Jon Meacham Challenges UM Graduates to Change Nation and World

Renowned intellectual delivered keynote address at 164th commencement Saturday

Chancellor Jeffrey S. Vitter addresses graduates at the University of Mississippi’s 164th Commencement ceremony. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – Acknowledging national and global challenges, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and presidential historian Jon Meacham urged University of Mississippi graduating seniors Saturday (May 13) to remain engaged, improve themselves and their communities, and shoulder responsibilities.

“As Americans, we face fundamental economic, political and moral challenges,” Meacham said during his address at the university’s 164th Commencement in the Grove.

“At its best, Ole Miss has armed you for what Oliver Wendell Holmes called the passion and action of the times. Your weapons are the elements that form this school’s sure foundation: grace and strength and love.”

A former editor of Newsweek and a contributor to Time and The New York Times Book Review, Meacham is also a regular guest on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

“I’d argue that graduates of Ole Miss are especially well-equipped to lead in epic times,” Meacham said. “You are graduating at a promising hour for our region: old barriers are falling away, new opportunities are opening up and, if we listen very closely, we can hear the music of Lincoln’s ‘better angels of our nature.’ Ole Miss has taught you how to hear those better angels.”

Chancellor Jeffrey S. Vitter introduced Meacham as “a celebrated writer, historian, editor, journalist and media figure.”

“At Ole Miss we have an impressive and long-standing tradition of bringing nationally and internationally renowned figures to campus for our commencement addresses,” Vitter said. “And this year is certainly no exception. Whether through his journalism, television appearances or by writing definitive historical biographies, Mr. Meacham consistently provides a clear and authoritative voice in national discussions.”

Underneath cloudy skies and amid cool breezes, thousands gathered for the occasion. Individual school ceremonies were slated for later in the day in The Pavilion at Ole Miss, Circle, Grove and other locations across campus.

Author and historian Jon Meacham delivers the address for the University of Mississippi’s 164th Commencement ceremony. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Communications

Before Meacham’s speech, Saxon Nelson of Gulfport, a political science major and president of the 2017 senior class, announced his classmates have collected more than $8,100 as a donation to their alma mater.

“Over the past four years, I’ve witnessed many amazing things among us,” Nelson said. “All of these make me extremely optimistic about our future. Let’s hope for the best, prepare for the worst and enjoy what lies ahead.”

Referencing historical figures such as William Faulkner, William James and Abraham Lincoln, Meacham acknowledged the progress that has been made in human equality and envisioned future evolution in societal attitudes.

“To know what has come before, and to know how to think about seemingly disparate and distant events in relation to one’s own time and own complications is to be armed against despair,” Meacham said. “If men and women of the past, with all their flaws and limitations and ambitions and appetites, could press on through ignorance and superstition, racism and sexism, selfishness and greed to form a more perfect union, then perhaps we can, too.”

Meacham urged graduates to be questioning, be vigilant and to remember that the republic is only as good as the sum of all its people.

“Life is not a reality show, so pay attention,” he said. “And always remember, a life well-lived is not measured by the bottom line, but by the big picture.”

2017 University of Mississippi Commencement speaker Jon Meacham signs senior Austin Powell’s program following the ceremony on Saturday, May 13. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Communications.

This year’s graduating class included some 5,000 applicants for undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Attendees included Bill and Laurie Robinson of Raymond, who came to watch their oldest daughter, Meagan, graduate with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts.

“It’s been my dream forever for both our daughters to earn degrees from Ole Miss,” said Laurie Robinson, a nurse practitioner who graduated from the UM Medical Center. “Meagan’s sister, Mallory (a junior communicative disorders and sciences major), will graduate next year. We’re all extremely proud.”

Eugene Melvin of Brandon said it is “a proud moment” to see his wife, Arias, graduate with a specialist’s degree in educational leadership.

“She has always been in education,” said Melvin, who was in Oxford with other family members. “This degree will elevate her career and opportunities to a whole new level.”

Members of Corbin Tipton’s family came from Alfreda and Monroe, Georgia and from Kansas City, Missouri, to see her receive her degree in business administration.

“I’m so very proud of all of them,” said Charlotte Frary, Tipton’s grandmother. “Corbin’s the last of one of the four grands to complete her degree. She already has a job waiting, so this is great.”

Following the general ceremony, the College of Liberal Arts and the Oxford campus’ eight schools held separate ceremonies to present baccalaureate, master’s, Doctor of Pharmacy and law diplomas.

Carlton Reeves, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, was the speaker for the School of Law. Retired advertising executive Steve Davis addressed the Meek School of Journalism and New Media.

Recipients of doctoral degrees were honored at a hooding ceremony Friday evening in the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts, where three awards were presented by the Graduate School. The Group Award for Excellence in Promoting Inclusiveness in Graduate Education went to the Department of Modern Languages. Cecille Labuda, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, received the Individual Award for Excellence in Promoting Inclusiveness in Graduate Education. Kelly Wilson, professor of psychology, was presented the Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and Mentoring.

During Saturday’s ceremony, John Rimoldi, professor of medicinal chemistry, was honored as the recipient of the 2017 Elise M. Hood Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award, presented annually to the campuswide outstanding teacher.

Alice M. Clark, vice chancellor of university relations, was named the recipient of the university’s 10th Distinguished Research and Creative Achievement Award. Josh Gladden, interim vice chancellor of research and sponsored programs, accepted the award on her behalf.

The university also recognized the winners of this year’s Frist Student Service Awards: Robert Brown, professor of political science; Donald Dyer, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and co-director of the Chinese Language Flagship Program; and Whitman Smith, director of admissions.