NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Dan Schulman, president and CEO of PayPal, called on the Class of 2018 on Sunday to take a stand for social justice as they graduate during a time of unprecedented technological and social change.
He talked about the decision at PayPal to rescind plans to build a global operations center in North Carolina following legislation many considered discriminatory against the LGBTQ community. The bill, signed in 2016 by the North Carolina governor, required transgender people to use public restrooms that corresponded with the gender on their birth certificate – rather than their gender identity.
“Discrimination of any kind hurts all of us – and is a threat to our very democracy,’’ Schulman told the crowd of about 32,500 at High Point Solutions Stadium during a ceremony for students graduating from Rutgers University-New Brunswick and Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences.
It wasn’t an easy decision. Schulman received death threats for the first time in his life. But others, including the NCAA, NBA and New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen joined in the boycott and the law was eventually repealed.
“The ultimate point here is that whether you are a business person, a scholar, an artist, an activist or a doctor, we have to be guided by values of inclusion and freedom,’’ said Schulman, who received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters during the ceremony. “These are not political decisions, these are values-based decisions.’’
Schulman joked about his selection as speaker two years after President Obama addressed Rutgers’ 250th anniversary commencement.
“Let’s face it, Rutgers should have probably ended all commencement speakers after that,’’ Schulman said. “That’s a high bar for any mortal to jump over.’’
He also talked about his deep ties to Rutgers. His son, Jake, is a member of the graduating class and his mother, Ruth, was the associate dean of Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology for 25 years. His brother Joel and sister Amy also went to Rutgers.
Schulman took a moment to let his son know how proud the family was of his accomplishment. “I love you so much,” he said, but injected some levity when he added, “I know this is the most embarrassing moment of your life.’’
He offered another candid moment when he confessed to the Class of 2018 that he never got to walk in their shoes as a Rutgers graduate because he had been rejected when he applied. Schulman worked as a truck driver before eventually getting accepted to Middlebury College for the spring semester. He now leads one of the largest technology companies in the world and was recognized in 2017 for his efforts to fight for civil rights as the recipient of the Brennan Legacy Award, established to honor the Supreme Court justice and his career-long commitment to social justice.
“Don’t underestimate your power to make a difference,’’ Schulman said. “Every one of you can help repair the world. Don’t sell yourself short, and don’t sell the world short. We need you.’’
Social justice served as a theme throughout the ceremony. Rutgers president Robert Barchi mentioned the progress students have seen throughout their lives, while acknowledging they live in a time of contradiction.
“You have seen our nation’s first African-American president, secretary of state and attorney general,’’ Barchi said. “You have seen universities like ours acknowledge and honor the enslaved people who contributed to our early history. That's progress. But you have also witnessed the killings of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, the murders in a Charleston church and the hate-filled white supremacists march in Charlottesville [Virginia].
“You know better than anyone else how much work remains to be done to fulfill the promise of equality in America,’’ Barchi said. "We need your hearts and your minds to lead us to a better place.’’
Schulman’s and Barchi’s messages resonated with students.
“I thought it was uplifting in terms of talking about society and the fact that we have an obligation to make sure things are okay morally and ethically. That is something that our generation can do,’’ said Humza Farrukh of Edison, who graduated from the School of Arts and Sciences with a degree in cell biology and neuroscience.
Farrukh was also impressed by Barchi’s references to the Black Lives Matter movement and the university’s ties to slavery, which were documented through the Scarlet and Black project.
“It was amazing to hear him acknowledge that slavery was part of Rutgers history at an event that is so big in front of so many people,’’ he said.
Barchi mentioned that the university is celebrating 100 years of women at Rutgers with the centennial of Douglass Residential College. He presented an honorary Doctor of Science to Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, equitable health care advocate and president emerita and former CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).
An estimated 18,132 graduates will receive degrees from Rutgers this year. These include approximately 11,670 baccalaureate degrees; 4,541 master’s degrees; 1,919 doctorates, including professional doctorates; one specialist of education degree and one artistic diploma. Since its founding in 1766, Rutgers has awarded 580,862 academic degrees (excluding the 2018 estimated total).
Graduation ceremonies will continue throughout the week. On Monday, Queen Latifah will deliver the keynote address during the Rutgers University-Newark commencement. The award-winning actress, singer/songwriter, entrepreneur and humanitarian also will receive an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree.
Anita Hill, a national figure in the fight against sexual harassment and advocate for equal opportunities for women in STEM and other fields, will receive an honorary Doctor of Laws from Rutgers University-Camden during the Rutgers Law School commencement ceremony on Thursday. She also will deliver the keynote address for the Class of 2018 at that ceremony.
During Sunday’s commencement, graduates were getting used to idea of no longer being in school but were excited to be moving on to the next phase of their lives.
“This is surreal,’’ said Alyssa Kahn of Howell, who graduated from the School of Communication and Information. “It’s weird to be thinking I won’t have to do homework, I won’t have to buy textbooks anymore. I didn’t have to register for classes.’’
Despite the cold, wet day, it was still a day filled with joy for the graduates.
“The weather just adds a little character, said Mike Allen, who is graduating with a degree in computer science from the School of Arts and Sciences. “It’s something we will never forget.’’
Amber Rouse, a member of the Rutgers University Seeing Eye Puppy Raising Club, had some special company during the ceremony: Andy, an 11-month old German shepherd.
“He has been with me since the fall semester,’’ said Rouse, from Williamstown in Gloucester County, who graduated with a degree in biology. “He is basically a college student himself.’’
Having the companionship on the field made the day even more special.
“This is the greatest thing I have ever done,’’ she said, “including him.’’