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'You have a responsibility to make a difference in the world': David Rubenstein delivers 2017 commencement address

David Rubenstein, Trinity ’70 and chair of the Board of Trustees, delivered 2017 commencement address, giving the graduates what he called the “Da Vinci code of being a Duke graduate.”

Rubenstein, who co-founded the Carlyle Group which manages $162 billion in assets, gave advice to the 165th graduating class. He used “Go Duke” a mnemonic device to convey his message, telling graduates to have gratitude and originality, make a difference, be unrelenting, pursue knowledge and enjoy life.

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By Carolyn Chang / The Chronicle

David Rubenstein, chair of the Board of Trustees, will step down to be succeeded by the Board's Vice Chair Jack Bovender, Jr. 

“When I was sitting where you are some forty-plus years ago, I think it would be fair to say the least likely person to become [the chair of the Board of Trustees] ever was me,” Rubenstein joked. “In fact, had there been a bet, million and one odds would have been against me becoming board chair. It was a fluke and I would say to all of you that are not stars at Duke or are not even modestly successful at Duke, you too can wind up as board chair one day.”

President Richard Brodhead—in his introduction of Rubenstein—noted that Rubenstein attended Duke because he had received the highest financial award from Duke compared to the other schools he was considering. He credited Rubenstein as being one of the University’s biggest supporter. Rubenstein will step down as chair of the Board of Trustees this year.

He has donated millions to the University, including $13.6 million to Duke Libraries, $15 million for the Innovation and Entrepreneurship program and $25 million to fund the Arts Center. He gave some explanation for his generosity.

“I had the good luck to realize that making a lot of money—while it seemed pleasurable and interesting at the time—really wasn't a good a thing as I once thought,” Rubenstein said. “While there's no doubt a great benefit to making money, I thought I had the good luck to realize that giving away in a sensible, intelligent way was a much more meaningful to lead to my life.”

The board chair has also contributed to fund repairs or provide upgrades for the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. He encouraged the graduates to make a difference and to give back to society.

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By Carolyn Chang / The Chronicle

This will likely be President Richard Brodhead's last public address as president. His term ends June 30. 

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By Carolyn Chang / The Chronicle

Senior Elena Elliot talked about her path to Duke University. 

“As Duke degree recipients, you have a responsibility to make a difference in the world. Cherish this responsibility. Accept this responsibility. Be proud of this responsibility,” he said. “You stand in the docket of history and you make history. But, you have to be willing to make a difference. Try—whatever you do—to make a difference in your society, in your community, in your country. Try to make the world a slightly better place than you inherited.”

Rubenstein also noted the University’s progress since he was an undergraduate. He showed obvious pride in the institution, saying that it has gone from a “great national university to a great international university.” He noted the importance of Duke’s success.

“I feel that if Duke does well, then the United States does well and so does the world,” Rubenstein said.

He credited the University’s success to Brodhead, who will be stepping down June 30 to be succeeded by Vincent Price, current provost of the University of Pennsylvania.

In what will likely be his last public address as president, Brodhead, like Rubenstein, told the graduates to contribute to society.

“You have just joined an extraordinary community of more than 160,000 alumni around the world who use their Duke education in untold ways, leading and serving their communities,” Brodhead said. “I charge you to find the particular way you can find to deliver the measure of your talents and your Duke education to the world.”

The student speaker, senior Elena Elliott, talked about the importance of “adversity, sacrifice and love” in her speech. She focused on the path of her own family prior to her coming to Duke. She explained that her grandparents emigrated from Mexico in 1980, and that her parents sacrificed for her to be able to attend Duke.

“Today is about us and our accomplishments, but tomorrow is about someone else,” Elliott said.

She urged graduates to be “forever grateful” of their Duke degree, and strive to help others reach their potential.

“We have friends, family and sometimes RAs and professors to help us through,” Elliott said. “Those instances of kindness and caring could change a life forever.”

At the ceremony, Duke also awarded honorary degrees to Clayton Christensen, professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School; geneticist George Church, Trinity '74; Deborah Lee James, Trinity '79 and former secretary of the Air Force; former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch; documentarian Stanley Nelson; novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson; and computer scientist Luis von Ahn, Trinity '00.


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