Commencement Remarks: Dean David Weil

May 24, 2021

Dean David Weil in red graduation regalia in front of a Zoom background of the sweeping windows of the Zinner Forum
Dean David Weil

Good morning. My name is David Weil, and I am the Dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. Welcome to the 2021 Heller School Commencement exercises!  I am delighted to see that hundreds of family, friends, and members of the Heller community have joined together at this virtual commencement to honor the work and accomplishments of our graduating class of 2021.

As we all know, this academic year and the semester preceding it are like no other. In light of the global nature of the Heller community and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on so many of us around the world, I would like to invite you to join me in a moment of silence in honor of those we have lost. Let us all pause for a moment to honor their lives and acknowledge their memories.

Thank you, everyone. Although we would all prefer to come together in person and see the pride and excitement on your faces and those of your families and friends, we once again gather virtually.  I am gratified that so many members of our community have joined us nonetheless. Welcome particularly to the families: grandparents and parents, spouses, and children, whose love and support are critical to completing a graduate degree.  Some of you may have provided not only spiritual support, but a literal shelter from the storm.  I salute and thank you all.

I know that celebrating your graduation in front of your computer screen is probably not what any of us would have hoped for. But let’s use one of the Zoom tools we have all come to know so well. I’d like to invite everyone to use the chat to let us know where you’re zooming in from. Feel free to let us know what time it is--or what the weather’s like there! Thank you! Keep those comments coming!

Welcome also to our faculty, staff, and researchers at Heller who are watching with pride. And to our alumni, friends of Heller, and members of our Heller Board of Advisors and Alumni Board. We’re all here to cheer you on.

And now, let me greet our graduating class of 2021. Today we celebrate the scholarship of 241 newly-minted Heller alumni, including 14 doctoral graduates and 227 master’s graduates. You represent over 38 countries and speak over 32 languages. Our capacity to welcome students from so many nations and communities is a gift and a strength of our school, often noted by visitors to our community. Each of you brings to Heller not just your personalities, professional experience and cultural traditions, but also your intense devotion to a specific social justice cause.

I want to extend to you all the heartfelt congratulations of our faculty, staff, and researchers who have had the honor and pleasure of working with you during your studies at Heller.  Despite the fact that our interactions occurred almost entirely online, we have come to know you as a talented, intelligent, dedicated, and inspiring group of people drawn together in common study.

Our respect and admiration for you arises from the grit and determination you have shown by facing the challenges posed by the COVID pandemic as well as the many social challenges encountered in 2020 and 2021.  You remained active and dedicated in your studies.  Many of you adapted within 10 days to a radical shift from the classroom to Zoom in March 2020.  You undertook your assignments, capstone and TCP projects, practicums and papers with zeal and focus. And you did all of this while facing unprecedented adversity: in the blink of an eye, many of you were compelled to move home, or entered quarantine with your roommates or family. Perhaps you lost critical childcare or a job you relied on, or were required to live in circumstances different than those you had planned. All of us struggled with anxiety and concern for family members and loved ones, and of course the difficulties of social distancing.

But even more important, you supported one another in this crisis, and you supported your faculty, teaching assistants, and staff.  It will take a long time for us all to process this difficult period, but we will long remember your class for what you did for one another and for all of us in this community. Graduates, you have been uniquely tested academic year. I hope you will find fortification in the experience of weathering this storm together, remembering what it brought out in you and what it brought out among your peers.

These last few months, I have been thinking a lot about the many different ways individuals effect positive change in society. We have lived through 16 months where it was easy to feel paralyzed by circumstance and isolated from our colleagues. In reflecting on the events of the last year, I have often thought about a quote from Leviticus 16:19  that, in the translation I remember most vividly is “Thou Shalt Not Stand Idly By.”

The way this pandemic split us all up, sent many of us home, and pushed our worlds onto Zoom screens sometimes made it hard to feel connected to a wider society. And yet there is always an opportunity, if you look hard enough, to heed the admonition of those words:

In the past year, we saw what failing to observe those words looks like.  Remember the chilling scene of the attack of 65-year old Vilma Kari on the streets of Manhattan, brutally accosted for no reason beyond the fact that she is of Asian descent. Not only did we observe that horrific act, but we saw security guards, standing in plain sight of the act not only failing to intervene, but CLOSING THE DOOR after the assailant had left and Ms. Kari struggled to stand up. A stark reminder of what happens when we fail the admonition, “Thou shalt not stand idly by.”

Yet also think of Darnella Frazier, the brave 17-year old who saw Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, and pulled out her cell phone to record. Hers was the longest and clearest bystander video of George Floyd’s death, and became the most powerful piece of evidence in the murder trial that ensued. She refused to stand idly by.

And when shoppers at a grocery in Boulder, Colorado earlier this year had to flee for their lives from a senseless attack by a gunman, we saw videos of strangers at the store helping one another to safety, often risking being shot themselves. They did not stand idly by in the face of random violence.

Bystanders aren't always in a position to intervene, but they can share the resources they have in transformative ways. The Heller community couldn't stop the pandemic, but we could help protect our Brandeis community.  So we shared our space to provide a place for COVID-19 testing throughout the year and in the last few weeks for vaccinations for the entire university.

The concern to effect social policy in a way that advances social justice is a calling, and one that brought us—students, faculty, researchers, and staff—to Heller. But it must not only be embodied in the roles we aspire to take in our work. It must be part of the way we act and interact. How we respond to the divisions that surround us. How we decide to act in the presence of the insensitive—or uninformed—statement. How we speak to those who we feel cannot understand. How we act in the breach, but also in the small moment.

Graduates, you are reentering a world rife with divisions, disparities, and inequalities. A world where systemic racism persists, where social bonds and public trust have been eroded, often willingly by the cynical manipulations of political leaders. Never has the need for people to enter the fray of social policy, armed with knowledge and skills but guided by a social justice compass, been more important and more pressing.

I have every confidence that you will not stand idly by and instead take your place in addressing those challenges. Just as you were inspired by someone, your work as you begin your next chapter will be an inspiration for others, including all of us in the Heller community.

Congratulations, all!

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