Commencement 2017 a day of goodbyes for Duke’s graduates and leaders

Under a hazeless blue sky, Duke University bid farewell and good fortunes on Sunday to about 5,400 graduates, its president of the last 13 years, trustees chairman of the last four years and medical school dean of the past decade.

The annual spring graduation rites, the last of departing President Richard Brodhead’s tenure, saw trustees Chairman David Rubenstein pay credit Duke’s growing stature in the world to the “guiding force” Brodhead provided from the administration’s Allen Building following his arrival in 2004.

Duke officials, meanwhile, gave Rubenstein, a 1970 alumnus and major donor who’s leaving the trustees board this summer because of a term limit, his own moment in the sun by making him the day’s commencement speaker.

The financier used the platform to portray his own success as largely the product of luck, to remind graduates that the brain “has to be continuously exercised” through the pursuit of knowledge even after their college years and to contend that Duke as an institution “is an important national treasure” he intends to continue supporting.

Provost Sally Kornbluth, meanwhile, made sure School of Medicine dean Nancy Andrews received a round of applause from the students, family and friends assembled in Wallace Wade Stadium by praising her “leadership and contribution” at the helm of the unit that’s responsible for a large portion of Duke’s research effort.

Sunday’s ceremony went off without apparent hitch, the chill and dampness of the previous couple of days giving way to a near-perfect spring morning.

Participants generally kept to their script, albeit in Rubenstein’s case with a large off-the-cuff element, and there were no hijinks to speak of from the students as they marched school-by-school into the stadium.

Pride of place in the order of actually receiving their degrees went to the doctoral- and master’s-degree candidates of The Graduate School, counterpart to the undergraduate Trinity College as the home of most of Duke’s programs in the liberal arts, humanities and basic sciences.

The new Ph.Ds., the group at the leading edge of what Brodhead termed the university’s efforts to “widen the frontiers of knowledge, included such people as economics grad Matthew Panhans, whose dissertation examined the Affordable Care Act’s insurance marketplaces; engineering student Allison Schmidt, who studied the injury tolerance of the human spine; and musicologist Paul Sommerfeld, an expert on film scores who focused his dissertation on the ones used in the Star Trek franchise.

As is the custom, Duke on Sunday also handed out honorary degrees. Former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch headed the list of seven honorees, which included no less than three Duke alumni.

Brodhead took a special delight in recognizing the last of the seven and one of the alums, mathematician and computer scientist Luis von Ahn, who received his undergraduate degree from the university in 2000, just 17 years ago.

A native of Guatemala, von Ahn helped develop the Web technology many sites use in their registration process to tell humans from bots, and has since expanded it into a form of machine learning. “No doubt most of his best work is still ahead of him,” Brodhead said, noting that von Ahn isn’t even 40 yet.

Rubenstein, following the honorary-degree recipients to the podium, argued that the keys to post-graduation success lie in the “Da Vinci code” masked by the motto “Go Duke.”

The letters, he said, stand for gratitude, originality, difference, unrelenting, knowledge and enjoyment. And they all matter, even enjoyment, he said.

“Surely God did not put us here to suffer. He put us here to enjoy life,” Rubenstein said. “You have to enjoy what you’re doing. Nobody ever won a Nobel Prize hating what they’re doing.”

But the billionaire, who has backed various programs and initiatives at Duke with at least $106 million of his own money, said part of fortune includes being raised with the right values.

He said his own mother, who died just a few weeks ago, “would never call” to congratulate him on business successes, even though she probably read about them.

But “when I started giving away money, and started doing things to give back to society, she started calling me all the time and said, ‘You’re actually doing something useful with your life,’” Rubenstein said, noting the that ceremony coincided with Mother’s Day. “So I had the good luck to have a mother who knew the real values of life, and that was one of the greatest lucks of my life.”