Monday, May 25, 2009

Commencement Farewell for 229 Degree Candidates, and Dean Koh

Remarks: | Acting Dean Kate Stith | Professor Michael Graetz |

| Commencement Video |

“So we graduate together, you and I.”

Those were Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh's first words to the class of 2009 during commencement exercises May 25, Dean Koh, chosen by the graduates to be this year’s commencement speaker. It was a role reversal for Dean Koh, who, in his five years leading the school, was accustomed to bidding the graduating class good luck and Godspeed as they embarked on their journeys into an unknown future. Today, it would be farewell for Dean Koh, too, as he's expected to be heading to Washington soon as Legal Adviser to the U.S. State Department. 

“Some of you aren’t sure exactly what comes next,” he said. “Neither am I. But on this beautiful day, full of hope, we put aside uncertainty for optimism.”

It was a beautiful day for a graduation, the sun shining and a soft breeze blowing in the Law School courtyard this Memorial Day 2009. Yale Law School Acting Dean Kate Stith welcomed those assembled and recognized the “great effort and long hours” the families and friends of the 229 degree candidates, as well as members of the Yale Law School family, had sacrificed to make the day possible. In keeping with the holiday, she paid tribute to the veterans of our nation’s armed services, including several in the graduating class, and asked for a moment of silence in their honor.

Soon into the ceremony, Acting Dean Stith announced a surprise guest, whereupon Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ’73 entered to a standing ovation.

Secretary Clinton, who had earlier in the day received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Yale University, spoke for about five minutes. She noted that when she arrived at the Law School in the fall of 1969, she never could have dreamed where the experience would lead her. She apologized for taking Dean Koh away from Yale Law School and putting him to work in Washington and encouraged the graduates to follow in Dean Koh’s footsteps. “In this time of great challenge and opportunity, we need the very best we can possibly recruit into public service.” She closed by wishing the graduates success in the future, with abundant “meaning, adventure, joy, and grace along the way.”

Next to address the graduates was Justus S. Hotchkiss Professor of Law Michael Graetz, who is retiring at the end of the academic year after more than 25 years on the Yale Law School faculty. “Throughout your career ahead,” instructed Professor Graetz, “ask yourself ‘Do I like my work?’ and ‘Is what I’m doing helping at all to preserve liberty and promote justice?’” He reminded them that the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right and encouraged them to navigate their paths “with energy and laughter.”

The announcement of degree candidates followed—199 Juris Doctor (JD) degrees, 28 Master of Laws (LLM), and 2 Doctor of the Science of Law (JSD).

Acting Dean Stith then introduced Dean Koh, whom she described as “an outstanding scholar; a challenging and beloved teacher; a champion of the rule of law and of human rights; and a compassionate and insightful adviser to countless colleagues and former students around the country and around the world.”

Dean Koh reminded the students of the great tools they have at their disposal, having grown up in the age of the Internet. “Until now, you’ve more often thought of these technologies as toys, not tools,” he said. “You’ve more often used technology to imagine yourself as a rock star or an auto thief, than to imagine lifting others out of poverty or disease…In the years ahead, please use the tools you have mastered to become better global citizens.”

He also spoke of his life’s passion, international law, saying that following international law is in America’s interest. “If we don’t obey international law, we squander our moral authority and shrink our capacity to lead. When we break international law, we weaken its power to protect our own citizens.” He said recent challenges such as the financial meltdown, energy crisis, swine flu, piracy, and terrorism are inherently global challenges that must be met “by engaging the world, not retreating into our shell.”

He ended by sharing three important lessons he learned at Yale Law School: stick to your values, don’t shy away from taking risky stands, and remember that when you make the tough choices, you are likely to be criticized.

“But here’s the good news,” he said. “As you make these decisions, more and more, you will come to trust yourselves. You will come to believe in yourselves. After years of seeking wisdom from others, you will find it in yourselves.”

The final commencement speaker was social entrepreneur William Drayton ’70, founder of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public and recipient of the Yale Law School Award of Merit in 2005. Drayton had also received an honorary degree from the University earlier in the day.

Acting Dean Stith ended the festivities by encouraging the graduates to pursue the highest ideals. She reminded them that ensuring the public interest and the rule of law is not limited to serving in government or in non-profit organizations, saying the public interest is not so narrowly defined.

“Those who enter the honorable practice of law in any organization, public or private, contribute to the public interest, broadly and properly understood, by advising clients on how to conduct their affairs within the law, and by counseling them how to do so in a way that causes the least harm.”

She concluded, “We know that you have the ability, the education, and the ambition not just to successfully navigate the world of law and legal practice as they evolve in the future—but actually to influence their evolution. We look forward to the better profession, and to the better world, that you will help create.”