Governor Deval L. Patrick
Umass Dartmouth Law School Commencement Address
Main Auditorium, UMass Dartmouth, 285 Old Westport Road, North Dartmouth
Monday, May 19, 2014

Chairman Thomas and Members of the Board of Trustees;

President Caret, Chancellor Grossman, Dean Bilek and Members of the Faculty and Staff;

Distinguished Guests, Proud Parents and Family; and especially

Graduates of the University of Massachusetts School of Law Class of 2014:

Congratulations and thank you so much for the warm welcome. I am honored to be here.

I say that sincerely – even though I have few illusions about the real impact of this ceremony. This is the third of four commencement addresses I will deliver this spring. And it is daunting to face gatherings of such well-prepared graduates, eager to get your degrees and get on with your lives, knowing you won’t remember a single word of what I say today. At a commencement yesterday, I acknowledged how unnerving it was for me to notice over someone’s shoulder just the other day a USA Today headline that read: “A Good Grad Speech Is The One Not Given.”

I promise at least to be brief.

But it was important to me to be here. Because I have a personal stake in this school and in the graduates it produces.

After many years, and the perseverance of many, many leaders in this community, the UMass School of Law has become a reality. Now in its fourth year, and at a time when law school applications nationally have been falling, applications to UMass Law increased over 90 percent – the largest increase in applications of any law school anywhere in the country. UMass Law has found its footing on the path to success, guided by experienced leadership, a dedicated faculty, a diverse and civic-minded student body, and – significantly – a mission to “advance justice.”

When the proponents came to see me about establishing a law school within the UMass system, that mission was an especially compelling part of their case. Every law school serves to produce competent practitioners and learned scholars. But advancing justice is about the public good. And that is not only the fitting objective of a public law school, but also the essential ingredient of the American Dream itself.

I grew up on welfare on the South Side of Chicago – in my grandparents’ two-bedroom tenement. I shared a room and a set of bunk beds with my mother and sister, so we would rotate from the top bunk to the bottom bunk to the floor, every third night on the floor. I went to overcrowded, sometimes violent public schools. Everything seemed broken. Broken sidewalks. Broken playgrounds. Broken families.

There was a lot we didn’t have. But one thing we did have was a strong sense of community – because that was a time when every child was under the jurisdiction of every adult on the block. If you messed up down the street in front of Ms. Jones’, she would straighten you out as if you were hers – and then call home, so you’d get it twice. 

What those adults were trying to get across to us was that they had a stake in us. And that membership in a community is about understanding the stake that each of us has in our neighbor’s dreams and struggles as well as our own. 

That community lifted me. It motivated and encouraged and cared about me.

In the course of the years since I left law school, with the expectations of that community in my heart, I have had the great good fortune to practice all kinds of law: from corporate law to civil rights; civil and criminal; for the mighty and meek. I’ve taught at three law schools and argued successfully in nearly every kind of court, including the Supreme Court of the United States. I even helped to write the anti-discrimination laws for the new government of South Africa. Today, I help to craft the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. I've loved being a lawyer.

And I’m here to tell you that just as my community lifted and sustains me, this community, with its public mission to “advance justice,” will and must lift and sustain you.

Your stories are not so different from mine. You are 78 graduates strong and you represent nearly every ethnicity, race and religion in the world. Some of you are the first ones in your family to learn English or to go to college. Many of you are the first to earn a law degree. Each of you, in important ways, is also an embodiment of the American Dream. The notion that in this country you can imagine a better future for yourself and your family, and then reach for it, is central to that Dream. 

You follow in a tradition of people who have come to these shores from all over the world, in every kind of boat, and built from a wilderness the most remarkable society in human history. And we are most remarkable, not just because of what we have accomplished, not just because of what we have materially accumulated, but because of the ideals to which we have dedicated ourselves. And we have defined those ideals over time and through struggle as freedom, equality, opportunity and fair play.

Justice makes those ideals possible. So, in a fundamental way, when you “advance justice,” you enable for others the American Dream.

And with a degree from this law school, with its mission to “advance justice,” you have a responsibility to preserve that Dream for others. Just as this community cared about and encouraged you, indeed advanced justice for you, appreciate that someone else’s American Dream depends on you. You charged by that mission to be especially mindful of the poor – because, as one wise friend puts it, the opposite of poverty is not wealth, but justice.

Above all, don’t wait to help another. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to be governor or some such, to gain position, before you can fulfill your responsibility to “advance justice.”

Once on a school vacation home in Chicago when I was 15 or 16 years old, I was running for a city bus to meet a friend, and I was late. I hopped on just as the bus was pulling away and only then realized that I did not have enough change for the fare. I stood there at the coin box looking pathetic, and the driver pointed to the seat nearest the door and told me gruffly to “sit down, son.” I assumed he was going to give me a good scolding for trying to cheat the system, and then kick me off the bus at the next stop. I started to apologize and to tell him that I just didn’t realize until I got on the bus that I didn’t have enough change. He sized me up quickly, the way only people who serve the public daily can do. Then, his expression softened, and he said simply, “Pass it on, son. Pass it on.”

It was a small act of grace; but a powerful one. And for me a transforming one.

I wish you every success, however you define that. But understand that success is not just what you get; it’s what you give. Make the most of this opportunity. Then, in whatever great or small way you can, pass it on. There are other American Dreams out there everywhere waiting for their chance. Serving that by advancing justice is what the mission of this school – and this Governor – expects of you.

Good luck to you and God bless you. Thank you.