The longtime leader of the University of New Haven, Dr. Kaplan was named president in 2004, leading the University through the most prosperous period in its rich history. After serving as president for 18 years, he was named the University’s first chancellor last year, and he will transition to president emeritus at the conclusion of the fiscal year in June.
May 15, 2023
By Steven H. Kaplan, Ph.D.
Below is the full text of the Commencement address Dr. Kaplan delivered on May 13 as part of the University’s 2023 Commencement.
Congratulations, members of the amazing Class of 2023. I feel honored and humbled to serve as your Commencement speaker. The task is also rather daunting. I hope in some small way I can live up to your expectations and say something, frankly anything, that you will remember and that might mean something to you. Someone once told me that the best and briefest Commencement speech he knew of was the following: “We are leaving you a perfect world, don’t screw it up.” That was it. I hope that this one sentence, which I didn’t even write, will not be the only part of my Commencement address that you will remember.
I opened my inaugural address as the new president of the University of New Haven with the comment: ‘I am a contrarian leader.’ That was my first major address to the University community. Now, 19 years later, as I make my last major speech as the leader of the University to you, the Class of 2023, one of my three pieces of advice is to be contrarians. The other two are: Do whatever you can to clean up the mess the rest of us are leaving behind as our sad legacy, and be lifelong learners in the liberal arts and sciences
So, what do I understand by the term contrarian? I will answer not with a definition, but with how I have practiced being a contrarian. I have had a habit all of my life of not doing what I was told to do, what others expected me to do, and instead doing what I thought I should do. And I have to put a huge emphasis on the word should, because being a contrarian is often motivated by a sense of a moral obligation.
I firmly believe that attacking and solving major problems is often best accomplished through contrarian thinking. Frankly, being a contrarian is, at least for me, also much more fun than following the status quo.
‘I always thought you’d end up in jail’
Before I give you some examples of my contrarian behavior and thinking, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should tell you what my sister said to me after she had attended my inauguration as president of the University of New Haven: “I am very proud of you and, frankly, stunned. I always thought you’d end up in jail.” That is, of course, shorthand, for being a contrarian can sometimes get you into trouble. I have admittedly been an expert at times in my life of getting myself into trouble, which is why my mother often said that it might have been easier for her if we had lived closer to my schools so that her frequent trips to the principal’s office would have been shorter.
For me, being a contrarian came naturally. Indeed, my mother used to comment that I was born a contrarian. Even as an infant, I apparently tended to do the opposite of what people expected me to do. I almost got kicked out of kindergarten for singing Hanukkah songs at Christmas; and in Sunday school I got in trouble for singing Christmas songs during Hanukkah.
When I was eight, I was crushed by a barbell on a weight machine my mother had prohibited me from using in the local gym. For the next three weeks, the doctors did not think I would survive the internal injuries.
I have an abundance of stories like these, but I think you get the point. But why, you must be asking yourself, am I recommending a form of thinking and behavior that could have killed me? The answer leads me back to something I said earlier: that you need to do whatever you can to clean up the mess the rest of us are leaving you. I firmly believe that work of this magnitude can best be achieved through contrarian thinking. I offer my 19 years leading the University of New Haven as an example.
‘I went with the contrarians’
When I first arrived at the University, the Board of Governors had just eliminated football as part of a series of drastic cost-cutting measures. There was also talk by some members of the Board, not long before I started, of eliminating the engineering school and merging the University with the now extinct University of Bridgeport. Things were so bad back then that the University was having trouble making payroll.
I was told at the time to develop as quickly as possible a plan for the University that could reverse the downward trajectory it was on. And I was told explicitly by a few key members of the Board that whatever I proposed could not involve taking on any debt. This was put to me quite unequivocally. So, of course, in my first Board meeting, in an hour-long executive session, I outlined a plan for the University that was predicated on taking on debt. My contrarian plan was, somewhat to my surprise, unanimously embraced, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. It was during this time that we doubled our undergraduate enrollments, significantly improved the quality of the student body, and put the University on a path of prosperity and success.
I also often tried to model and encourage contrarian behavior and thinking among our student body. When I said eight years ago that we needed to build a science building, and that had to be our number one priority, I brought in a group of 12 students selected by our deans to meet with our bankers and convince them of the importance of the new science building. The two most vocal students in the room, and possibly the two smartest, quickly went off script, and said we didn’t need a science building as much as we needed an innovation center. I went with the contrarians, and that was the birth of the Bergami Center.
‘A desire to leave this world a better place’
As President, I’ve often done things that were not immediately popular or embraced, but that I knew needed to be done. I hope that most of the people who have worked and studied at the University during my 19 years of contrarian leadership feel that I have brought value to the institution, despite the often roundabout way I have gotten things done.
And this leads me to the second point I would like to make today: I hope your University of New Haven education has instilled in you a desire to leave this world a better place than the one you inherited.
In my opinion, the two greatest issues facing you as graduates and us as a nation are the severe economic and social inequality that still plagues this country, and climate change. As a nation, we have the wealth and intellectual capacity to address both of these compelling issues. And, yet, based on the minor progress we have made toward doing so thus far, we seem to lack a sense of urgency about the existential challenges we are facing. I hope you, members of the Class of 2023, will tackle these issues with creativity and determination. As far as I’m concerned, you have no choice.
With regard to the economic and social inequality in this country, I ask you to consider just a few key facts:
Compared to other major economies, healthcare in the United States is extremely expensive. And yet, within this same group the U.S. has among the lowest life expectancy at birth, among the highest death rates for avoidable or treatable conditions, among the highest maternal and infant mortality, and among the highest suicide rates.
As a result of severe disparities and weaknesses in our public schools, the U.S. ranks 13th in reading, 37th in math, and 18th in science from the data collected by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).
The official poverty rate in 2021 in the U.S. was 11.6 percent, with 37.9 million people in poverty.
In 2021 the number of children in poverty was 15.3 percent.
These statistics and rankings fill me with sadness. I hope your reaction is similar and that you will be willing to do something about this issue. With regard to tackling the challenge of climate change, I hope I don’t need to say very much about this issue other than you sure as hell better get cracking. I say again to all of you, the graduating Class of 2023, please clean up the mess.
‘Shakespeare helps us with our lives’
And this leads me to my final point: that you should, in everything you do in your lives, draw upon the liberal education that has infused all that we have taught you at the University, regardless of your major. And by a liberal education, I am, of course, not referring to the political meaning of the word, but rather to the liberation of your minds that I hope has occurred as a consequence of your studies at the University. It is liberal thinking and not technical training that will ultimately allow you to lead successful and purposeful lives. You might not have studied literature, or art, or science, but these and the other liberal arts disciplines were at the foundation of everything we taught you. I hope you will lead lives that are continuously being enriched by such things as the visual and performing arts, literature and history, and scientific and mathematical inquiry.
During my 19 years as president, I found myself returning to the same book almost every summer for replenishment, pleasure, and intellectual growth: Miguel Cervantes’ great novel, Don Quixote. As crazy as it might sound, I think my rereading this work each year helped me be a better university president. I think it certainly helped me be a better human being.
I also believe my life and work has benefited from my almost 50 years of reading Shakespeare. Indeed, one of my favorite stories about teaching in the liberal arts involved Shakespeare. When I lived and pursued my graduate studies in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, I taught literature classes and often Shakespeare four nights a week to members of the United States military. I also often took these students on study tours to London to attend performances of the Royal Shakespeare Company. On one such trip, after a performance of Macbeth, my students and I went out for a beer with the actor who had played Macbeth. When the pub closed, the actor stayed on and spoke with my students in the cold night air of London for another two hours, eagerly listening to their interpretations of the play. He said that he was intrigued to hear what soldiers had to say about the soldier he was playing. When he asked them what their majors were, one of them replied: “All of us are business majors, which helps us with our work. But Shakespeare helps us with our lives.”
‘I hope we have cultivated your humanity’
I hope your University of New Haven education has taught you to ask thoughtful and important questions, to embrace diversity, to question false and harmful assumptions, to act against prejudice, and to feel empathy and kindness in your interactions with others. I hope, in short, we have cultivated your humanity.
Albert Einstein said, “The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts, but the training of the mind to think.” If we have done nothing else over your time at the University than taught you to be better thinkers, then we have helped transform your lives. I hope you leave here today as deep and probing thinkers: as individuals who will never stop asking questions. The only question I hope you never ask is, “Why did I have to sit through Steve Kaplan’s commencement address?”
Thank you for your indulgence and for letting me and the University of New Haven be a part of your lives. I hope your University of New Haven education will inspire you throughout your lives to do great things. That has certainly been our goal. As John Lennon says at the end of the last Beatles’ movie, “Let It Be,” after the group does a live performance for the neighborhood on the roof of Apple records: “On behalf of the group and myself, I hope we passed the audition.” Thank you and congratulations!