George Mason University

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Words and actions of George Mason remembered at the university’s 50th Spring Commencement

May 20, 2017   /   by John Hollis

The lasting legacy of George Mason took front and center as the university named in his honor celebrated its 50th Spring Commencement before a nearly packed house at EagleBank Arena. Speakers invoked his name and actions to talk about the importance of diversity, accountability and the search for truth.

A record crowd of 8,000 friends and family came to celebrate one of the largest graduations in Mason’s history – more than 8,700 students received degrees and 1,600 of them attended Saturday’s ceremony.

They also heard a powerful commencement speech from Washington Post Executive Editor Martin “Marty” Baron, who challenged graduates to continue to seek the truth and hold those in power accountable by exercising their liberties, including freedom of speech. He called George Mason the “forgotten founder” and urged the graduates to remember the example he set when he refused to sign the original U.S. Constitution because it did not include a Bill of Rights. Mason’s actions led to the inclusion of a Bill of Rights that guarantees all Americans the most basic forms of liberty. Baron encouraged graduates to not take those liberties for granted.

“Self-governance does not end at the ballot box. It is an obligation that persists every day,” Baron said. “Speaking up is no threat. Suppression of speech is the threat. Silence is the threat.”

Mason President Ángel Cabrera invoked Mason’s words by quoting the Virginia Bill of Rights he authored 241 years ago: “All men are by nature free and independent and have certain inherent rights.”

He then implored graduates to stick with their values and quoted Frederick Douglass’ plea to always adhere to those principles “at whatever cost.”

That commitment to diversity also means the constant civil exchange of ideas, even with those of differing opinions, Baron and Cabrera said.

“We embrace those who are different from us because it is the right thing to do and also because it makes us grow as human beings,” Cabrera said.

“We might stop treating opponents as enemies – and let ideas compete on merit without seeking to humiliate or belittle or destroy those who see things differently,” Baron said. “We might, from time to time, find actual common ground, conceding that none of us can have everything we want – in our relationships, in our workplaces, or in our nation.”

Baron, who received an honorary degree of Doctorate of Humane Letters, has guided newsrooms under his leadership to 12 Pulitzer Prizes, including five since joining The Post in 2013.

Also Saturday, the Mason Medal, the university’s highest honor, was given to alumnus Jimmy Hazel, who has served on a variety of George Mason boards and in other leadership and philanthropic capacities for more than 30 years, including as chairman of Mason’s Faster Farther campaign.

Tamara Abdelsamad, who spoke on behalf of the students, likewise challenged her fellow graduates to continue celebrating their diversity and unwillingness to conform.

“We don’t know how to be like everyone else,” she said. “In fact, it was our founding father, George Mason, himself, that said in a letter to his son, voicing his frustration with having to keep up appearances, ‘I begin to grow heartily tired of the etiquette and nonsense so fashionable in this city.’ Like our founding father, uniformity is not something we know too well.”

Brian Jones, the president of the George Mason Alumni Association, welcomed the school’s latest graduates to the family of more than 180,000 Patriot alumni worldwide.

The ceremony also marked the debut of four endowed awards celebrating outstanding faculty achievement:

  • The John Toups Medal for Excellence in Teaching was given to Jill Nelson, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
  • The Beck Family Medal for Excellence in Research and Scholarship was awarded to Lance Liotta, the co-director and co-founder for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine.
  • The Earle C. Williams Medal for Excellence in Social Impact was awarded to Cynthia Lum, an associate professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society and director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, and to Michael Nickens, an associate professor of music and the leader of the Green Machine also known as “Doc Nix.”
  • The Karen and Hector Alcalde Medal for Excellence in Diversity and Inclusion was awarded to Kevin Clark, a professor in the Division of Learning Technologies and founding director of the Center for Digital Media Innovation and Diversity, and Wendi Manuel-Scott, director of African and African-American studies and an associate professor of history and art history.

The Class of 2017 includes more than 8,700 students from 76 countries, 43 states and the District of Columbia. Thirty-five percent of the new bachelor’s degree recipients were the first members of their family to earn a degree from a four-year university, according to students reporting parental education level.

Twenty-five percent of undergraduates and 28 percent of advanced degree recipients earned degrees in STEM fields.