While blending humor with a serious call to action, Gen. David Petraeus GS ’85 challenged the Class of 2009 “to make a commitment to something larger than self” and to devote their lives to service in his address at the University’s 262nd Baccalaureate service in the University Chapel on Sunday.
Declaring that “routine responses won’t do” in an era in which “the old ways have become stale,” Petraeus urged the graduates to choose careers in public service.
“We need thoughtful, hard-working, talented people like you to help find and implement better solutions,” he said, explaining that there are countless ways to do this in the military, in neighborhoods and communities, in government and even in the private sector.
Choosing a career in the public sector requires real sacrifices from individuals who may “work twice as hard to earn half as much,” Petraeus admitted, adding that “the choices are never easy, and the solutions are seldom perfect.”
Young professionals in public service, he added, are often charged with assuming positions of leadership and responsibility that are rarely encountered in the corporate world.
“Be determined, not deterred, in seeking opportunities to work hard at work worth doing,” he said. “Our world awaits the impact you will make after your long-awaited walk through FitzRandolph Gate.”
Though Petraeus’ overarching message urged graduates to commit themselves to public service, Petraeus also poked fun at both himself and Harvard, eliciting laughter from the audience.
Petraeus took a moment to congratulate the ROTC graduates in the Class of 2009 and applaud the University for its commitment to the ROTC program. “Let me say thank you to this Ivy League school for proudly supporting its ROTC program,” he said. Of the schools in the Ivy League, only Princeton and Cornell currently support ROTC programs.
ROTC commander Lt. Col. John Stark said Petraeus “offers a unique perspective as both an intellectual and a soldier.” He added, “For the army to have people from Princeton is a very good thing.”
In her remarks before Petraeus’ address, President Tilghman introduced the Wilson School graduate as an individual “viewed by many as a genuine American hero.”
“He has had to be as much a diplomat as a soldier, as much a student of other cultures as a representative of his own,” she said. “General Petraeus has had to chart a course that shuns simplistic definitions of victory and defeat in favor of incremental and nuanced progress.”
Tilghman highlighted the success Petraeus has achieved thus far in Iraq “not by the application of brute force, but by putting into practice his deep understanding of nation-building through counterinsurgency.”
Last October, Petraeus was appointed the leader of the U.S. Central Command, overseeing American forces in East Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. He also served for 19 months as the leader of American forces in Iraq.
While many members of the Class of 2009 commended Petraeus’ speech, some students staged an anti-war protest outside the University Chapel.
Sean Gleason ’09 participated in the processional with fellow members of his class, but he walked out before Petraeus’ address. He later stood outside the chapel holding an anti-war banner with Natasha Lavdovsky ’09.
“[He] is a really polarizing figure, who is clearly on one side of things,” Gleason said. “You could get a lot of brilliant speakers to come and share their wisdom and their knowledge with us that are ... just as significant, as influential, as passionate.” Gleason emphasized, though, that the protest was not targeted at Petraeus as an individual.
Lavdovsky, who did listen to Petraeus’ address, noted that she “came out of it with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth,” adding that she thought Tilghman’s introduction of Petraeus “seemed to give ... a much more positive spin on what he’s done in Iraq than what I feel is appropriate.”
Anthony Wiley GS also participated in the protest, holding up a banner proclaiming “No Peace, No Justice.” Wiley initially stood in Firestone Plaza but was directed to the “designated protest stage” outside Murray-Dodge Hall.
“They have a statement to make, and I’m fine with them making a statement," Stark said of the protesters. “It's not my place to decide whether it’s right or wrong.”
“I'm glad to be able to defend a country that allows people ... to make the statement that they want to make,” he added.
Richard Lopez ’09 was among those who praised Petraeus’ remarks. He said he thought Petraeus made an effort to reach a wide range of audience members.
“He didn't make it partisan,” Lopez said. “He made it general enough that any member of the graduating class could take his challenge for public service and apply it in whatever sphere. He didn’t limit it to military service. It was a general call to action.”
Sarah Langberg ’09 said she appreciated the speech and Petraeus’ challenge to the graduating class. A commitment to public service is “one of the hallmark things that we keep hearing about throughout our Princeton education,” she said. “But it’s a nice final note, as we're leaving, to be reminded once again that it is a challenge and, hopefully, expected of us by people that we look up to and respect, such as General Petraeus.”
An earlier version of this aticle stated the banner proclaimed “No Justice, No Peace.” In fact, it said “No Peace, No Justice.”