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Speeches

2019 Spring Commencement

"Here at Carolina, we embrace our rich traditions while focusing on innovation and our future as the leading global public research university. You epitomize that future, and we are excited to celebrate your accomplishments today."

Opening Remarks

Welcome to the 2019 Spring Commencement Ceremony of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. From my perspective – this is one amazing view – so many smiling faces in a sea of Carolina Blue.

Last fall, we celebrated the 225th anniversary of Carolina’s founding, and you are the first class to graduate in this new era, as indicated by the unique 225th stoles you are wearing. Here at Carolina, we embrace our rich traditions while focusing on innovation and our future as the leading global public research university. You epitomize that future, and we are excited to celebrate your accomplishments today.

Flanking the stage are the words of the famous journalist and Carolina alum, Charles Kuralt: “What is it that binds us to this place… it is as it was meant to be, the University of the People.” These powerful words strike at the core of who we are. Yet today, I want to focus on a different speech by Kuralt, given at a Carolina Commencement much like this one in 1985. There, he urged the graduates to join what he described as a “conspiracy of good people.”

I love that. A conspiracy of good people. Most often conspiracy has a negative connation, but not here. What Kuralt was talking about was a saving minority, the conscience of our country, people who return our world to reason, compassion and decency.

The conspiracy of good people are those who care, whose intrinsic reward and recognition is their belief in serving others. They don’t complain that global challenges are too big and their ability to create meaningful change too small. When Kuralt spoke those words, he was not blind to the challenges faced by these people – Challenges such as misplaced priorities, greed, cruelty, injustice and ignorance. He called each of us to rise above these challenges, to be people who have that impulse for good.

Today, you graduate from an amazing institution that is not only the leading global public research university but is, at its best, the global headquarters for the conspiracy of good people, the home to students, faculty and staff who gather together to make positive change in our world.

That is what I see before me today, the Class of 2019, an inspirational class filled with leaders, people who care deeply about helping others. You’ve awed us with your accomplishments and inspired us with your character. And now you have the opportunity and the corresponding responsibility to take this impulse for good well beyond what you could have imagined just a few years ago, further and deeper into our state, nation and world.

Let’s take a moment to welcome those here today. I extend a welcome to our excellent faculty seated in the front row, our esteemed guests, platform party, staff, families and friends. And, of course, as this is Mother’s Day – we welcome with joy and love – the mothers, grandmothers and – hopefully – a few great-grandmothers with us today. I want to say Happy Birthday to Amber Goodwin, who I met at Senior Night at Suttons and promised a shout-out, and everyone else celebrating a birthday today. Happy Birthday!

I also welcome our 50-year reunion class, the Class of 1969, wearing their freshly designed and tailored argyle sashes. Congratulations to the creator Alexander Julian, who is here today. The Class of ’69 came of age during the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement and the start of the Gay Rights Movement. That year, the laser printer was invented, the internet was created and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. For the next 50 years, this class was part of the conspiracy of good people who built and served their communities. Their passion and commitment to discover and launch innovations (including argyle!) made a difference. They took their impulse for good from here into the world to push for change. Please join me in welcoming the Class of 1969.

Introduction of keynote speaker, Jonathan Reckford

There is no better example of what it means to be a member of the conspiracy of good people than our Commencement speaker, Jonathan Reckford.

Jonathan Reckford was a political science student in UNC-Chapel Hill’s College of Arts & Sciences. A Morehead-Cain Scholar, he graduated in 1984 and started his career on Wall Street. One of Carolina’s 39 Luce Scholars, he worked in Korea with the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee and coached the Korean rowing team. He has held management positions at companies such as Best Buy and The Walt Disney Company, and he spent two years as a pastor of a local church.

And for the last 14 years, he has served as CEO of Habitat for Humanity. Habitat’s goal is to eliminate barriers to affordable housing worldwide. They have helped over 22 million people move into new homes in every U.S. state and in 70 countries since its founding in 1976. In 2018 alone, Habitat helped 8.7 million people secure new or improved housing.

Jonathan has deep ties to our Carolina community. His father, Kenneth Reckford, was a longtime faculty member in the Classics department. One of his children is a Carolina graduate, and another will attend UNC-Chapel Hill this fall. Jonathan’s vision is to one day create a world where everyone has a place to live. I am so excited for him to share that vision with our graduates today. Please join me in welcoming my good friend and a Tar Heel treasure, our commencement speaker, Jonathan Reckford.

Charge to the Graduates

Congratulations Graduates! You now join the 330,000 plus alumni of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, The Conspiracy of Good People.

So many commencement speakers say graduates are the future. But really, you are the today and the now. You can – and will – help lead the conspiracy of good people worldwide. So here is my charge to the Class of 2019.

First, collaborate. When I came to Chapel Hill 24 years ago, I was struck by Carolina’s unique culture of collaboration, collaboration between co-conspirators. This is a place where low stonewalls don’t just describe the campus, they describe our culture. It turns out that it is the company you keep, and as Jonathan said, the “voices that you allow to speak into your life.” So surround yourself with good people, those who will challenge you and the more diverse the better. Collaborate to create a better community, country and world.

Second, be patient, because your dream job is not likely your first one. You will have to wait, to sacrifice and to pay the price for your dream career. Passionately following your own path to excellence will take a personal commitment to making tough decisions. I’m not talking about whether to go to Topo or Suttons for dinner, I’m talking about real life challenging decisions and making the hard choice. The most difficult decisions in life revolve around balancing known happiness against a willingness to take a risk or a chance at something new. You will have to take that risk and you won’t be certain right away if it was worth it because deferred gratification is part of life.

Finally, integrity. We stand at a moment of great change. A moment where the word integrity seems wrapped up in excuses or “should haves” or “could haves.” Let integrity be your light. Let it illuminate your path and be your impulse for good. When you are true to yourself – and true to those around you – you will answer the constant call to do more. You will also know that you are a member of the conspiracy of good people.

Our own Thomas Wolfe described Carolina “as close to magic as I’ve ever been.” So graduates, as the Class of 1969 is doing today, I hope you will return home often to visit this place of magic.