Introducing the Graduation Pledge Alliance
William J. Benet, PhD
You have just graduated from college. You are young and bright. And you believe in the promise of America: That God gave each of us two hands to grab all we can with them. And so, when Environmental Pollutants & Death Rays Inc. offers you a job with a starting salary of $75,000 a year, six weeks’ vacation and your own car phone, you jump at it, right? Wrong. (Simon, 1987, p. A-1).
With those words, Roger Simon introduced the readers of the Chicago Tribune to the Graduation Pledge of Social and Environmental Responsibility (the Graduation Pledge). The Graduation Pledge was founded that year at Humboldt State University in northern California. Matt Nicodemus, a co-founder of the Pledge, was (and still is) a self- described “full-time peace activist” (Simon, 1987, p. A-1). From its start at Humboldt State, Matt’s stated vision was that “colleges across America will be handing out the pledge and graduates will be adhering to it” (Simon, 1987, p. A-1).
Today, that vision is a reality and Matt is still a vital part of the Graduation Pledge Alliance, the coordinating body for schools across America and around the Globe where the Graduation Pledge has become an important part of the culmination of many students’ academic careers. Modified somewhat over the years, the Graduation Pledge now reads: “I pledge to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job I consider and will try to improve these aspects of any organizations for which I work” (Graduation Pledge Alliance, 2012b, p. 1).
William Ihne, another pledge co-founder while a student at Humboldt State, notes that the Graduation Pledge Alliance became a reality in 1988 when the Graduation Pledge spread to 20 campuses, mostly in California, but as far away as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York (Ihne, 2012). The Graduation Pledge received its most visible boost when Stanford University President Donald Kennedy encouraged signing of the pledge in his commencement address to 30,000 attending the Stanford stadium ceremony in June of 1988 (Ihne, 2012). Kennedy stated:
First, please do go to work on the world’s problems. They look much more overwhelming when one cannot envision oneself as part of the solution… It is not for nothing that Hippocrates led off his string of aphorisms with: “First do no harm.” Evaluate what you do in terms of all its consequences so that you have confidence in the worth of your commitments. It is that context in which I view the Commencement pledge idea. It asks that we consider outcomes- not that we declare allegiance in advance to some normative standard it supplies. It should be as acceptable to the political conservative as to the liberal, because it does something we all need to do more of- that is, it helps us focus on the consequences of what we do, urges us to estimate them, and urges us to try to decide whether they are acceptable (Kennedy, 1988, p. 9).
As the Graduation Pledge spread throughout the country in 1988, this led to many statements of support such as this endorsement from Dr. Helen Caldicott:
I think the pledge is truly magnificent. I’m very proud of the students for doing that. It reminds me of the Russian doctors who now include in the Hippocratic oath that they will not work in any way, shape or form to prepare for nuclear war or for saving people after nuclear war (Caldicott, 1988, p. 24).
In 1996, the national headquarters for the Graduation Pledge Alliance moved from Humboldt State College to Manchester College in Indiana, home of the first U.S. peace studies program (begun in 1948). This move was led by Dr. Neil Wollman, a professor of psychology at Manchester, who had helped to bring the Graduation Pledge to Manchester in 1988 in that first wave of the spread of the Graduation Pledge (Ihne, 2012). Manchester College then served as the national home for the Graduation Pledge Alliance for the next eleven years. Over that time, the Graduation Pledge spread to over 100 colleges around the world with a strong presence in Canada and Asia (Hsiu-Chuan, 2005; Milcetich, 2007; Sequeira, 2007; Yan-Chih, 2005).
Under Neil’s guidance, and through the national attention given the Graduation Pledge by news sources such as USA Today, Business Week, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press, an estimated 300,000 plus students at more than 300 campuses have signed the pledge (Graduation Pledge Alliance, 2017). Some of the most significant accomplishments occur when alumni work to change the conditions of their workplace. Among the many ways in which these students have lived out the pledge are: (a) promoting recycling at their organization, (b) removing racist language from a training manual, (c) working for gender parity in high school athletics, and (d) convincing an employer to refuse a chemical weapons-related contract (Graduation Pledge Alliance, 2017).
Then in 2007, the Graduation Pledge Alliance national headquarters moved again, this time to Bentley University in Massachusetts, where it started out as a program of the Bentley Alliance for Ethics and Social Responsibility. The Bentley Alliance was created by Dr. Anthony (Tony) Buono. Today, the Graduation Pledge Alliance, while still at Bentley, is now a program of the Bentley Service Learning Center under the guidance of Dr. Jonathan White.
On many campuses the Graduation Pledge still follows the original model. The Graduation Pledge is promoted throughout the year; students sign at graduation; students, faculty, staff may wear Green ribbons in support; and speakers are encouraged to support signing of the pledge (Graduation Pledge Alliance, 2012a). Yet there is great diversity among individual campuses, with individual schools able to shape the Graduation Pledge to their particular focus, and some using alternative language for the pledge (Graduation Pledge Alliance, 2012a).
But at Bentley University, the Graduation Pledge has been brought to a whole new level. Through the Bentley Civic Leadership Program (BCLP), the Graduation Pledge is infused throughout the curriculum, where it is now the “capstone” of the four year Bentley experience (Bentley Alliance for Ethics and Social Responsibility, 2012).
The BCLP provides students with the opportunity to develop into civic leaders. The BCLP, which is student initiated and led, has three foci: campus involvement, civic engagement, and ethical and responsible behavior. Building on these three areas, students compile an interactive co-curricular eportfolio of experiences, emphasizing reflective practice and encouraging them to understand and appreciate how their involvement both improves their communities and makes them better citizens. Students who complete the BCLP requirements then take the Pledge prior to commencement.
The Graduation Pledge Alliance is seeking to build upon the 30 year success of the Graduation Pledge by encouraging students to apply the social and environmental concerns they have learned in college to the rest of their lives, especially in their professional careers. In October of 2012, I was brought on board to serve as Executive Director for the Graduation Pledge Alliance and implement a transformation effort that was initiated in 2010 (Graduation Pledge Alliance, 2010). In 2013, the Graduation Pledge Alliance established a process goal intended to strengthen the ability of the Graduation Pledge to operate at three levels:
- Campus chapters of students who seek to incorporate the Graduation Pledge of Social and Environmental Responsibility as a part of their graduation experience in order to make choices about their employment and other aspects of their lives in a more serious and life-influencing way.
- High Schools, Colleges, and Professional Schools using the Graduation Pledge of Social and Environmental Responsibility as a vehicle for integrating or strengthening values and citizenship education throughout their curriculum and the entire student experience along with the teaching of traditional knowledge and skills.
- Pledge signers and alumni impacting the workplace and society to become concerned about more than just the “bottom line.”
At the same time that the process goal was established, the Graduation Pledge Alliance modified its Vision and Mission statements as follows:
The Graduation Pledge Alliance’s vision is of a world where every high school, college, and professional school graduate is an effective leader for social and environmental responsibility, linked in a common effort to determine for themselves how their actions in the workplace and in the rest of their lives intertwine and contribute to the development of a more healthy, sustainable, and just world.
The mission of the Graduation Pledge Alliance is to build a global community of graduates whose commitment to social and environmental responsibility in the workplace and in the rest of their lives is helping to build a healthy, sustainable, and just world.
The Graduation Pledge Alliance hopes to make the pledge a truly international phenomenon. Our goal is to institutionalize and expand pledge activities at schools worldwide, building on those schools in major population areas that are already involved with the Pledge. The intention of these partnerships is to motivate and educate campus Pledge organizers and potential supporters to ensure that the Pledge is actually lived out following graduation, by increasing the involvement of academic departments, administrative offices, students, faculty, staff, and alumni in the Graduation Pledge effort. If only a small minority of the millions of college graduates each year sign and live out the Pledge, the impact can be immense.
Today, the Graduation Pledge Alliance is working to carry out this effort by partnering with national and international efforts in support of healthy, sustainable, and just communities. Two of our most important partnerships are with the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) and the Center for Democratic Values.
The Graduation Pledge Alliance has been a Partner Organization and Technical Advisor for AASHE’s Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System™ (STARS) since 2011. The STARS system has been used by AASHE as a self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance. Those campuses with Graduation Pledge programs automatically are recognized and receive credit in the Student Life section of the STARS assessment process (https://stars.aashe.org/pages/about/governance.html#partner_organizations).
In March of 2016 the Graduation Pledge Alliance adopted an exciting partnership agreement with The Center for Democratic Values (CDV) to promote social change projects. The CDV is a NYS nonprofit incorporated in 1984. The mission of the CDV is to promote the Polarities of Democracy as a theoretical framework for progressive social change initiatives that build healthy, sustainable, and just communities (http://www.polaritiesofdemocracy.org/).
The Polarities of Democracy was developed at the University of Toronto in 2006 as a framework to promote social change projects. These projects will primarily emanate from Walden University doctoral graduates who used the Polarities of Democracy model as the theoretical framework for their dissertation. Walden University requires that all dissertations have a theoretical framework that promotes positive social change.
Finally, students affiliated with the Bentley Service Learning Center have been working over the past two years to develop student led social change projects might be rolled out through the Graduation Pledge Alliance partner schools. We are now seeking relationships that will allow us to gain the resources to implement these social change projects.
Bentley Alliance for Ethics and Social Responsibility. (2012). Bentley civic leadership program. Retrieved December 1, 2012 from http://www.bentley.edu/centers/alliance/bentley-civic-leadership-program.
Caldicott, H. (1988). Statements of support from individuals and organizations. Graduation
Pledge Alliance Organizing Manual, Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA.
Graduation Pledge Alliance. (2010). Overview of the Graduation Pledge Alliance transformation effort. Graduation Pledge Alliance Archives, Bentley Alliance or Ethics and Social Responsibility, Bentley University, Waltham, MA.
Graduation Pledge Alliance. (2012a). Starting a campaign. Retrieved December 1, 2012 from http://www.graduationpledge.org/pledge-organizers/starting-a-campaign/.
Graduation Pledge Alliance. (2012b). The graduation pledge of social & environmental responsibility. Retrieved November 30, 2012 from http://www.graduationpledge.org/.
Graduation Pledge Alliance. (2017). Unpublished archival data. Bentley Student Learning Center, Bentley University, Waltham, MA.
Hsiu-Chuan, S. (2005). Youths make pledge to speak up on social, environmental issues. Taiwan
News, p. 3.
Ihne, W. (2012). Starting a campus tradition: A graduation pledge of responsibility. Retrieved
November 30, 2012 from http://www.graduationpledge.org/about/history/.
Kennedy, D. (1988, June 15). Commencement address. The Stanford University, Campus Report, p. 9.
Milcetich, J. (2007). Pledge adds environmental, social factor to future job hunt. McClatchy- Tribune.
Sequeira, C. (2007). The Return of the Graduation Pledge to MIT. Unpublished manuscript, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, MA.
Simon, R. (1987, June 22). ‘60s activism finds a niche in the ‘80s. Chicago Tribune, p. A-1. Yan-Chih, M. (2005, May 23). Pledge instills a social conscience. Taipei Times, p. 2.
About the Author
Bill Benet is the Executive Director of the Graduation Pledge Alliance. Dr. Benet is an educator/researcher/activist who developed the Polarities of Democracy theory at the University of Toronto in 2006. He has over 50 years’ experience in politics, peace & justice organizing, union activism, community development, small business management, organization development, social economy entrepreneurship, fostering collaborative community/campus partnerships, and advancing the democratization of public education. Following three years in the US Army (1965-1968), he served 28 years in the Monroe County Legislature as an elected representative from Rochester, New York, including five years as Majority Leader.
Dr. Benet currently holds academic appointments as a Dissertation Committee Chair with Walden University’s School of Public Policy and Administration, a Visiting Scholar with the University of Toronto’s Adult Education and Community Development Program, and a Senior Fellow with Bentley University’s Service Learning Center. In addition, Dr. Benet serves as the President and Senior Fellow of the Center for Democratic Values.