Commencement speaker Marc Edwards: Have courage to lead a ‘life well lived’

Marc Edwards

On a cold and rainy Sunday, the spirit and pride of the 153rd graduating class of Ripon College remained high. During the ceremony, 152 students received their degrees and became new graduates in the field house of Willmore Center. With the theme of “Caring for Our Environment,” the ceremony honored special guests.

Receiving an honorary degree and delivering the Commencement address was Marc Edwards, who helped lead investigations into high-profile drinking water crises in Washington, D.C., and Flint, Michigan.

Also receiving an honorary degree was John Nelson, adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; chairman of MEP Associates LLC, an engineering consulting firm; chief technical officer of Fitzgerald Asset Management, an infrastructure asset manager; past chair and a financial supporter of the UW Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies Board; and a former board member of the Green Lake Association.

The 2019 Founders’ Day Award recognized regional partners the Green Lake Association, Green Lake Conservancy and Green Lake Sanitary District.

Edwards, Nelson and Acting President Ed Wingenbach all spoke at the Senior Brunch and Forum Sunday morning and at the Commencement ceremony in the afternoon.

Wingenbach congratulated the graduates and said Ripon was sending them “out into a world that needs your service, your wisdom and your talent.”

Nelson spoke of the need to find humanity in the people involved in every environmental conflict. “Regardless of politics, almost always there is a human being with whom I can have a conversation,” he said. “Try as hard as you can in every situation to find the humanity.”

He said everyone should be observant and aware of the social, economic and physical things that are going on because all are interconnected and could result in unintended consequences. An urgency exists to protect Green Lake because change doesn’t always happen gradually, he said. Sometimes change in big systems like the one Green Lake is part of can happen abruptly.

“Those in science know there are thresholds that are much more difficult to return from,” he said. “There are all kinds of opportunities, all kinds of knowledge. Try to listen to everyone. Use that to guide our decisions moving forward. Build a supporting community based on knowledge. Respect everybody involved. We need empathy for each other and to make sure we each have a place to stand in the community.”

Edwards, who faced personal and professional backlash by addressing illegalities at the local, state and federal levels, played off Ripon College’s philosophy of a “life well lived” to encourage the new graduates to always strive for truth and honor no matter the consequences. “Living up to that model (of a life worth living) has never been more important,” he said. “The fate of humankind depends on it.”

He encouraged honor before self-interest, truth before tribalism and sacrifice for a cause greater than ourselves. He acknowledged that these ideals can be difficult. While his activism earned him “more than my fair share of rewards,” he said, it also brought him devastating consequences such as lost funding, retaliation, backstabbing and death threats, many of them from those he had considered friends.

“Our species is really good at punishing people for doing the right thing,” he said. “We teach you to conform or you will be shunned and you will be shamed. For those willing to pay that price, it is really, really worth it.”

Being able to effect change takes many avenues. “Aspire to be a truth-seeker,” he said. “Try to overcome all of your personal biases. Collect data. Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.”

He said people also have to start out with humility, learn how to do more within a community with ever-decreasing amounts of federal funding, and be willing to be a whistle-blower when they see problems.

“Most of our problems we’re facing right now have to do with humanity and how we treat each other,” he said. “One of the great things about our species is that we have the capacity to realize our mistakes. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you’re going to repeat them. The other wonderful thing is that people care.”

He said standing up for principles is not easy, and people need to be prepared to leave behind those who stand in the way of that. “A life well lived is more about bridges you should burn than the bridges you don’t,” he said. “It’s always darkest before you burn that bridge behind you. It’s in the light of that burning bridge that you will make new friends, true friends. That will be your highest reward.

“You must dare and you must have moral courage to live such a life, sacrifice for a cause greater than yourself. Ripon graduates, go live that life.”
(Photo: Marc Edwards)