VIDEO: President Steve Thorsett and Opening Days convocation speaker Robert Hass address the class of 2015 (2:54).

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Pulitzer Prize-winning poet laureate Robert Hass delivers opening convocation

“Intensely try to become human beings,” advised Robert Hass, who delivered the convocation address to the class of 2015. “Human beings are the species that have traded instinct for knowledge.”

Before the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet laureate addressed the crowd of families, first-year students, faculty and staff, Chaplain Charlie Wallace introduced College of Liberal Arts Dean Marlene Moore. She stressed the diversity of a liberal arts education and the importance of developing relationships in order to pursue life’s “big questions.”

Moore welcomed Board of Trustees Chair Steven Wynne, who graduated from Willamette’s College of Liberal Arts in 1974 and College of Law in 1977. Wynne described the significance of his Willamette experience. “I learned everything here about how to make my life,” he said.  

In turn, Wynne noted that one of the board’s essential duties was to select the university’s leader. “When we set out to do our work last fall, the first thing we did was develop the ideal profile,” said Wynne. “As the search people tell you, these candidates that you map out in your mind - don’t really exist. I don’t think that’s the case for Willamette.”

The son of a Willamette University emeritus professor of biology, President Stephen Thorsett’s career reflects the university’s influence. Thorsett earned a bachelor’s in mathematics from Carlton College before completing his master’s and doctorate in physics at Princeton.

“I spent a lot of time on this campus while I was growing up. And as you heard, it was often – maybe usually – not academic time,” said Thorsett. “In fact I was washing dishes at Lausanne, right behind this tent, in a dish room that’s not there anymore.” 

Thorsett described Willamette as a “human scale residential campus” and an “intellectual community” where relationships with professors spark students’ personal growth.

“A truly educated person has acquired knowledge across a broad spectrum – including the arts, the humanities, mathematics, sciences and social sciences – and has come to value learning as a lifelong endeavor,” said Thorsett.

Hass’ speech, entitled “Meaning a Life: How to Become a Reader and a Human Being,” further considered how education enhances humanity.

Hass described the power of literature to “grow great imaginations” and the power of science to change our perspective of humanity’s place on Earth and in the Universe. The inventions of the telescope and microscope raised new questions that demanded a “new kind of imagining,” he said.

Hass described the difference a single comma can make to the meaning of a poem, urging students to read slowly and to think deeply. He reminded students to stop by the woods on a snowy evening and that – as first-year students and human beings – they too had “miles to go before I sleep.”

As poet laureate from 1995-97, Hass promoted literacy because “imagination makes communities.” Hass founded River of Words, which supports environmental and arts education, and he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2005. A MacArthur Fellow and English professor at UC Berkeley, Hass has twice earned the National Book Critics Circle Award.

His collection of poems, Time and Materials, won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.