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May 2, 2002


The rags-to-riches story of a local inner-city kid, and the implications of his success as a role model for today's society, were the themes at Pitt's April 28 commencement convocation.

North Side native, Pitt alumnus and Pitt trustee William E. Strickland Jr. was the featured speaker at the Mellon Arena where the University conferred nearly 6,700 bachelor's, master's and first professional degrees, including 401 doctorates.

After the opening of the commencement ceremony by James H. Cassing, chief University marshal and president of the University Senate, and the traditional procession of faculty, deans and administrative officers in academic regalia, Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg welcomed the 15,000-plus faculty, class of 2002 graduates, family and friends of the University in attendance and then introduced Strickland.

Nordenberg called Strickland an individual who exemplifies the best qualities of a Pitt graduate, including intellectual curiosity, high achievement, humanitarian endeavors and dignity embodied in a fully realized life.

Once Strickland got to Pitt, Nordenberg said, his "new-found love of learning produced an honors graduate at the beginning of an extraordinary career, [who holds] the belief that this same opportunity should be available to every young person in this country."

While still a Pitt undergraduate, Nordenberg noted, Strickland founded the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, which he now heads as president and CEO, to combat economic and social deprivation in his predominantly African American North Side neighborhood through an arts program that works with at-risk public school children.

Strickland also is president and CEO of the Bidwell Training Center, a vocational training program for un- and underemployed adults in the Pittsburgh region.

Among Strickland's many honors are the Pitt Distinguished Alumni Fellows Award and Pitt Legacy Laureates award, and the Pennsylvania Governor's Award for Arts Leadership and Service. Strickland has served as a council member of the National Endowment for the Arts and, with his Manchester Craftsmen's Guild colleagues, won a Grammy award for the recording of a jazz concert there.

The Pittsburgh Post-Ga-zette named him one of the 50 most influential business executives in the area.

Prior to delivering his commencement address, Strickland was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree, his seventh honorary degree, by Pitt Board of Trustees Chair William S. Dietrich II, who cited Strickland's roles as artist, teacher, social entrepreneur and genius, and praised him for his dedication to human potential.

"I knew I'd find an easy way to get a Pitt Ph.D. if I waited long enough," Strickland quipped in accepting the honorary degree.

"I was admitted to the University as a probationary student," he continued. "I now sit on the board of this University, its executive committee and the board of UPMC. I have received a MacArthur Award, lectured at the Harvard and Stanford business schools, the Kellogg School and the University of Pittsburgh….

"The point of my sharing some of my life accomplishments is not to promote my own image, but, hopefully, to dramatically illustrate that one should never give up on the poor and underprivileged kids in the world, because you never know what potential exists within each of those children. They might end up being the commencement speaker one day."

Strickland said his undergraduate education was the cornerstone of his success in life.

"This University believed in me, and I believe in it. I received a superior undergraduate education and was taught by an extraordinary array of faculty that could be favorably compared to the best in the world," said Strickland, who earned a B.A. cum laude in history in 1970.

"For an inner-city kid to be exposed to this level of intellectual and academic excellence was pure energy unleashed and provided me with the opportunity to give life a pretty good run. It also provided me with the confidence I needed to take this teaching and apply it to my neighborhood and the children who came from a similar background."

Strickland also broached "difficult subjects" that "indicate all is not well," including the long odds for success that the poor and uneducated face in this country.

"It is my hope that you will begin to realize that in many instances people do not have to be living in the way they are," he told the Mellon Arena audience. "In many states, including Pennsylvania, it costs well over $40,000 a year to incarcerate people, most of whom look like me, and, in many cases, could attend college for half that amount. Rather than give those same persons a college education, our community seems more than willing to build as many prisons as the budget will allow but unwilling or unable to create effective educational institutions in the neighborhoods where people live their lives, day in and day out."

He added that within 10 minutes' walk of the Mellon Arena there are homeless and hungry people, "which underscores the absurdity that people in the richest and most powerful country on Earth" are living in poverty.

Moreover, the problems extend beyond the United States, he said. "If one steps back to analyze the effects of Sept. 11th and all the horrific acts of cruelty perpetrated on innocent people, at the core of it all is ignorance and poverty."

Strickland urged the University to live up to its potential in bettering the country by promoting education and equal opportunity.

"Within the University of Pittsburgh, we have the talent and board leadership to set an example for the nation as to how to do it right — how to bring the balance of outstanding academic leadership combined with the passion for sports excellence and lead the way in effecting solutions of both a medical and technological nature," Strickland said.

"This University has had the good sense to create new opportunities for minority faculty in the health sciences and in advanced technology for one and one reason only: It was the right thing to do," he said.

"Where else on the planet could a graduation with the diversity represented in this arena take place? Where the grandchildren of former steelworkers sit beside the great-grandchildren of slaves in freedom and excitement and prosperity?"

Finally, Strickland congratulated the graduates on their accomplishments. "I can say with absolute certainty that this University's Board of Trustees, all of its faculty, the employees of the University from maintenance people to the chancellor himself, stand united in our praise and universal pride in what you have done and, perhaps most importantly, what you will do in the months and years to come."

Following Strickland's remarks, which were greeted with a standing ovation, graduates from the 16 degree-granting schools on the Pittsburgh campus were awarded degrees.

Roars of approval followed each school's conferral of degrees, including a confetti and silly-string eruption — a tradition at Pitt graduation exercises — from graduates of several schools.

Provost James V. Maher presided over individual recognition of doctorate recipients, who were named by their dean or associate dean and asked to come to the podium for "hooding," the ceremonial recognition of academic achievement.

Graduates who earned bachelor's or master's degrees then filed to the commencement stage to receive their diploma facsimiles.

Nordenberg thanked those who contributed to the success of the graduates, asking family members, faculty and staff members to stand and be recognized. He further acknowledged those 2002 graduates who are Pitt employees.

Brooke Monet Sealy, new University Honors College graduate, spoke on behalf of the students, and Samuel Zacharias, president of the Pitt Alumni Association, welcomed the graduates into the ranks of Pitt's 200,000-plus alumni.

Elizabeth Graham, class of 2003, led the congregation in the singing of the National Anthem and the Alma Mater.

Pitt also will award about 1,000 degrees to students at the regional campuses in Bradford, Greensburg, Johnstown and Titusville, which hold their own ceremonies.

The University had hoped to hold the commencement exercises on campus at the John M. and Gertrude E. Petersen Events Center, but construction was not completed in time.

–Peter Hart

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