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Commencement 2013: Edith Windsor

May 23, 2013

Commencement13I attended my 16th NYU Commencement yesterday.

On our campus, Commencement is virtually the only day when people from across the extended NYU community—faculty, administrators, alumni, family members, and especially undergrads, grad students, and students in the professional schools – assemble in one place at one time.

And it’s a great day. Families are excited. Graduates are happy—glad to be done, eager to be on to what’s next. Faculty and staff—who come in large numbers as attendees or as marshals—are filled with pride.

Almost all the commencements I’ve attended have had some really singular moment. In May 2002, just eight months after 9/11, it was having the FDNY Color Guard carry in the flag, and an NYPD officer sing the national anthem. In 2011, it was hearing former President Bill Clinton speak.

Yesterday, it was when NYU awarded Courant Institute alumna Edith Windsor its Presidential Medal.

Ms. Windsor is at the center of a case before the U.S. Supreme Court—United States v. Windsor—challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act. At 83 years old, she is willing to stand up for her civil rights by challenging a federal law that made her marriage to her partner, Thea Spyer, a second-class union. In the process, she has endured the insults and calumny that have often accompanied other civil rights cases. As School of Law alumnus and keynote speaker David Boies said later in the ceremony, her case simply seeks to make true “one of the platitudes of our country”—that all people are created equal.

If you watch the Commencement video, Ms. Windsor seemed hesitant about being up on stage. But as John Sexton read the citation, and as the 26,000 grads and guests in the audience began increasingly to register their admiration and appreciation, you can see the change.

She knew she was among friends.

And it was hard not to thrill to that moment, coming as it did just a few days after the killing of a young gay man, Mark Carson, in a hate crime near our campus.

A beaming Edith Windsor with NYU President John Sexton

A few hours after the ceremony, one of the graduating students wrote John Sexton. In a thoughtful, passionate, and mostly respectful letter, he expressed his dismay that NYU, in choosing to honor both Edith Windsor and David Boies, was choosing one side of an active and unsettled debate in our country. And, more generally, that Commencement was used to promote liberal causes at the cost of honest intellectual debate.

It wasn’t the case. But more importantly, I think he misses the point. We honor people at Commencement for their achievements, their courage, and their resolve—not their politics. You can agree or disagree with David Brooks, you can agree or disagree with Sonia Sotomayor, you can agree or disagree with Bill Clinton, David Boies, or Edith Windsor. But give them their due—they are people who stood up for something, made a difference, displayed courage, defeated the odds, challenged the status quo. In other words, exactly the kind of people and lives we’d like those receiving their NYU degrees to think on in their last few moments as our students.

In any case, every Commencement has its “moment.” For me, in 2013, it was Edith Windsor. Watch the video for yourself; the bestowal of the Presidential Medal starts at about 35:00.

--John Beckman

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