Bloomberg’s message to Rice graduates: ‘Honesty matters’

Entrepreneur, philanthropist and former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg discussed the importance of honor and honesty in bringing the country together as he addressed graduates at Rice University’s 105th commencement May 12 in the Academic Quad.

Michael Bloomberg gives the 2018 Commencement address at Rice University. Photo by Tommy LaVergne.

Michael Bloomberg gives the 2018 Commencement address at Rice University. Photo by Tommy LaVergne.

Rice President David Leebron welcomed Bloomberg to Rice and lauded him for his business and public service pursuits, calling him “one of the most extraordinary philanthropists of our time.”

Founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies, Bloomberg became mayor of New York City less than four months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. His administration raised high school graduation rates by 40 percent, cut crime by one-third and reduced the city’s carbon footprint by nearly 20 percent. In addition, his administration’s economic policies helped to create a record number of jobs. The technology startup he launched in 1981 to provide real-time data and analysis to the financial services industry grew into a global company that now employs more than 19,000 people — including 13 Rice alumni — in 73 countries. He led the company for 20 years before being elected mayor, and since leaving City Hall in 2013, resumed leadership of Bloomberg LP.

2018 Commencement

Bloomberg began his commencement speech with a lighthearted reflection on Rice’s most popular traditions, from Valhalla to Beer Bike.

“All of you know [Rice’s] history, and today we’re ready to go beyond the hedges,” he said. “And who knows what the future holds for you?”

But when reflecting on what to share with the students in his address, Bloomberg said one particularly important Rice tradition came to mind.

“No, I’m not talking about Willy Week,” he said, prompting laughs from the audience. “I’m talking about the Honor Code.”

Bloomberg said he thought it would be fitting for Rice’s graduates to end their time at the university the same way they began it – by hearing a few words about the meaning of honor.

“Don’t worry, there’s no quiz involved,” he said. “But there will be a test when you leave this campus, one that will last the rest of your life.”

Bloomberg said that while the concept of honor has taken on different meanings throughout the ages, the essence of honor has always been found in the word itself.

“The words honor and honest are two sides of the same coin,” he said. “To be honorable, you must be honest, and that means speaking honestly and acting honestly — even when it requires you to admit wrongdoing and suffer the consequences.”

Mike Bloomberg Delivers Commencement Address at Rice University

Bloomberg said the commitment to honesty is a responsibility the graduates accepted when they became Owls, and something he called a “a patriotic responsibility.” He recalled the legend of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree and confessing to his father, stating that he could not tell a lie.

“That story is a legend, of course. But legends are passed down from generation to generation because they carry some larger truth,” Bloomberg said. “The cherry tree legend has endured because it is not really about George Washington. It is about us as a nation. It is about what we want for our children, and what we value in our leaders — honesty.”

Bloomberg said former Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are always glorified not just for their accomplishments, but for their honesty.

“We see their integrity and morals as a reflection of our honor as a nation,” he said. “However, today when we look at the city that bears Washington’s name, it’s hard not to wonder, ‘What the hell happened?’”

Bloomberg remarked on the division that exists in politics today and the introduction of “post-truths” and “alternative facts.” He quoted former U.S. Sen. Patrick Moynihan, who was known for working across the aisle and once said, “People are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.”

“That didn’t used to be a controversial statement,” Bloomberg said. “But today, those in politics routinely dismiss any inconvenient information, no matter how factual, as fake — and they routinely say things that are demonstrably false. When authoritarian regimes around the world did this, we scoffed at them. We thought the American people would never stand for that. For my generation, the plain truth about America — the freedom, opportunity and prosperity we enjoyed — was our most powerful advantage in the Cold War. The more communists had access to real news, the more they would demand freedom. We believed that — and we were right.”

Today, though, Bloomberg said, many of those at the highest levels of power see the plain truth as a threat.

“They fear it. They deny it. And they attack it — just as the communists once did. And so here we are, in the midst of an epidemic of dishonesty, and an endless barrage of lies.”

Bloomberg called the trend toward elected officials propagating alternate realities — or tolerating those who do — as “one of the most serious dangers” facing our democracy.

“Free societies depend on citizens who recognize that deceit in government isn’t something to shrug your shoulders at,” he said. “When elected officials speak as though they are above the truth, they will act as though they are above the law. And when we tolerate dishonesty, we get criminality. Sometimes it’s in the form of corruption; sometimes it’s abuse of power; sometimes it’s both. If left unchecked, these abuses can erode the institutions that protect and preserve our rights and freedoms and open the door to tyranny and fascism.”

However, Bloomberg said there is something more dangerous than dishonest politicians who have no respect for the law — and that is a chorus of enablers who defend their every lie.

“Remember the Honor Code here at Rice,” Bloomberg said. “It doesn’t just require you to be honest — it requires you to say something if you saw others acting dishonestly. And that might be the most difficult part of the Honor Code, but it also might be the most important, because violations affect the whole community, and the same is true in our country. If we want elected officials to be honest, we have to hold them accountable when they are not, or else suffer the consequences.”

Bloomberg said the dishonesty in Washington — regarding everything from science to jobs to gun violence — stems from political leaders being dishonest about facts and data, and the public letting them get away with it. He said that the ultimate cause of this is “extreme partisanship,” or the public’s willingness and eagerness to believe anything that paints the other side in a bad light.

“This is what is fueling and excusing all this dishonesty,” he said, likening it to an “infectious disease.”

“But instead of crippling the body, it cripples the mind,” he said “It blocks us from understanding the other side. It blinds us from seeing the strengths in their ideas — and the weaknesses of our own.  And it leads us to defend or excuse lies and unethical actions when our own side commits them.”

Bloomberg said when people see the world as a battle between left and right, they become more loyal to their tribe than to our country, and power, not progress, becomes the object of the battle, and truth and honesty become the first casualties. He called the rampant dishonesty in Washington “one of the greatest challenges” that the graduates’ generation will have to confront, noting that George Washington warned against it, calling the passion people had for parties “the worst enemy of democracy” and a precursor to tyranny.

“Bringing the country back together I know won’t be easy,” Bloomberg said. “But I believe it can be done — and if we are to continue as a true democracy, it must be done, and it will be up to your generation to help lead it. Graduates, you’re ready for this challenge. Because bringing the country back together starts with the first lesson you learned here at Rice: Honesty matters. And everyone must be held accountable for being honest. So as you go out into the world, I urge you to do what honesty requires.”

Bloomberg asked the graduates to remember the words of the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence: “We mutually pledge to each other, our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”

“That pledge of honor and that commitment to truth is why we are here today,” he said. “And in order to preserve those truths, and the rights they guarantee us, every generation must take that same pledge, and it’s now your turn.”

Bloomberg said that before the commencement ceremony began, he told Leebron of his wish to donate a cherry tree to be planted on the Rice campus with a plaque that reads:  “In Honor of the Class of 2018.”

“When you come back to campus as alumni, if you pass by the tree, I hope you’ll remember why it’s there — and what it represents to our great country,” Bloomberg concluded. “And throughout your life, when you chop down a cherry tree, as we all do from time to time, admit it — and demand nothing less from those who represent us.”

Leebron presented the 2018 Michael Bloomberg Commencement Speaker Award for Passionate Community Impact, Innovative Thinking and Entrepreneurial Spirit to David Ratnoff, who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and history. The award is presented to the graduating student whose work best serves the humanitarian issues represented by the speaker. (Read more about the award here.)

Prior to the commencement address, Board of Trustees Chair Bobby Tudor ’82 and Leebron welcomed students, families and friends to the outdoor ceremony. Leebron referred to commencement as a time when the entire university family joins together and he thanked the families of the graduates who contributed “so richly” to the Rice community.

“To all of our graduates, thank you for inspiring us with what you have achieved here and giving us so much hope for what lies ahead,” Leebron said.

Justin Onwenu, past president of the Student Association, and Sydney Gibson, past president of the Graduate Student Association, also addressed the graduates and shared insights from their time at Rice.

Rice conferred 1,945 degrees to 1,902 students, some of whom claimed double or triple majors, including 975 undergraduate and undergraduate professional degrees and 970 graduate degrees (master’s and doctoral).

Separate ceremonies, including an evening convocation with fireworks, were held May 11 to individually recognize the recipients of bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and business degrees, and then all degrees were conferred during the plenary ceremony May 12.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.