Lee Eliot Berk Delivers Commencement Address
May 8, 2004
A record 730 graduates from 50 countries received degrees today at Berklee College of Music's 2004 Commencement, held at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Boston. Honorary Doctor of Music Degrees were presented during the ceremony to retiring Berklee College of Music President Lee Eliot Berk, whose 25-year tenure puts him among only four other college or university presidents in history who have served as long, and entertainer Bill Cosby for his commitment of advancing higher education and for his longtime love and promotion of jazz. Both honorees addressed the graduating class and more than 3,000 guests in attendance.
President Berk's father, Lawrence Berk, founded Berklee in 1945 and when he reversed his son's first and last names found a suitable title for the incubator of some of the most successful names in pop, jazz, and rock music. Berk joined his father at the college in 1966 and served as a music law professor and a vice president in external affairs before ascending to the presidency in 1979. Berk's retirement marks the first time in the college's history that a non-member of the Berk family will serve as president; incoming president Roger H. Brown will take office on June 1.
In remarks made before accepting his Honorary Doctor of Music Degree, President Berk said that he was proud to be part of the two-generation legacy that created and sustained Berklee. "Nothing could be closer to my heart than receiving this honorary recognition from the Berklee community that has been so much a part of my entire life," he said. "In his recent visit to Berklee this spring, (Berklee alumnus) Quincy Jones asked all of us to dream big, and to work with people we love. My life has permitted me to do both. I am very grateful."
Commencement speaker Bill Cosby was introduced to a standing ovation and rousing applause, preceded by the faculty brass band's rendition of "The Berklee Fight Song," which Cosby had composed specially for the occasion. He approached the podium and removed the ceremonial robe to reveal a "Berklee Football" jersey – bearing the wry inscription "undefeated since 1945" — prompting raucous cheers from the audience. Berklee has no football team.
Cosby told the story of a crisis of confidence he suffered early in his comedy career, concluding with these words of advice for the class of 2004: "I want to wish you good luck. But that's terrible. You don't need luck, you need you. I want you to believe every professor who ever said you're good, as you sat there doubting yourself. Give your professor's words and your professor's judgment a chance. Go flat out. See how good you are." After addressing the audience, Cosby was presented with an Honorary Doctor of Music Degree.
In accepting their honorary doctor of music degrees from Berklee, Berk and Cosby joined the ranks of such esteemed past recipients as Duke Ellington, David Bowie, Count Basie, B.B. King, Sting, James Taylor, Pat Metheny, Dizzy Gillespie, Natalie Cole, Billy Joel, Bonnie Raitt, Quincy Jones, Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, and Patti Labelle.
The Commencement Concert
The 2004 Commencement Concert took place the evening before graduation, on Friday, May 7, in the Berklee Performance Center. Some of the college's most accomplished students and graduating seniors presented a tribute to the honorees with pop, gospel, country, funk, and jazz tunes. Student players and vocalists represented nine countries including the U.S., Japan, South Africa, Brazil, Portugal, and Madagascar.
Among 17 songs performed was "Musical Fortress," a tribute to President Berk written by Assistant Professor Dennis Montgomery III and former faculty member Al Kooper. Cosby was honored with a medley of themes from his TV shows, including I Spy, The Cosby Show, and Fat Albert & the Cosby Kids. R&B and jazz recording artist Lalah Hathaway '90 and noted jazz bassist and session player Abe Laboriel '72 traveled to Boston to join the students and send their own musical farewells from the stage.
The Billboard Endowed Scholarship
During the commencement concert, student Nir Felder, from Katonah, New York, was presented with one of Berklee's most prestigious awards, the Billboard Endowed Scholarship. This scholarship, presented annually to outstanding student performers, was established at Berklee in 1995 with a major gift from Billboard magazine. Felder, a gifted jazz guitarist and composer in his third year at Berklee, will lead a student quartet representing the college at September's Monterey Jazz Festival.
On March 24, 2016, the college's Board of Trustees announced that it had voted to rescind Bill Cosby's honorary degree.