WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. -- Former New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg on Sunday urged the members of the Williams College Class of 2014 to take up the banner of creating a "Great Society" first suggested by former President Lyndon Johnson in a college address given 50 years ago this month.
Bloomberg was the featured speaker for the college’s 225th commencement. A total of 524 seniors earned bachelor’s degrees at the ceremony, held at the college.
Master of Arts degrees were awarded to 12 students and 30 fellows from the Center for Development Economics earned MA degrees in Policy Economics.
The decision to name Bloomberg as speaker had been accompanied by some controversy. A percentage of both students and faculty at the college had taken issue with the choice of the former three-term mayor of New York for policies set into motion by his administration.
These include the "Stop, Question and Frisk" policy of the New York Police Department.
However, when he was introduced by Williams President Adam F. Falk on Sunday morning, he was greeted warmly by the audience, aside from a solitary "boo" from a young man in the crowd.
Bloomberg noted in his speech that his graduation from Johns Hopkins University was 50 years ago, and recalled that the iconic "Great Society" speech by President Johnson was a commencement at the University of Michigan the same year.
But, said Bloomberg, the country had not progressed much in 50 years in issues like race relations, gun violence, the economy and immigration.
"That challenge now falls to you," he said.
Quoting another chief executive, Franklin D. Roosevelt, he urged the students to keep trying.
"It is common sense to take a method and try it," said Bloomberg, quoting Roosevelt. "If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.
"If you never lose your fear of failure. You will succeed."
Prior to Bloomberg, three graduates spoke. Class speaker Julia Juster was humorously self-deprecating. She eventually got serious near the end.
"My individual experiences inform my own perspective, as yours do for you," she said to her classmates. "It’s our responsibility then, to learn as much as we can so that when times like these come, we can say more, in the sense of an informed empathy, a respect and curiosity for the truths we have not yet heard."
Phi Beta Kappa speaker Julia Davis also leant more than a touch of humor to the commencement.
"Williams is really hard," she said. "It’s hard in different ways for different people. And that’s what makes the Williams experience so life-changing.
"By being tough, Williams helped us to realize that we are actual human beings," she said. "We gained new, supportive relationships and eternal bragging rights about the cold weather."
"Fellow classmates," said valedictorian Ivan Badinski, the third and final speaker, "I am fairly confident that the vast majority of the facts and concepts we have learned in class here will be forgotten in the exciting and diverse lives we are likely to lead.
"I cannot help but think that the most important skill we have attained at this place is not to answer the questions, but to question the answers."
The ceremonies began with the traditional walk through campus led by Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas N. Bowler. The Berkshire Highlanders bagpipers played "Simple Gifts," a traditional Shaker song written by Joseph Brackett in 1848.