Remarks for the 2007 Trinity Commencement
May 20, 2007
Each year at Commencement, it is customary for the president of the university to offer a few reflections on the state of Trinity and the larger state of the academy and our world.
I am pleased to tell you that the State of Trinity is quite well, as you can see from these magnificent graduates assembled here today.
This year at Trinity, we had many notable accomplishments including these:
* With the leadership of Dr. Sharon Mailey, the Trinity Nursing Program is now a reality, with the RN-to-BSN program well on its way to accreditation, and the full BSN program approved by the D.C. Board of Nursing and ready to launch this fall.
* Dr. Raul Tovares, associate professor of Communication, has received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach journalism at the Ivan Franko National University in Ukraine.
* Webmaster Timothy Russell received the CASE silver award for his outstanding work on Trinity’s website.
* Campus Minister Barbara Humphrey McCrabb accepted an award from the Catholic Campus Ministry Program recognizing the Seton Cunneen Fellowship Program as one of seven exemplary Campus Ministry programs nationwide.
* A member of this senior class, Leah Martin, student government president, an Intelligence Community Scholar, has won a prestigious State Department Rangel Fellowship to support her studies that will lead to a career in the Foreign Service.
* Three Trinity students — Annie Osorio-Perez, Christine Palmer and Natasha Ray — were selected for the highly competitive and prestigious Young People For Fellowships recognizing campus leaders and progressive activists.
* No fewer than three Trinity coaches received ‘Coach of the Year’ accolades from the Atlantic Women’s College Conference, including Coach and Athletic Director Kristine Manning for Lacrosse, Coach Gary Blake for Basketball, and Coach Elizabeth Schreiner in Volleyball.
* Trinity Alumna Barbara York, Class of 1972, vice president for industry affairs at the National Cable Television Association, has been named Cable Television Executive of the Year and inducted into the Cable Television Hall of Fame.
* Trinity Alumna Kathleen Gilligan Sebelius, Class of 1970, Governor of the State of Kansas, was elected as the first woman to chair of Democratic Governors Association.
* Last, certainly not least, Trinity Alumna Nancy Pelosi, Class of 1962, became the first woman Speaker of the House in January.
These are just a few among so many achievements of Trinity students and alumnae, faculty and staff.
While the state of Trinity is well, the state of the Academy is not so good. Higher education is an embattled industry these days, some of it troubles of our own making, some of it political ills foisted upon us by an intrusive federal bureaucracy, some of it the result of events outside of our control that have a grave impact on our lives.
We think of our friends and colleagues at Virginia Tech, a beautiful community of high achievers brought to such great sorrow by the act of a madman. We pray for the dead, wounded and all those who are suffering greatly as a result of this terrible act, and even more, we pray for an end to the scandal of gun violence in this nation.
Some universities this year have brought new troubles to our industry by indulging clearly unethical practices in doing deals with the student loan industry. This scandal is a true shame for all of higher education, and we must clean it up quickly.
On another front, the United States Department of Education is attempting to usurp the academic community’s own voluntary regulatory processes in accreditation. The Department is now crafting new rules that would significantly undermine the right and responsibility of faculties to determine what students should learn and how well students meet the academic standards that the faculty set. The proposals would replace faculty judgment with the judgment of the federal bureaucracy, a form of ‘No Child Left Behind’ for university students, imposing on colleges through their accreditors a one-size-fits-all model of teaching and learning.
As a private university founded as a women’s college and in the Catholic tradition, as a university that serves a majority of African American, Latina, Asian and immigrant students from many communities historically underserved by traditional education, Trinity cannot stand by while the Department of Education regulates our unique mission into some kind of bland low-level sameness with every other college in the nation. We are as different from Georgetown or George Mason as we are from Montgomery College or the Virginia Military Institute. That difference is our strength, and our strength is a gift to American higher education and the students we serve. And so, too, can every other college and university make that case for its own mission.
The federal government’s plan to manipulate accreditation is a thin veil over an effort to control curricula and the intellectual life of the academic community. This is not just an academic dispute. Free and open universities are the places where freedom of thought and speech are replenished daily in this free society. The collegiate classroom can never become a place where a governmental agenda replaces the agenda of free thought and free speech.
American higher education is the envy of the world, particularly because we are free from governmental regulation of our curricula. Contrary to the report of the Spellings Commission on Higher Education, this nation’s colleges and universities are not failing. That report, itself, is a product of a narrow, bureaucratic view of the aims of education, written to satisfy political, not academic, ends. The American Council on Education refused to sign the report. No less a group than the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society has said that the Spellings Commission report is ”seriously flawed by omission of the role of the liberal arts and sciences in sustaining the excellence of American higher education.’ Nevertheless, the Spellings Commission report is now the driver for the Department of Education’s agenda to take over accreditation and replace independent faculty judgment with governmental standards for learning.
The efforts of the federal government to dictate the intellectual products of higher education distract us from a more urgent focus on those social conditions we should be addressing more vigorously. Higher education should be a more powerful, passionate voice on the crises of this dangerous age in civilization’s continuum.
Let’s not let history reveal that we remained silent while the very health of this planet deteriorated to the point of catastrophic global climate change. We need the research talent and clear voices of our scientists and public policy scholars, strong and unafraid, in the forefront of the current environmental debate.
Let’s not let history reveal that we wasted our precious time and talent in defensive skirmishes over arcane regulatory debates while a misguided war raged on, devastating millions of lives and draining precious resources away from our domestic needs. We must not shrink from moral advocacy for peaceful solutions to the grave security threats of our time. Terrorism is certainly a real threat, but war is not the answer.
Let’s not let history reveal that we walked away from public engagement with the still-unfinished agenda of equal opportunity in this nation, most particularly, equal educational opportunity for all children, all women, all men, not just those people of privilege who can afford to buy the best education in private schools. This is a profound issue of racial and economic justice for the United States, for the Washington region, and for the District of Columbia.
As a private school leader in the city, let me be very clear that there can be no substitute in our city for excellent public education. I am very proud of what Trinity has been able to do to meet the higher education needs of so many citizens of the District. But from all of the work we do with our city I know that the needs are vast and Trinity is small. Our experience magnifies the simple fact that there is no substitute for an effective public system of education at all levels, from preschool through university.
Let me also note here that governance reform alone cannot improve public education. Education takes place in the classroom, not the board room. Educational reform in the District of Columbia must focus on helping teachers and principals to be more effective, starting with giving them appropriate learning environments in school buildings, timely delivery of textbooks and supplies, and rewards for excellence in teaching and administration.
Each of us has significant responsibilities in responding to these challenges.
Today, I call upon the faculty of Trinity to redouble your advocacy on behalf of the academic freedom that protects the intellectual vibrancy of this free society.
Today I call upon the alumnae and alumni of Trinity to redouble your resolve to be exemplars of our highest values of intellectual excellence, personal honor, and advocates for justice and peace in all of the many communities you serve each day.
Today I call upon the graduates of the Class of 2007 to pledge your lifelong commitment to uphold these same values of Trinity in the lives and work you will pursue from this day forward.
To those of you who will be business executives: you will be the stewards of the economic engines of our city and region and nation. Do so with a profound sense of public purpose for the critical role of corporate productivity in shaping the good society. Do not forget to share your profits broadly with those who do not have as much as you.
To those of you who will be great communicators as journalists, lawyers and advocates and writers and poets and artists and civic activists: honor the truth in all communications, leaven our days with tales from your imagination and soul, help the citizens understand what is important so that they can make good choices each day, raise your voices on behalf of those who cannot be heard.
To those of you who will be health care professionals or scientists: renew your pledges each day to alleviate suffering, to improve the conditions of life for your patients, to discover the causes of chronic illness and develop new and better treatments for the improvement of human life.
To those of you who will be teachers, principals, guidance counselors: you will do the most precious work imaginable next to parenting, you will shape the minds and hearts and souls of the young who are our future. Do so with imagination, integrity and intellectual rigor each day.
In all of these great challenges, through all of the days you will count beyond this day, may you always know the power of Trinity’s knowledge, remembering the lessons you first acquired here; may you grow through the embrace of Trinity’s wisdom, learning to distinguish the important from the urgent, what is true over the deceptive, what is lasting over the expedient. May the light and love of Trinity’s great Spirit go with you, shining down all your days, illuminating the paths you will travel through the journeys of your lives.
Congratulations, Class of 2007!