessarily be your path at 32 or 42," he said. "It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique."

Bush's selection as an honorary degree recipient had also been met with criticism from some faculty and students, The Dartmouth previously reported. During the presentation of Bush's honorary degree, several graduates stood and faced away from the stage in protest of his political views and actions as president. A handful of protestors held signs displaying phrases such as "Death, war, poverty, racism, Dartmouth" and "Big oil, big war, big greed."

In response, other audience members applauded loudly during the presentation of Bush's degree. Before Bush left the Commencement ceremony early, members of the audience sang "Happy Birthday" in honor of the former president's 87th birthday, which was also on Sunday.

In addition to Bush and O'Brien, seven individuals received honorary degrees during this year's Commencement ceremony. Among those honored were Roz Chast, cartoonist for The New Yorker; Elouise Cobell, executive director of the Native American Community Development Corporation; political activist, actress, and writer Ruby Dee Davis; Harvard Medical School professor Howard Hiatt; and CEO of the Educational Division of News Corporation Joel Klein.

Two members of the Class of 1961 Russell Boss '61, chairman of the board at A.T. Cross Company and Michael Gazzaniga '61, professor of psychological and brain sciences also received honorary degrees during this year's Commencement ceremony, which coincided with their class's 50-year reunion.

College President Jim Yong Kim's valedictory address centered on Dartmouth's "unique place" in higher education due to the College's focus on the liberal arts.

"The liberal arts, it seems, are under siege as more and more humanities, social science and arts programs are being cut across the country," Kim said. He added that "at Dartmouth we will contribute to invest aggressively in the liberal arts as the foundation of the Dartmouth experience."

Kim also flexed his comedic muscles by poking fun at O'Brien in his address. In addition to business owners, doctors, Emmy Award-winners and Olympic athletes, he hoped that a "permanent successor to Jay Leno" might be among the graduates of the Class of 2011.

"More than ever before in human history, the world is in need of your talents," Kim said, urging new alumni to effect change in a world that necessitates it. "There's vital work waiting to be done, and I expect great things of you."

The College also honored two valedictorians in the Class of 2011 Alexandra Heywood '11 from Potomac, Md., and Nicole Yunger Halpern '11 from Tampa, Fla. Both students maintained a perfect 4.0 grade point average during their time at the College.