Congressman Neal Stresses Free Speech at MCLA Commencement
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — U.S. Rep. Richard Neal urged the new graduates of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts to not only hear, but to listen and not to be afraid of encountering alternative opinions.
Rather, he said, determine the facts before forming an opinion because that will make your argument "more clear and more crisp."
"It helps me to gain a fresh perspective and new ideas and to hear both sides of arguments and leads to, I hope, a new perspective," he said. "Despite the turmoil which we find the country in, and the incendiary nature of the public debate, democracy is supposed to be noisy and listening is not unlike democracy."
The congressman, who represents the Berkshires in the 1st Massachusetts District, was the keynote speaker at the college's 120th commencement ceremonies on Saturday. The state's first chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee since 1875, Neal was presented with an honorary degree in public service. His address focused on the importance of free speech in a representative democracy.
"It isn't always easy and it's very messy and, indeed, it can be very uncomfortable but it is the foundation of protecting free speech," Neal said. "There is much clutter to our democracy and as facts are more and more important, it's critical to nurture techniques that lead to it. Examine the evidence, discourage unfounded information. It is the protection more and more against influences that risk eroding free speech."
The congressman decried an atmosphere in which news becomes entertainment, facts are undermined by algorithms and some colleges have turned away controversial speakers. Bias thoughts contribute to the toxic environment that breeds misinformation, anger, paranoia, and stifles dialogue, Neal said.
"What's in need is a longer attention span. For all of us. The challenge of the algorithm is that, usually, it points us in the direction of more of the same, creating an echo chamber where we only hear what we have to say and people that agree with us have to say," he said.
Free speech isn't free if there's an asterisk after the First Amendment that says it's only for speech that reflects your perspective; rather, he said, the First Amendment guarantees a second opinion.
"There are simple steps that we can take to get back to the place where free speech remains robust speech, a place where it is not only protected, but that it might flourish," he said. "It is here in the university or college where those seeds always need to be planted."
Neal urged the graduates to foster inquiry and back up their opinions with facts in the same way they supported their papers and research. The academy, he said, should be the "citadel of thought."
"Once we take the time to ascertain facts, opinions will fall into place. But always to listen to both sides of the argument. It help you give, I believe, a more temperate response," the congressman said.
MCLA conferred 450 degrees and certificates at its commencement held in the Amsler Campus Center on Saturday; 300 undergraduate degrees were presented, 23 master's of education degrees, eight master's of business administration and 19 certificates of advanced graduate studies to the cheers of family and friends.
The procession into the gymnasium was led by Nancy Ovitsky, professor of business administration, replacing longtime faculty marshal Monica Joslin, who retired as dean of academic affairs this year. The national anthem was sung by Rachel Grzelak and accompanied by Trevor Wheelock, both members of the class of 2019. Language professor Graziana Ramsden and Vice President of Academic Affairs Emily Wilson presented the candidates for graduation and college trustees Denise Marshall and Susan Gold assisted with the conferring of the of honorary degrees.
Along with Neal, former North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright was presented an honorary doctor of public service degree and Shirley Edgerton, director of Youth Alive Inc., an honorary doctor of humane letters.
President Jamie Birge thanked the faculty and staff for their support of the college's mission.
"We want to contribute to the next generation of leaders," he said. "No matter their role or assignment our staff go above and beyond to make MCLA a place where students can achieve powerful results."
The speakers for the class of 2019 were class President Allison Thienel of Oyster Bay, N.Y., earning her degree in English, and Mallory Zahn, a history teacher at Pittsfield High School, who was earning her master of education degree.
Thienel, who worked on the college's newspaper the Beacon, recalled the advice that retired journalism professor Jenifer Augur would give them.
"If we were ever stuck in our story or essay, she would tell us find your center of gravity," Thienel said, and then would toss an object to demonstrate. "In the class, it served to remind us what was truly important in our work."
Never forget what is in important, she said, and never forget where our center of gravity lives.
"Never let anyone convince you that you are not going anywhere just because you haven't gotten there yet," Thienel continued. "Your time will come you will find your everything. ... Life is short. Own your power."
Zahn told the gathering that she loved history and found comfort in the consistency of names, dates and straightforward facts. But her students over the past decade have taught her that history is more than that.
"More importantly, it is how we understand history that has helped shape our present," she said. "For that reason, I'd like you all to acknowledge that is because of certain aspects of your past that you are here celebrating this victory today. This degree that you have earned is on itself a huge accomplishment and you should be very proud."
After the graduates had crossed the stage to receive their diplomas to cheers, Birge sent them off with a reminder that they were the result of a promise that higher education makes to the world.
"We educate students, not just so that they have a better life, but so that we all have a better life. Could there be a more noble mission for higher education than this, our compact with society," he said. "That makes higher education the most important social institution in our nation. And because of that, public higher education should be supported more fully. ...
"You are the best hope and strategy we have to improve this broken world."
Patricia Marshall, deputy commissioner for academic affairs and student success for the state Department of Higher Education, noted that the state's economy is "humming along nicely" with a record low unemployment rate of 3 percent and that 660,000 workers are expected to retire over the next decade.
"There are opportunities opening up for students with skills and talents are very much in demand in the commonwealth," she said. "The indicators of success are not whether you are smart or lucky but whether you can learn to adapt to new environments. People who know how to seize the moment and weather the storm typically have an easier time making their next move."
The graduates had already proven they could handle competing demands and overcome obstacles during their years at MCLA, Marshall said. "Trust that you are resilient and trust that you made the right choice in giving the gift of higher education with a little help from the citizens of Massachusetts."