School of Law Commencement Address: A Message of Humility

President Joseph E. Aoun
Northeastern University
May 23, 2008

I’m going to share with you two thoughts. The first is based on a speech that the Honorable Justice Breyer gave two years ago, and I was fortunate enough to hear it. He was extolling the virtue of looking at other legal systems in the world. And he did it in a way that was very inspiring, very illuminating, and indeed, very humbling.

In his speech, he said that we do not need to, nor should we, take our legal system to the rest of the world to show them that we as a nation are right. In some cases, we are; in some others, we are not. And in some cases, we’re still searching for the answer. The case in point was the death penalty and how in some states and in some nations the death penalty is illegal. (I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about which side of the line we should be on regarding that issue.)

What was inspiring to me was to hear a great mind and a great human being talking about the world in a way that was not arrogant. The United States is the world superpower. As such, we tend to think that we are right over most issues. Sometimes, we may think that our government is not right—as we heard my colleague say earlier—but, deep down, we believe that our way is right. And I think that this may not always be the case. Sometimes, we may be totally wrong. What was powerful about the message Justice Breyer, your colleague, delivered was its humility.

I want to leave you with another story about something that happened to me last week. I was talking to a colleague at another law school—a very well-known colleague. And he said, “I like your law school very much. I like it because I believe in what it stands for. However,” he said, “there is a ‘but.’”

He went on to explain that he viewed Northeastern School of Law as being in the same category as the George Mason University School of Law and the University of Chicago Law School. That was surprising to me, and I asked him what he meant by that. He elaborated by explaining that our law school has an ideological bent that is on the left, and George Mason and Chicago have law schools whose ideologies fall on the right, and that even though he loved our school because our ideology aligned with his, he had concerns about any law school that leaned too far in either direction.

So I started imagining that we have this ideological cauldron here in our law school where we are training students to be like us and not freethinkers. But, today our two student speakers, Aisha and Alexandra, showed that you are indeed freethinkers. You didn’t come to the school because you wanted to be shaped; you came to this school to shape yourselves. And, in turn, you helped shape your school.

Five years from now, ten years from now, what you stand for today may be reaffirmed and augmented or may change radically. But no matter what happens, I want to remind you that no matter who you become, Northeastern will always be home.

Graduates of our great law school, I salute you and I wish you the best.