Political scientist Robert D. Putnam urged graduating students to consider the impact of their life choices on the greater society during a keynote speech at the Suffolk University College of Arts & Sciences undergraduate commencement.

Putnam, whom the London Sunday Times has called “the most influential academic in the world today,” received the honorary degree Doctor of Humane Letters at the ceremony, one of three Suffolk commencements held on Sunday, May, 21, at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on the Boston waterfront. 

See "problems" as "improvement opportunities"

Recalling advice he was once given to recast “problems” as “improvement opportunities,” he acknowledged that this generation of graduates has ample opportunity to create positive change in a nation where divisions run deep.

Evoking the words he heard as a college student attending President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, he said: “Your generation has the challenge and the opportunity to hear again Kennedy’s challenge. Ask not what others can do for you. Ask what you can do for others.”

Putnam said America has “failed Kennedy’s challenge, for in my lifetime America has become much less a ‘we’ society and much more an ‘I’ society.”

Putnam drew parallels between deeply divided modern America and the Gilded Age a century ago -- another time of extreme income inequality, social upheaval and anti-immigrant violence, high rates of political corruption, and failing confidence in major political parties. He cited the founding of new civic organizations during the Progressive Era that followed, including Suffolk University in 1906, as steps that set the country “on a new upward course.” 

New grads can transform America

He asked these new graduates to work at transforming an America that has become economically and politically polarized, less generous materially and emotionally, and where people fail to connect civically.

“You are the heirs of those Americans, including young immigrants, and your generation faces exactly the same challenges they did a century ago,” said Putnam, urging graduates to rise to the challenges with the same ingenuity as earlier reformers. “That generation did not believe the future would take care of itself, and neither should you.”

“Raise your voices, to be sure, but talk is not enough," he said. "Your lives will speak more loudly than your voices. What will your life choices say?”

The Suffolk Experience

In her speech, Suffolk Acting President Marisa Kelly enumerated experiences that have shaped the graduating class, many of which prepared them to meet the needs Putnam described:

“You spent thousands of hours helping your community through service learning projects and volunteerism. You built homes for families across the country with Habitat for Humanity. You served as Big Brothers and Big Sisters. You helped create community for children and families battling cancer and prepared meals for people fighting chronic illnesses; You tutored and mentored children in after-school programs and helped young people develop writing skills,” she said.

“The Suffolk Experience is a powerful thing. I suspect the experience that you gained during your time at Suffolk has changed your lives forever. And the experiential learning that you embraced –- both inside and outside of the classroom -- will make a world of difference in your futures.” 

Putnam is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard. He has written 15 books, translated into more than 20 languages. His most recent book is Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, which examines inequality and the American “opportunity gap.”

The College of Arts & Science undergraduate Class of 2017 is made up of 653 new alumni. 

The University conveyed a total of 2,029 undergraduate and advanced degrees during weekend ceremonies.