Community and Legacy at Young Institutions: Brandeis Convocation 2007

September 4, 2007   

Late last month, I was honored to speak during Brandeis University’s Convocation ceremony for the Class of 2011 (coverage here). My duty in the ceremony was to present the incoming class their class banner – the first time an alumnus was selected for the job – and say a few words about what a class banner signifies. I say it was an honor to have done this because I truly believe Brandeis is one of the most important American institutions to have been founded in the past 60 years (check out my post about its founding and its lessons for start-up founders here). In fact, one of the reasons I believe Brandeis is so important is because it is still such a young institution considering the amount of weight it carries in the academic world.

So what does the age of the institution matter in the “importance” equation and what does it have to do with my remarks?

Because an important feature of a young institution is that its members can still take part in determining its direction: the legacy is fluid rather than fixed. Since young institutions have a unique opportunity to innovate and change, institutions like Harvard act like GE does as a corporation, leaving a place like Brandeis to be the Google of universities.

The point I’m trying to make here is that if you want to make change in any part of your life, find yourself in a institution which is still young and founded upon values which you can work with. Then, the possibilities are limitless, and with the responsibility to do something great, do it.

Full text of my remarks are below:

Brandeis Beginnings, Class of 2011 (709 students and their families); August 26, 2007; Waltham, MA

Hello, my name is Nate Westheimer, a graduate of the class of 2005. I am here today to represent the Brandeis Alumni community. It has become tradition at Brandeis to display of these handmade class banners [point to banners] on two occasions: the Official Convocation, as you enter Brandeis, as well as at Commencement, when you depart. The banners are designed and donated each year by Fran Forman, class of 1967, and you’ll get yours in just a moment.

Now, you can take these banners to mean whatever you’d like. But I came all the way up from New York City to give you my interpretation.

I think these banners represent two important parts of your Brandeis experience. On one level, the banner is a canopy – a place under which you can all stand together. Today this togetherness is founded in the simple fact that you’re about share an important experience with several hundred of other people. Tomorrow, as you go out and form new friendships (i.e. accept friend requests on Facebook), remember that this togetherness, this community, is actually a network of people you get to take with you for the rest of your life. On this matter I would advise you to look around and realize there are many important connections you will get to make while you are here. Go make them.

On a second level, and this is where I, along with the thousands of other alumni come into play, I see these banners as a symbol for the way in which your class builds off the legacy of classes before. You may not realize it from where you sit today, but Brandeis is a young school, still being developed, and it has come all this way in part because its community members have taken legacy seriously. At every step in the last 59 years, students – each with their own banner – have helped shape the Brandeis you are entering today. In my opinion, now its your turn to contribute to this cause.

And so, good luck and thank you for letting me share this important day with you and your families, it is my distinct privilege to present you with the Class of 2011 Banner [banner is brought to stage, Nate sits down].

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