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President's Office | Remarks: Cap & Gown Convocation, 2006

Remarks to the Class of 2007 at the Cap and Gown Convocation

Saturday, September 30, 2006

“What’s up with her outburst?”

Just yesterday, I was speaking with a Trinity alumna who is now in law school. We were talking about what it’s like to discover that what we take for granted at Trinity — the ability of a woman to speak her mind in class — is not always well received in other settings. Our alumna described a law school class discussion of a legal case involving race discrimination. As various students expressed opinions in the stilted language typical of first year law students (e.g., “I submit that, prima facie, the holding in this case suggests that, a priori, the plaintiff should have sought injunctive relief’. etc.), one of the students suddenly spoke up in plain English with passion in her voice and fire in her eyes. She cut through the fog of legalese with a more personal perspective on the judge’s decision. The student who spoke up happened to be a Black female. According to our alumna, the speaker was eloquent, passionate and quite right about the injustice in the case.

After the class, one of the male students stopped our alumna and motioned toward the speaker and said, “What’s up with her outburst?”

Since that moment, the speaker and our alumna have been wrestling with the dilemma of how and when to speak up in class. Neither of them wants to come across as the Angry Black Woman, and both are now wary of the label that lurks in their classrooms.

Now, lest you think this is just an interesting story of the vestigial remnants of the infamous “chilly classrooms” of the last century, consider this next episode. Just yesterday, I had lunch with a good friend. She is the founder and owner of a major company. She owns her office building on the banks of the Potomac. We enjoyed a beautiful lunch in her executive suite with large windows overlooking the river and Washington skyline — a genuine power perch. But our conversation soon drifted from her tremendous success story and her interest in Trinity to the more personal observations we share in common about how we are perceived when we attend meetings of an organization to which we both belong. The organization is dominated by men who are corporate ceo’s. She and I are corporate ceo’s, too, but we are only two of very few women usually at the meetings. My friend ruminated on the dilemma we sometimes face in that board room: Why is it, she wondered, that I can have all of this professional success, own my own company, be recognized with hundreds of awards for the excellence of my company’s work, but when I speak up about important issues in that board room, the men often look at me like I’m being hysterical?

Hysterical Loud Female.

What’s up with her outburst?

I knew what she was talking about. Now, most of you might think I don’t ever have a moment of hesitation when I want to say something in any room. That’s not really true. In the various places where I sit around town, I am often the only woman, or one of very few women, in the room. And, in numerous places, I have had the experience in of speaking up on an issue, only to have some man tell me later, in some vaguely threatening tone of voice, that I should not be quite so’. Aggressive. Aggressive, Pushy’.Female. They have other words.

What’s up with her outburst?

I’m not telling you all of this to discourage you, but to incite you. The revolution in human rights — women’s rights, civil rights — is far from over. You are the leaders of the revolution’s next generation.

Earlier last week, I was in New York City at the annual gathering of the presidents of the nation’s women’s colleges. We were talking about why we persist in thinking that an education that focuses on women’s development is still necessary in this day and age. There we were, 50 Smart Loud Women and a few courageous men who share our passion for developing the next generations of leaders for this nation and world. We know why we persist: we persist because in too many places in the world women and people of color are still too few at the table — and those of us who do manage to snag a few seats here and there are tolerated so long as we sit on our hands and have nothing to say. Just say something, I dare you! Some of us love the dare, and some of us will, truly, say just about anything necessary to get at the truth, lobbing small bombs of new perspectives into the smug bunkers of complacency.

What’s up with her outburst?

If we have taught you nothing else at Trinity I pray that we have taught you this: that if there is to be any justice, any hope of progress in this world, you cannot be silent. You must love the dare, take the risk of speaking up, engaging passionately with the truth in all of those places where silence gives consent to human suffering, discrimination and oppression. You must use that large voice you have cultivated here on behalf of the great causes of our society: equal justice, relief of poverty, an end to corporate corruption, improvement in the educational opportunities available to all people, protection of the lives of children, advocacy on behalf of the poor of our world, an end to war — period! —- the banishment of torture and imprisonment without charges — no debate! — the establishment of a just and lasting peace. Such advocacy is the grandest of all Trinity traditions.

What’s up with her outburst?

Higher education today is increasingly lost in a wilderness of misguided intentions, some of its own making, some foist upon this industry by politicians who fear the genuine power of the free intellectual community. Higher education should be the counterweight to government in a free nation; government is always seeking ways to contain and constrain universities, because the free expression of the academic community can pose considerable challenges to political leadership. See the Spellings Commission report for the latest example of this struggle for academic independence.

Higher education is criticized because there are graduates of fine universities abroad in the land who, for example, are not quite sure when Columbus discovered America, or frankly, whether he ever did, or whether he was indeed the first, and that, my friends, is considered a shocking scandal among certain pundits and politicians! They say that we should spend considerably less time fomenting dangerous, revolutionary ideas about justice and freedom and more time ensuring that you have memorized key dates and events in history. They say that we should have a national test to ensure that no college student graduates with a diploma who does not know the same set of immutable facts! And who, my friends, will determine those facts? The Educational Testing Service?

The very idea of a standardized test betrays the entire purpose of a higher education. We can debate the ends of education in a free society, yes, but we must never concede that a higher education is about anything less than the cultivation of intellect for free inquiry, discovery and illumination of new forms of thought and expression in order to advance human society.

What’s up with her outburst?

“Civic engagement” is a phrase that a number of commentators use today in discussing the ends of education. Some decry what they perceive as a loss of the spirit of civic engagement on college campuses. They are wrong. On college and university campuses throughout this nation, the spirit and practice of civic engagement are forcefully present in service learning programs and political action groups across the spectrum of beliefs and loyalties. Here at Trinity, civic engagement is one of the most powerful threads in our learning paradigm, because the whole point of this education is to make you a confident, powerful public leader in whatever forums you are called to engage — a classroom, a courtroom, an operating room, a board room, a congressional caucus, a white house situation room, a living room surrounded by family and friends. Trinity women have inhabited all of those rooms throughout the past century, and in this new millennium, you will take the moral power of Trinity civic engagement even further than any prior generation has dared to go.

What’s up with her outburst?

The dare of civic engagement is the risk of private scorn and even public denouncement. Trinity Alumna Nancy Pelosi ’62 knows this all too well. She is the highest ranking woman ever elected in this nation, the leader of a party in Congress. She is well known for speaking out against the majority view; the possibility that she might become Speaker of the House has led to some of the most shameful political attacks possible. But Nancy is not daunted. Like a true Trinity Woman with a strong voice and firm conscience, she takes the dare to speak out, to be a true public leader regardless of the risk.

Another Trinity Alumna, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius ’70, knows this risk as well. The other night I was with her at a small gathering in a private home in northwest Washington. Her good friend Senator Barack Obama stopped by the party to speak in support of the Governor’s bid for re-election. He noted the power of her leadership — she is a successful Democrat in the reddest of red Republican states. She has won significant support and praise on both sides of the aisle. But in striving to reach consensus she has not yielded her strong sense of what is morally necessary for a good society to prevail. Early in her first term, Governor Sebelius was successful in securing passage of a law that allows undocumented immigrants to attend Kansas colleges and universities on the same terms as state citizens. At a time when other state legislatures are rejecting such measures around the country, and when the United States Congress has sadly approved a law to permit the construction of a massive fence along the Mexican border, Governor Sebelius’s stance in favor of treating undocumented immigrants like dignified human beings is a remarkable example of political courage.

What’s up with her outburst?

I heard your voices loud and clear last night in Social Hall, where scores of students gathered for the poetry slam that was part of the Sower’s Seed lecture series. I heard you speak with courage and clarity about your struggles and sorrows, your hopes and dreams to make this world a far better place for the generations to come.

I heard you “burst out” with the roaring expressions of women on a mission to save a world gone mad.

What’s up with her outburst? Sometimes you just gotta burst out. Let me quote from some of your own words:

Kathryn Louissaint put it this way in her poem “What Do You Do?” last night: (excerpt)

What do you do when the world you see is clouded with lies posed as truths?
What do you do when what you want to be so real, was never yours for the keeping?
You take a step back and look again.
Just because you were comfortable here doesn’t mean this is where you belong.
Search. Seek the truth, take a new direction and see where it leads you.

Nicole Newman put it this way in “Count Me In”: (excerpts below)

As I walk these halls
many walked before
me

I think it wasn’t for
someone else’s sense
of responsibility

Where would I be?

When I die my
legacy will not be how
much money I made

Or my benefits package,
it will be how I
used My life to be a
blessing to others

So My choice is clear,
I choose to live life
with the understanding
that

I can help and teach,
and that if I don’t set
an example, who will?

And I promise myself
that if I use my life It
will have to be for
something bigger,

Something more
important than
myself,

There is no such
Thing as being too
ambitious or not
being capable

There is always something
I can change

Pick up a shovel,
write a letter, and do
something, anything

So then when you are asked
What part you
played

You can say I got
in the game and made a
way’

I didn’t sit on sidelines
and wait for
someone to tell me
what to do

I got up and ran full
speed ahead into my
destiny, my promise,
my passion’

Excerpts from “Count Me In” by Nicole Newman

To the seniors in the Gold Class of 2007: your destiny, your promise, your passion stretch to the horizon before you and beyond this day and this year, your senior year at Trinity. Make the most of all of these days in your present, because the future will expect and demand so much of you.

May the wisdom and courage of our Founders, the Sisters of Notre Dame go with you, lighting the fire of courage in your hearts, illuminating your minds and souls with the passion for action for justice, for freedom and truth. May you find in the examples of the Trinity Women who came before you the courage to raise your voices in the rooms you inhabit, to speak the truth, always; to invest your time and talent in the causes of justice and peace. May your Trinity education give you the knowledge to make smart choices, the wisdom to make good choices, the charity to make choices that uphold the dignity of human life. May the blessings of the Trinity go with you, our seniors, through your final years of study here, and all through your lives to come.

Congratulations!


Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: president@trinitydc.edu

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