The Truth Still Matters, National Academy of Sciences President Tells 2019 Grads

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With showers sweeping across Nickerson Field, BU’s 146th Commencement began under threat of heavier rain. But as if on cue, the rain stopped as the 7,509 members of the Class of 2019 began processing to their seats. And as this year’s Commencement speaker, Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, began her address, the clouds parted to reveal a blue sky.

Renowned geophysicist McNutt (Hon.’19), who led the 2010 Deepwater oil spill cleanup as director of the US Geological Survey, presented Sunday’s crowd with a hypothetical alternate reality of today’s society: What if that devastating oil spill happened now, in this post-truth era of “fake news” and a war on science? McNutt suggested that politicians and BP business leaders would bicker among themselves, scientists would be ignored, and the whole issue would be tied up in the courts while the leak continued to gush into the Gulf of Mexico. It may sound far-fetched, yet the ongoing trend to “use gut instinct and the preferences of special interests to replace science and evidence,” she said, “is having real-world consequences.” One example, which prompted whoops and hollers from the audience: at a time when there is urgent need for action on climate change, the United States is the only nation to have abandoned the Paris Agreement.

So call misinformation out, McNutt urged the robed graduates on Nickerson Field. “When you see junk science, call it out,” she said passionately. “When you don’t trust the sources, call them out. When your friends share misinformation on Facebook, set them straight…don’t let them get away with it, because the truth does matter.” The BU graduates gave McNutt a standing ovation.

The estimated 20,000 attendees, many sporting plastic ponchos, stood as Dylan Gregg (CFA’19) opened the ceremony singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and closed the proceedings with the University’s anthem, “Clarissima.”

Presenting McNutt with an honorary Doctor of Science, President Robert A. Brown told her, “According to a colleague, you have ‘a spine of iron.’ One thing we know for certain: you don’t shy [away] from a challenge.”

2019 Commencement speaker Marcia McNutt (Hon.’19) urged BU graduates to “Call misinformation out….the truth does matter.” Watch McNutt’s speech in the video above.

McNutt has shattered the glass ceiling during her career: in 2016, she was the first woman elected president of the National Academy of Sciences, and previously was the first female editor in chief of the Science journals. She has been on more than a dozen deep-sea explorations (leading most of them) and served as president and chief executive officer of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. She has received the Maurice Ewing Medal for her contributions to deep-sea exploration and the US Coast Guard’s Meritorious Service Medal for her assistance in containing the Deepwater explosion and spill, which killed 11 crewmen.

McNutt was careful to point out that scientists aren’t without fault, but that fortunately, in this day and age, it has never been easier to verify and to establish the trustworthiness of science, especially, she said, if you are armed with a college degree. No matter your major, ask important questions, about scientists’ motivations, competing interests, and transparency, among others.

“Whether the issue is health care, economics, education, or immigration, your university education arms you with the skills to determine who and what to trust,” she said, pausing with a laugh midway through the sentence at the interruption from the loud horn of a passing train. “And you have been instilled with the larger worldview to see beyond just your own lives and your own generation. Your choices will have profound and lasting impacts on others near and far, and on the world that your children and grandchildren are going to inherit.”

Student speaker Adia Turner (CAS’19) echoed McNutt’s sentiments about seeking the truth, saying that she and her peers have witnessed “a political, cultural, and social shift that could have scared us into silence,” but “we instead have turned our volume up,” Turner said, referring to the divisive 2016 presidential election, increasingly frequent mass shootings, and the #MeToo campaign.

Student speaker and Posse scholar Adia Turner (CAS’19) was a Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground student ambassador, Student Government director of social advocacy, an Alternative Service Breaks coordinator, and executive editor of the student-run art publication Charcoal. Hear Turner’s speech in the video above.

“We have witnessed the rise of overt racism, homophobia, and xenophobia, and through it all, we have learned to speak up and speak out about the world we dream of, and most importantly, the world we know we deserve,” said the Posse scholar, who will start a job with Teach for America in September. “We are the legacy of a long line of powerful voices, most notably the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59). I hear Dr. King’s voice in my mind as I look out onto the field at all of you. He reminds us: ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.’ So, Class of 2019, shout at the stars and scream at the sky if you have to, because our voice deserves to be heard.”

Brown awarded three other honorary degrees: an honorary Doctor of Science to Baccalaureate speaker John P. Howe III (MED’69, Hon.’19), a BU trustee and former president and CEO of the humanitarian organization Project HOPE, and to Karen Holmes Ward (COM’77, Hon.’19), public affairs and community services director for WCVB-Channel 5 and executive producer of the magazine program CityLine, which addresses issues facing Boston-area people of color, and Lauren Shuler Donner (CGS’69, COM’71, Hon.’19), Hollywood mega-producer, received honorary Doctor of Humane Letters (read their bios here).

The president also bestowed the University’s highest teaching honors on three faculty members. This year the top honor, the Metcalf Cup and Prize for Excellence in Teaching, went to Robinson “Wally” Fulweiler, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of earth and environment and of biology. Neal Fleisher (SDM’84), a Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine clinical professor of general dentistry, and Gregory Stoller, a Questrom School of Business senior lecturer in strategy and innovation, received Metcalf Awards for Excellence in Teaching.

Find more information about Commencement here.