Remarks for the 100th Annual Commencement
Every year at Commencement, it is customary for the president of the College to comment on the state of the College and the world into which we are sending our graduates.
Today, as we celebrate the 100th class to receive degrees from Trinity College, I am pleased to tell you that the state of Trinity is strong. The academic year that we bring to a close today is notable for several historic achievements.
We have enrolled more degree-seeking students at Trinity this year than at any previous time in Trinity’s history.
On November 23, 2002, we gathered to dedicate the Trinity Center for Women and Girls in Sports. The first new facility on our campus in 40 years, the Trinity Center reaffirms this College’s dedication to the education and advancement of women.
The Trinity Center sparked the largest outpouring of voluntary charitable gifts in Trinity’s history. The Centennial Campaign has almost reached its $12 million goal, just $200,000 to go. More than 1500 Trinity alumnae contributed more than $9 million toward that goal, with the balance donated by corporations and foundations in the Washington region.
Even as we complete and open the Trinity Center, we are moving ahead with our strategic plan to renovate Alumnae Hall, build new residential facilities, and ultimately to renovate and enlarge our Science Building and Library.
If the Founders of Trinity were here today — and I am sure they are here, in a sense — they would be both astounded and very pleased by the development of this College. The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur founded Trinity to ensure that women could achieve a higher education equal to the best afforded to men in the 19th and 20th centuries, and even today, in the 21st century, the need to sustain a college that focuses on women’s education and leadership as its primary mission is great. We are the only such college in this region, and one of only 18 Catholic women’s colleges still operating in the United States. We feel a great obligation of stewardship to our founders and commitment to future generations of women to sustain our primary mission commitment in Trinity’s College of Arts and Sciences, even as we have expanded the educational opportunities on this campus to welcome men and women and students of all ages and backgrounds into our School of Professional Studies and School of Education.
This year, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur have begun the celebration of the bicentennial of their founding in 1804 by St. Julie Billiart, and they continue to affirm their Gospel way of life, “with hearts as wide as the world,” standing with women and poor people throughout the world, committed to work in education to achieve peace and justice as a sign of their pledge to make God’s goodness and love known to all people.
Let us salute the Sisters of Notre Dame for their 200 years of devotion to living the Gospel through service to women, children and the poor throughout the world.
In a particular way, let us also salute three Sisters of Notre Dame on Trinity’s faculty and staff who have achieved a great milestone this year. These three sisters have celebrated their golden jubilees, 50 years of service and devotion as SNDs: Sr. Joan Mary Hill, Sr. Maura Prendergast, Sr. Phyllis Braniff.
While Trinity celebrates so much achievement, we do so in a world that is plagued by violence and terrorism, war and injustice in so many places. The 100 classes of women and men that Trinity has sent forward into the world have dedicated themselves to the remediation of the conditions that cause so much degradation of humanity in so many places. We alumnae and alumni of Trinity do this not simply as a matter of good secular behavior, but quite profoundly as a matter of faith conviction. In the Catholic faith, which is the bedrock moral tradition of Trinity College, the defense of human life is paramount, at all stages, in all forms, under all circumstances. Whether defending the rights of the unborn, or standing against unjust war or racism or sexism or oppression of the human person, or advocating on behalf of the poor who are voiceless in the formulation of policies and practices that exploit their poverty, we who are educated through Trinity College, whatever our personal faith traditions may be, we have an obligation to use the gift of this education to protect and defend the sacred life that God has shared with humanity.
Here in the District of Columbia, there are many political and social conditions that undermine the quality and dignity of life for citizens of the nation’s capital. The disenfranchisement of the citizens of this city is notorious and unjust; no other citizens in this great nation are denied a vote in Congress, and yet this shameful condition is allowed to continue as a matter of law. This is an affront to the freedom and dignity of our citizens.
The citizens of this city are disenfranchised in another, more insidious way, by the chronic underachievement of the educational system in the city. This, too, is an affront to human life and dignity for the citizens of the District. There are many reasons why educational success eludes urban school systems, not just here but in virtually every major city in the nation. Conditions of poverty, violence, the drug culture, the institutionalized racism that originally segregated schools as a matter of law, and still in practice, that permitted schools to be under-funded based on neighborhood wealth, that continues to have low expectations for black and Hispanic children and families, all of these conditions contribute to educational deprivation. It’s not the student’s fault, but it is the city’s shame.
In the last few weeks, a new controversy has arisen in the District about one possible form of relief for educational deprivation. The topic is vouchers, a program that would provide parents and students with a governmentally-funded payment to subsidize elementary and secondary educational expenses in the school of their choice. The topic is a political hot button, and so the politicians have snarled and roared at each other on the airwaves and in the print media.
But beneath the political din are thousands of parents and children, some in the poorest sections of our city, who only want a fighting chance to have a good education in the school that will serve their needs best, leveling the playing field to give the children a better opportunity to be equipped with the educational tools necessary to rise above poverty, to secure economic justice.
Just today, the Washington Post reports on three major studies of poverty in the District. The figures are shocking, a riveting cry for change in how we do business in this town. In the 1990’s, the number of DC residents living in poverty tripled — this at a time when economic expansion in this region was phenomenal. Today, while, nationally, the concentration of poor people in urban centers declined from 17 percent to 12 percent, in the District the number of people in concentrated poverty shot up, from 9 percent to 24 percent.
Today, 66,000 people live in high-poverty D.C. communities; that’s a lot of poverty for a city with just about half a million residents.
We know that education makes the critical difference in eradicating poverty. Just look at the data in this city: the District has one of the highest high school drop out rates and one of the highest rates of earned doctorates of any urban area. As a corollary: we have one of the worst poverty rates and some of the highest per capita incomes. The bimodal distribution of wealth and poverty is directly related to the bimodal achievements in education, and these, again, are clearly related to the availability and accessibility of schools that ensure student success. The national data also show that workers who hold college degrees earn nearly twice as much over their lifetimes as those who have high school diplomas. For those without high school diplomas, the economic conditions are significantly worse.
Getting every child into a school where she can succeed, where she can persist, where she can graduate and go on to the next educational level should be the most important agenda of this city, and it’s an agenda that should not be held hostage to political postures. Indeed, the politicians should get out of the way; this issue is too important to be claimed by Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives. If the children cannot learn to speak and to write well, they will not even have a voice in the debate. That’s the worse disenfranchisement of all, having no voice in the debate.
The most valuable enfranchisement our leaders can give to our citizens is to allow parents and children the choice of the means by which they can secure the best possible education.
To say that vouchers will undermine Home Rule in D.C. misses the point. Home Rule is about self-determination, and the citizens cannot exercise their rights to self-determination if they are not well educated. Home Rule begins with educational excellence.
To say that permitting vouchers would undermine public education also misses the point. Trinity College works closely with our public schools, and we know that there are many fine institutions, teachers and principals. This is not about demeaning public education. But if it is any good at all, public education should not shrink from the challenge of student choice in education. The majority of students will continue in public schools and they should not receive one dollar of support less, nor should efforts to improve public education relent. Nor should private schools resist scrutiny if they believe they are good alternatives to public education and worthy of support through vouchers. Catholic schools, in particular, who educate thousands of residents of D.C. already through the Faith in the City program, should set the tone by voluntarily adopting the No Child Left Behind standards. The social pact that vouchers create should work to improve all schools, insisting on high and consistent standards at all levels, while empowering parents and students more completely through giving them choice in education.
To those of us in higher education, the debate is curious, since we have reaped the benefits of a voucher-like system of student financial aid for more than half a century, since the G. I. Bill in 1944 first provided taxpayer-funded financial assistance. The great federal financial aid system provides support to millions of college students regardless of their choice of a public or private institution — and 85% of them still choose public institutions. Student choice is a bedrock principle of federal financial aid at the collegiate level.
Trinity’s care and concern for improving educational opportunity at all levels is consistent with the mission and heritage of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Our work to improve the educational circumstances of the children of our city affirms our mission in the cause of social justice, which is intrinsic to the teachings of our Church. In promoting the cause of justice, we support the potential for peace, which is a necessary condition for true human dignity, freedom and the enjoyment of our sacred life.
As the Class of 2003 accept your diplomas and wear your hoods proudly today, you become the latest witness to the genius of our Founders and the great traditions of Trinity in educational achievement and service to our world.
My dear friends in this great Gold Class: may the joy and pride of this moment sustain you through the hard work that will be yours in the years to come. May you never relent in your quest to do what is right, to know what is true, to appreciate beauty, to enjoy learning for its own sake, to serve those who do not have the privilege of your gifts, to raise your voices on behalf of those who cannot speak, to thirst for justice, to pray for peace, to demand excellence in your own endeavors even as you hold others to the same high standards. May the friends you made in your Trinity days walk with you through all of life’s labyrinth pathways. May the knowledge you possess so fully today ferment well into wisdom with the yeast of experience. May your faith never fail, your hope always prevail, your charity endure through all of your days. May the grace of the Trinity be with you, always.