2016 commencement speaker set: William D. Adams talks about the power of humanities

Christina Shaman

William D. Adams is often asked to give commencement speeches, but he doesn’t always agree to do so. He said he tries to limit the number of speeches he gives to one or two a year. And this year, Lafayette made the cut.

As a former college president at both Colby College and Bucknell University, Adams said he agreed to speak at Lafayette because of the close working relationship and friendship he developed with former Lafayette president Arthur J. Rothkopf ’55 while Adams was president of Bucknell from 1995-2000.

Along with addressing the campus with a speech at commencement, Adams will also be receiving an honorary degree from Lafayette.

Additional recipients of this year’s honorary degrees include L. Anderson Daub, a Lehigh Valley philanthropist, Roger S. Newton ’72, a graduate of Lafayette who went on to co-create the cholesterol drug Lipitor, and Marciene Mattleman founder of Philadelphia Futures, a non-profit organization that Lafayette has partnered with that helps low-income, first-generation-to-college students get into college.

Adams is now retired from his presidential role, but is an active supporter of the humanities and the liberal education. He serves as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), an independent federal agency devoted to conveying the lessons of history to a national audience and promoting excellence in the humanities.

Adams’s dedication to the humanities stems from his service in the army, which includes one year he served in Vietnam.

The three years that he served in the military interrupted his formal education, but it was in the army that Adams said he learned to appreciate the power of learning and teaching the humanities.

“As a 20-year-old combat infantry adviser, I came face to face, acutely, with questions that writers, artists, philosophers and musicians examine in their work—starting with, ‘What does it mean to be human?’” he said in a press release.

“The humanities give us access to our experience in very direct and powerful ways and it’s that language of experience and access to experience that I think is so important about the humanities,” Adams said in a phone interview with The Lafayette.

Adams has shown through his writing that history can be applied to the world’s current political landscape in powerful ways. In an article he wrote for The Atlantic in 2015, Adams connected events of racism in Ferguson, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Staten Island and Baltimore back to the Second Founding from 1865-1870. He wrote that Americans need to reflect on that moment in our history when slavery was ended and former slaves were given citizenship, in order to navigate the struggle for racial equality today.

But that is not the only advice Adams has. He said that future graduates should be confident and aware of what they have to share with the world.

“As a former college president, I always try to talk to students about what they’ve done and about the meaning of what they’ve done, what the implications of their educational experience will be and the powerful capabilities that they now take into the world,” Adams said.

“So I try to talk very directly to what students have been doing,” he added.  “I do that, not surprisingly, through the perspective of the humanities and also the sort of broader terrain of liberal arts and liberal education and of course, Lafayette has a long tradition in liberal education.”