The Honorable Barbara Bailey Kennelly ’58, former member of Congress from Connecticut and distinguished professor of political science at Trinity, spoke to more than 150 students, faculty and staff gathered for the College of Arts and Scieinces Dean’s List Ceremony on February 16, 2012. She called on the students, “the best and the brightest at Trinity, Dean’s List students,” to “become actors in our democratic system,” which she called “the strongest democracy in the world.” Here are her complete remarks.
Thank you so much for inviting me to participate in this celebration of excellence! As Professor San Juan mentioned, I am a proud Trinity graduate. As I walk the halls of Trinity today, I marvel at how much things change yet still stay the same. Main still looks much as it did when I went here – though the new elevators are a welcome improvement and add a nice touch of the 21st century. The sound of clanking typewriters has been replaced by ringing cellphones and computers. And you have a beautiful athletic center with a new academic building in the future.
But some things just don’t change, and those are the things that make up Trinity’s heart and soul. This starts with Trinity’s mission, which is rooted in the historic tradition of women’s colleges to transform and empower women through education. When they established Trinity in 1897, the Sisters of Notre Dame acted upon their belief that women – who had historically been denied collegiate opportunities – had the right to obtain a great higher education on the same level as men. This was a radical idea at the time. Trinity has persisted in this still-vital mission, while adapting to social, cultural and educational changes that have transformed the college into a modern, thriving University.
The spirit and strength of those Sisters who founded the school still lives on. During my time, Trinity graduated women who had the determination to “become someone” and the self-confidence to know they could achieve their goals. Among the roughly 3,400 women who graduated from Trinity between 1955 and 1975, more than half went on to earn advanced degrees. By the late 1960s, Trinity was producing twice as many Woodrow Wilson fellows as any other women’s college. Just last year, Forbes magazine’s list of the 100 most powerful women in the world included more graduates from Trinity than any other undergraduate school in the country with the exception of Princeton.
The spirit of Trinity is also embodied in your President, Pat McGuire. One thing I have learned over the years is that leadership flows from the top down. And we at Trinity are especially blessed to have as president someone as enthusiastic, strong and dedicated as Pat McGuire. I don’t know how many of you realize she just recently won an award that is not usually given to a sitting president of a university, but Pat McGuire’s credentials were just so good, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities decided to bend the rules and give her the prestigious Henry Paley Memorial award anyway.
She was given the award because of the profound change her leadership has brought to Trinity, and because of her tireless, passionate and articulate voice for the value of America’s system of higher education. This commitment to higher education for all goes beyond the walls of Trinity itself. She has testified before all sorts of Committees, spoken at Capitol Hill rallies, and served on Department of Education panels – all with the goal of promoting educational excellence for all students.
I’d like to read for you an excerpt from her citation, which I believe describes her better than I ever could. “Pat McGuire values and exemplifies integrity and honesty – she is a compassionate leader who cares deeply about her students, faculty and staff. She is generous with her time, serving as a valued member of many nonprofit boards; she has a terrific sense of humor; she is a strategic and intellectual thinker and a visionary leader; she is a tireless and passionate advocate for those who are disadvantaged and disenfranchised; she believes in the transformative power of education and sees it as a path to empowerment, economic independence and a fulfilling life.”
President McGuire represents the living spirit of the Sisters of Notre Dame. But you in this room are also prime examples of how strongly the Trinity tradition lives on. By definition, you excel in your studies or you wouldn’t be on the Dean’s List. In a school with the kind of rigorous education standards Trinity has, this is quite an accomplishment. And many of you are also examples of Trinity’s spirit of service – which also helps mold well-rounded, civically engaged Americans. In the last year, over 600 Trinity students, faculty and staff contributed nearly 50,000 hours to a broad variety of service projects designed to improve the lives of families in our community. This is a marvelous accomplishment, and the foundation upon which your futures can be built.
I have spent most of my life in public service – from my years on the Hartford City Council, to the Connecticut Secretary of State’s office, to my 17 years as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and finally to my nine years as the president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. My goal has always been to give back to the community and its members the same kinds of privileges I enjoyed all my life.
That’s why I am going to end by asking you to consider something in the future. When I was talking to President McGuire about coming to Trinity to teach, I told her I knew I was never going to write a book, but I wanted to use my 23 years’ experience in elected office in a positive way. Over the years I have spoken to hundreds of groups of young people like you. Just recently I was at the Naval Academy in Annapolis for two days talking about government with the Plebes. I do this in hopes I can spark someone’s ambition to run for office.
I know that is a lot to ask in this climate, but when I look out at you – the best and the brightest at Trinity, Dean’s List students – I think, we need bright people who know how to practice the art of politics. When the government threatens to shut down, it’s called politics. When a member of Congress does something ethically wrong, it’s called politics. So we come to view the politician with distain: “That they only want to raise money for their next election.”
If you are a true politician, you work to reconcile different views – you have to compromise and you have to treat each other with respect. But controversy and conflict in a large nation is unavoidable. So you have to accommodate different points of view and work for common solutions. This is what good politicians do:
- They work to calm rather than inflame.
- They take the time to talk with fellow members.
- They have to have the art of persuasion.
- They have to be willing to share the credit with victory.
- Finally, they must know when it’s time to compromise.
Congress is the foremost branch of our national government. It is first in our Constitution – it is the body that makes our government work. Among its roles it checks the passion of a single leader. As we look at what is going on around the world, as we see the battles in the streets, as we see the army fighting its own citizens – we know ours is still the best, the strongest democracy in the world. To keep it that way, the best and the brightest have to become actors in our democratic system. I’m asking you to think about it.