West Valley City • Robert Redford didn't begin his commencement address to Westminster College graduates with the usual words of inspiration and optimism. No, he began by lamenting the "chaotic, divisive" state of today's world.
"I'm sorry to say that I think we've done a piss poor job of leaving you all with something to work with, and I apologize for that," he said, adding, "It wasn't my fault, you know, but it's my generation."
But he soon shifted to praising the energy and drive he sees in young people today.
"This new generation coming forward … what you're really basically saying is, 'Give us the reins. Don't tell us about the past. Don't tell us what you did or didn't do. Don't give us examples from the past. Don't bother us with that. Just give us the reins and please, step aside,' " he said. "And I give you all the encouragement in the world to grab those reins and run with them."
The actor, director, environmentalist and founder of the Sundance Institute received an honorary doctorate from Utah's sole private liberal arts college during a ceremony at the Maverik Center on Saturday.
More than 900 graduates and their families gathered to hear Redford, 76, and to applaud student accomplishments, soaking in the occasion with broad smiles, whistles and cheers.
Westminster College president Brian Levin-Stankevich ticked off Redford's many accomplishments, from starring in the acclaimed film "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" to receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his support of independent film. But Redford's move to put over 5,000 acres into a land trust in order to protect it from development perhaps got the biggest applause.
Redford, who dropped out of college to take art and theater classes in Europe and New York, traced his own rocky relationship with education and encouraged the new grads to embrace social responsibility and creativity no matter their chosen field.
"I just encourage you to take this education and go forward with it," he said.
Newly-minted graduate Robin Smith intends to do just that. The breast cancer survivor and first-generation college grad will pursue a master's degree in sociology at Loyola University in Chicago this fall.
"I'm just so happy to put on a cap and gown that's not a Halloween costume," she joked. Then she choked up. "I'm just really, really grateful to be here."
Twitter: @jnpearce More on "The Sundance Kid"
Read Tribune movie critic Sean P. Mean's 2005 interview with Robert Redford as he was about to be honored at the Kennedy Center. http://bit.ly/13uIDYo