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Commencement 2024 Address by Thomas Cullen ’00

Thomas Cullen ’00 speaks to the Class of 2024.

Last updated May 3, 2024

By Clinton Colmenares, Director of News and Media Strategy

Following are remarks delivered by Thomas Cullen ’00 at the 2024 Furman University Commencement ceremonies. 

President Davis, Chairman Byrne, members of the Board of Trustees, esteemed faculty, dedicated administrators and staff—but, most importantly, Class of 2024, family members, and friends, it is a tremendous honor to be with you tonight.

But it’s also a bit overwhelming. Indeed, when I was sitting where you are 24 years ago, I never imagined that one day, I would be on this stage attempting to impart wisdom to several hundred soon-to-be Furman graduates.

To be honest, when Drs. Pontari and Cass invited me to speak last fall, I was petrified. But that fear quickly subsided when I realized that I had absolutely no recollection of who gave my commencement address in June of 2000, let alone what he or she spoke about.

So, I take solace in this: Neither will you. This is your night, and it’s okay if you tune me out. In that respect, we’ll call this “the final CLP.”

As President Davis mentioned, I am privileged to serve on Furman’s Board of Trustees. But I am a relatively new trustee, having just completed my second year.

When you become a Furman Trustee, Elizabeth and her team make you go through a rigorous orientation session—kind of like Pathways for older people. (I feel your pain.) During that orientation, the administrators and more experienced trustees drill certain rules, policies, and expectations into the minds of the new trustees.

The most important rule of orientation is that new trustees should never—ever—preface a question or statement with, “When I was at Furman….” The primary reason for this, we are told, is that we haven’t actually been “at Furman” for a long time, and Furman, like most large and dynamic organizations, has evolved, just as its students have evolved.

The second rule is that Furman students today are not like you and your classmates, and this is true whether you graduated 30, 20, or even 10 years ago. So, new trustees must disabuse themselves of preconceived notions about who these students are, what is important to them, and, relatedly, what they expect from the Furman experience.

To be honest, new trustees don’t want to hear this. We, as proud and successful alumni, consider ourselves pretty spectacular and, not surprisingly, may be resistant to the idea that the Furman students of today, and our beloved institution itself, may not recognize the same values and traditions that we held dear.

After two years of visiting campus; interacting with numerous students at committee meetings and meals; conducting a CLP; and speaking to student groups; I have had the opportunity to put these rules to the test. And after considered reflection, I will—to borrow a judicial metaphor—deny the notion that this graduating class is all that different from Furman classes of old, in part, but I will grant that you are different, in part.

You certainly aren’t different in terms of academic success. Furman has a long, proud tradition of enrolling and graduating highly accomplished students. This class is certainly no exception, meeting, and in some ways exceeding, the high bar for academic achievement.

Before coming to Furman, nearly half of you graduated in the top ten percent of your high school classes (I did not, by the way), and, collectively, you attained standardized test scores that rival averages of incoming freshman classes at the most prestigious liberal arts and national universities in the United States.

And you did not rest on your laurels. While at Furman, you continued to aspire to and achieve academic excellence—in the classroom, in the lab, and through research and scholarship that have advanced knowledge in many disciplines beyond this campus. Numerous members of this class have been honored for that research by distinguished professional conferences in the fields of chemistry, biology, psychology, communications, and neuroscience. Further, this class includes 70 Phi Beta Kappa inductees, two National Science Graduate Fellowship Award winners, one Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellow, two Goldwater Scholars, and one Fulbright Scholar. Several of you are already accomplished Hill Institute entrepreneurs, having started companies and business ventures, one of which recently received over $100,000 in outside capital. (BTW: If you happen to be one of these entrepreneurs, please know that the development office and the board are rooting hard for you to strike it big! We’ll be calling—a lot.) Some members of your class will be attending the top graduate, medical, and law schools in the country, while others will embark on promising careers at some of America’s most vaunted institutions, including Fortune 500 companies, vital nonprofit and public-service organizations, including our nation’s churches and public schools, and within the halls of government. In sum, members of this class, like Furman classes of old, continue to comprise the best and the brightest that this country has to offer. And you should be very proud of that fact.

Furman also has a long history of success in Division I athletics. Members of this class have certainly lived up to that vital legacy, so you also aren’t different from prior generations of Furman student-athletes in that respect. Sitting among you tonight are eight All-Americans and one Academic All-American. Four of these All-Americans were members of the 2023 SoCon champion football team. And I would be remiss if I didn’t note that long-snapper Julian Ashby is that Academic All-American, earning a 3.97 GPA in Physics. (I think we can all agree that some majors are harder than others, and that Physics is one of the harder ones. Well done, young man.) The senior members of the women’s and men’s cross-country teams led their squads to their 11th straight SoCon championship, and three cross-country athletes were named All-Americans in the process. This graduating class of athletes also includes women’s golfer Anna Morgan, an All-American, a two-time Southern Conference Female Athlete of the Year, and Two-Time SoCon Player of the Year. Our women’s lacrosse team is graduating three seniors who hold program records. And I could go on. The point is that our graduating athletes—both women and men—have more than lived up to the hallowed traditions of Furman athletics and, in the process, made this institution stronger.

But I grant the notion that this graduating class is different from Furman classes of old, because you are, as a class, more diverse, in the many ways that this imperfect, but nevertheless widely accepted, term is defined. Stated differently, this class is more reflective of our society generally, and that is indeed a good thing.

And Furman today is, in my view, more welcoming of those from different backgrounds. Participation in student groups, clubs, and social organizations now transcends, to a greater degree than in years past, differences in race, religion, identity, and wealth (or a lack thereof). Even more importantly, certain individuals and groups who, historically, felt isolated, excluded, or unheard now feel more connected to this campus. Those are laudable changes, and they have undoubtedly made Furman better.

Moreover, the Class of 2024 is less homogenous, in terms of political and social ideology than in years past. I dare say that your class, as a whole, is less conservative than prior generations of Furman students. This may, from time to time, make some alumni uncomfortable. But that’s okay; you are just as entitled to your views as we were. Furman benefits when its students reflect a wide and diverse range of opinions, so long as everyone has a full and fair opportunity to have her say. At the end of the day, your viewpoint diversity, and willingness to be tolerant and respectful of those who hold different views, have made Furman stronger.

Indeed, the First Amendment is the bedrock of our democratic system. Although its core tenets do not apply on this campus by force of law—we are, after all, a private institution—they should nevertheless serve as our lodestar for discourse and engagement. For that reason, I am enormously proud of Furman for formally recommitting to this core principle through its recent adoption of the Statement of Freedom of Inquiry and Expression and the On Discourse initiative. Whether you realize it or not, these free-speech initiatives are critical to the mission of this university, and you should be proud to have played a role in bringing them about.

But your work on this score has only just begun. You will soon find that it is easier to be tolerant, open-minded, and civil at Furman, than it is outside these gates. You nevertheless have an obligation, as Furman alumni, to continue to engage in civic affairs in a positive way—to rise above the fray and serve as beacons of civility, tolerance, and free expression—regardless of your political ideology.

You are entering a “real world” marred by hatred, yawning political polarization, and demagoguery, which, for too long, have had deleterious effects on our core democratic norms and civil discourse writ large. It is my sincere hope that you continue to speak out when you leave Furman, but that you do so in ways that are productive, that are persuasive, that are respectful, and that are always civil. We desperately need to lower the temperature in this country (and, to put it bluntly, be a little nicer to each other), and I believe that you, through your unique experiences at Furman, are specially equipped to accomplish that.

How do you go about it? Here are some suggestions, which I borrow from a newspaper op-ed that I wrote last year on the topic of being citizen lawyers. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that all lawyers are paragons of civic virtue. There are plenty of bad apples and jerks among the ranks. But the ideal of the citizen lawyer, which many in our profession nobly aspire to, and which our nation’s best law schools try to impart to their students, is relevant to anyone who works for positive change in a public forum. Drawing on my 20 years as a lawyer—and now judge—I believe there are at least five essential components of what we’ll call “effective civil advocacy.”

First, when you take a position on a controversial issue, draw on the best of your liberal arts tradition. Study it assiduously—or, as good lawyers say, “Master the facts”—and avoid the temptation to rely on overly simplistic or faulty reasoning. Most complex problems or controversies do not suffer fools or lend themselves to facile solutions. Give these hard issues the time, thought, and analysis that they deserve.

Second, take the time to understand the opposing argument or point of view, even if it makes you angry or uncomfortable. The best advocates actively listen to and attempt to understand their opponent’s argument. They also credit its potential merits before responding with steely resolve. And whatever you do, please do not join in the mob that attempts to drown out opposing views before they can be expressed. That type of dissent, more than any other, is antithetical to our best traditions, and, in my view, is a cop-out.

Third, always, and without fail, be civil to your adversaries.  Avoid the temptation to attack the speaker rather than countering the premise espoused. If possible, take the high road. It makes you appear more reasonable, and your argument, in turn, becomes more palatable.

Fourth, be practical and, if warranted, willing to compromise to reach mutually beneficial solutions. Apply common sense and relegate lofty—but sometimes unattainable goals—for workable, but nevertheless meaningful, solutions. Sometimes progress takes time, and it may require you to forego getting everything that you want right away.

And finally, have the courage to be the lonely voice of dissent, when it is necessary. In my view, one of the downsides of our modern culture, despite the benefits of greater openness, tolerance, and acceptance, is that it sometimes shades once-widely accepted virtues and stifles moral conviction. Simply put, there is still a lot of evil in this world—whether racism, antisemitism, other forms of ethnic or religious bigotry, cruelty, violence, terrorism, or myriad other manifestations of human wickedness. You must be willing to speak out forcefully and unequivocally when moral clarity is required. We are counting on you to have the courage to do just that. And knowing, first-hand, the kind of people you are, I have every confidence that you will.

So, Class of 2024, please know that we are very proud of you. We are proud of your numerous achievements and how they have furthered the mission of this great university. But we also celebrate your differences, and all the ways that these differences have made Furman stronger. May God bless you and your families as you leave this place and continue to do great things. Thank you.

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Clinton Colmenares
Director of News and Media Strategy