Colleagues on the stage, supervising faculty, friends and family of today's graduates, and most of all, honored degree recipients. Giving an address at an event such as this is a challenge. At any commencement, it is almost impossible for the speaker to avoid clichés. And when the graduates are receiving advanced degrees, exhortations to, say, "follow your heart" are not appropriate since, presumably, today's honorees have already been doing that. Thus, instead of offering hackneyed phrases and unneeded advice, in the few minutes allotted, I am merely going to say "thank you."
Being a university professor is a wonderful job though stating this out in the open can be risky. Legislators might be listening and get the idea that since the job is so wonderful, professors don't need to be paid so much and the university budget can be slashed. I do not advocate this course of action, but at the same time I cannot pretend the job is distasteful.
One of its most attractive features is the variety of tasks and the different skill sets from which each task draws. For example, lecturing to a large, introductory class requires showmanship — in fact, it is best to be a bit of a ham when striving to hold the attention of 250 19-year-olds for 75 minutes.
Contrary to popular belief, however, beyond the 100-level nearly all classes at the university are relatively small and these upper-division seminars or interactive lectures demand fundamentally different skills than do large lecture classes since extracting discussion from those who are reticent to discuss requires a knack.
Engaging in OUTREACH, which in my field of political science might mean giving presentations to the Unicameral, to various chapters of the "League of Women Voters," or to groups of senior citizens takes different skills yet — especially talking politics with senior citizens! And then there is writing grant proposals, serving on committees, and being a good university citizen.
Dealing with the media is yet another task that professors are occasionally asked to perform. The trick here is to try to say something interesting that does not offend anybody, including eager-to-take-offense political party officials and university administrators. Once when I had been here only a few years the Omaha World-Herald decided to do a feature story on the chancellor. The reporter wanted to interview me but was not much interested in my observations and seemed fixated on that chancellor's reputation for working long hours. Every time I would make a comment, the reporter would say something like "others with whom I spoke noted that the chancellor is an extremely hard worker," or "I'm told his office light is often on till 10:00 at night." After I had heard this kind of thing one too many times, I finally said, "well, squirrels work hard but that does not mean they are qualified to lead major academic institutions." My intended point was that we should not measure performance solely by effort expended but the expressed point — at least from the perspective of those in the Canfield Administration Building from whom I heard immediately after the article ran — was that I had called our chancellor a squirrel.
I have saved till last the task of a university professor that is most relevant to today's festivities and that, I would argue, is the most rewarding. I am referring, of course, to working with students seeking advanced degrees. It has been one of the great joys of my career and in this I know I speak for many other faculty.
After all, without graduate students, on whose labors would we become wholly dependent? Without graduate students, who would update our websites, set up our twitter accounts, truncate our Excel spreadsheets, and introduce us to new statistical packages? Without graduate students, whose ideas would we steal and publish as our own? Without graduate students, who would keep us young and hip?
Okay, well maybe that is too much to ask, but in all seriousness, nothing is more rewarding than seeing former students move beyond what we had to teach them — asking questions that had not occurred to us, using new methodologies and technologies, and reaching conclusions that are provocative, inspirational, and original. For all this, we thank you.
We as faculty also need to thank you for trusting us — because your interests and approaches are inevitably influenced by your mentors. My own research explores the biological signatures of politics. For example, our lab recently found that individuals with higher levels of cortisol (a well-known stress hormone) are significantly LESS likely to get involved in conflicting and stressful activities such as politics.
In separate research we found that those who display heightened heart rate and skin conductance after being exposed to threatening images and startling noises are more likely to support "protective" policies such as harsher criminal sentencing, gun rights, and higher defense spending.
Incorporating biology so deeply into social behavior is new to many people and it is not always popular. Conservatives are convinced that our real agenda must be to document that conservatives are somehow biologically deficient. And amazingly enough, liberals are equally convinced that our real agenda must be to document that liberals are biologically deficient.
The graduate students who work in our lab, for better or for worse, are linked to what we do and in fact are much more exposed than their advisors. People have said to me, "you took a chance, going from studying traditional political science topics like Congress and elections to cortisol levels, skin conductance, and brain imaging," and my response is always, "I didn't take a chance at all; I have tenure." The graduate students who have pursued these ideas and approaches with us, however, do not have that luxury and are taking a big chance. And in varying degrees, this is true for all of you since the shaping influence of faculty on graduate students is unavoidable, whatever the discipline and whomever the mentor.
Therefore, yet another reason we are in your debt is that you accompanied us down the occasionally risky trail of discovery, sometimes following, sometimes leading. In this and so many other ways, graduate students make academia go. You are the energy and the lifeblood of the university. We are proud of each of you and we will miss you. So, recipients of advanced degrees, on behalf of the entire UNL community but especially the faculty, please accept my heartiest congratulations, sincerest best wishes, and most of all, heartfelt thanks.