2017 was a great year at Trinity, packed with events, student achievements, and a remarkably vibrant sense of solidarity within our campus community. Beyond Michigan Avenue, however, events were more worrisome, tumultuous and often frustrating for many members of the Trinity family. The “highlights reel” (above) packs the entire 2017 year at Trinity into 3 fast minutes — enjoy! But even as we smile at the many great moments we shared, the Trinity family must also now look ahead to the many challenges we face in the year to come. 2018 promises to challenge us like never before — as a university, as participants in civic society, as people striving to live a set of core values that often seem countercultural.
What should we resolve to do in 2018 that will make the world a little bit better, help people find more hope and peace, make life easier for children and families in great need? I invite your resolutions to add to this blog throughout the month of January — add yours in the “comments” section below. Not personal resolutions like the eternal pledge to lose weight and exercise more (always on my list!), but truly outward-focused resolutions for improving the communities we inhabit and the lives we influence.
Three Resolutions for 2018
I have three major resolutions for 2018:
- I will not be silent in the face of injustice.
- I will spend more time focusing on solutions and less time ranting about conditions.
- I will strive to do more to exercise creative excellence in my own work and the work of colleagues.
What do these resolutions mean? All of them tie directly to my work for Trinity and also the leadership that I am fortunate to be able to exercise in some small way in the larger landscape of higher education. All of these resolutions go to the heart of my life’s work in advancing education for all people as the best, maybe the only, pathway to equality, economic security and intellectual fulfillment.
I will not be silent in the face of injustice.
Too many Trinity students know the pain of injustice on a daily basis. Our students suffer the consequences of racism, sexism, poverty, inadequate educational opportunities, a lack of access to good healthcare, hunger, homelessness, the ill effects of a justice system that too often perpetrates injustice against African Americans, the fear and uncertainty of immigration politics that denies human dignity and panders to the worst elements of nationalism and ethnic hatred. Our work as educators at Trinity, faculty and staff together, aims to help our students to grow intellectually, professionally and spiritually so that they might realize greater economic and personal success, and have the skills and resilience necessary to overcome the myriad social conditions that cause inequality and injustice. We stand for justice for our students and we are resolved to do all that we can to address every instance of injustice.
Our work is animated by the example of St. Julie Billiart, founder of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, whose inspiration led to the establishment of a global network of schools, colleges and universities infused with the mission of the SNDs to be of service to people living in poverty, “especially women and children in the most abandoned places.” Julie instructed her sisters to “teach them what they need to know” to be successful in life. The SNDs who founded Trinity were very clear about women’s equal right to a great higher education, believing that advanced intellectual fulfillment is essential not only for temporal success but ultimately as the means to strengthen faith and achieve salvation. This purpose is consistent with the exhortation on Catholic higher education set forth in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the 1991 Vatican document that illuminates the purpose of a Catholic university in the search for truth through fostering the dialogue of faith and reason: “a Catholic University is distinguished by its free search for the whole truth about nature, man and God. The present age is in urgent need of this kind of disinterested service, namely of proclaiming the meaning of truth, that fundamental value without which freedom, justice and human dignity are extinguished.”
Principles of social justice are the foundation of Catholic teaching, starting with respect for the dignity of human life, and continuing through the themes of nurturing a healthy family and community life, participating in the protection of human rights, making service to the poor and vulnerable the highest priority of the social system, respecting the dignity and rights of workers, standing in solidarity with the whole human family, and caring for God’s creation. From the pragmatic guidance of St. Julie through the loftier words of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Trinity’s mission is animated each day by issues of social justice for our students, faculty, staff and larger community.
Justice calls us to stand for truth. Truth today is under assault like never before, and the tsunami of falsehoods flowing through society is posing increasingly severe challenges to establishing justice and peace. A brief study of history only as recently as the 20th Century shows the catastrophe and human horror of propaganda machines allowed to churn out political fictions to suit the powerful. The end result of every episode of official lies was deep human oppression and death, whether the fiction of Nazism that led to the Holocaust, or the fiction of communism that murdered untold millions, or the lies of regimes in countries around the world that trampled human life and dignity for the sake of holding political power. The United States was hardly exempt; from Hanoi to Baghdad and Kabul, political lies supported catastrophic military decisions that led to appalling suffering and death in too many places.
As 2018 dawns, we face an extremely perilous moment for truth. Technology’s amazing power to improve so many dimensions of human life also now threatens to wipe out our ability to know facts with certainty. The spread of lies and misinformation on social media warps our society; a presidential tweet spewing absolute nonsense is likely to be held up as truth by a significant portion of the population. People in power decry “fake news” if the facts do not suit them, and invent “alternative facts” that mislead the public. The fact that persons elected to positions of power and influence appear to have little regard for truth — indeed, appear to use the technology of communication as a tool for propaganda that is beyond anything that the great novelist George Orwell (1984) might have imagined — now threatens our very way of life. Our elections are tainted, our laws are crafted in secret and passed without public review, our politicians act with callous disregard for the people they took an oath to protect.
In the months ahead, three issues stand out as needing advocacy and action for justice for Trinity students and families:
- DACA and Dreamers: the fact that our government continues to play cynical games with the lives of our students and so many young people is a shocking and cruel injustice. The use of a “fix” for Dreamers as a political bargaining chip is appalling. People who claim to be “pro-life” cannot possibly continue the travesty of denying a speedy resolution to this unnecessary humanitarian crisis. We must redouble our advocacy with Congress and the White House to achieve justice for Dreamers and to establish a pathway that will lead to a more just and sensible immigration policy.
- Confronting Racism and Sexism: the external climate has exacerbated racism at all levels of our society, and the rise of white supremacy, affection for Nazi symbols and KKK garb often seems to get aid and comfort at the highest levels of our government. A majority of Trinity students are African American and Latina, and the stress of increased incidents of racial and ethnic hatred and threats to upend the hard-won gains in civil rights in the last half century creates an unjust and intolerable environment. In the year ahead, I will write and speak even more on the grave injustices that our current environment encourages. In the same way, in the last year we have seen an appalling parade of horrible examples of sexism and misogyny; as an institution with a core mission in women’s education and advancement, Trinity can and will do even more to be a loud voice for women’s equality and dignity.
- Federal Policy for College Students: whether the future of Pell Grants or conditions imposed through the student loan system or protections for students suffering sexual assault, Congress and the U.S. Department of Education too often act in ways that exacerbate injustice and create perils for the very students who need the most help. I will be devoting even more time in the months ahead to advocacy for Trinity students who need improved Pell Grants, a less complicated federal student aid system, and effective higher education policies that protect students without burdening them with more costs. We also need to keep an eye on the DC Tuition Assistance Grant Program that provides important supplementary support to hundreds of Trinity students.
Of course, there are many other issues. Among those, I am very concerned about the impact of the new tax laws on our community, and we will be evaluating those impacts even more closely in the next few months. The continuing threats to justice for people who need access to affordable healthcare loom large. The deliberate rejection of climate science and actions to roll back environmental projections, including taking the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord, is a direct assault on Catholic teachings on social justice. And on the large world stage, the gravest threat of all looms with renewed concern about nuclear weapons and loose talk about annihilating North Korea. (I am reading Walter Isaacson’s marvelous biography of Albert Einstein and just finished the section on Einstein’s efforts to warn Presidents Roosevelt and Truman against using the atomic bomb; Einstein said at one point, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”)
These are not just casual musings; the daily headlines sound alarms about the urgency to be advocates for justice, without which we cannot hope for peace.
I will spend more time focusing on solutions and less time ranting about conditions.
So, how do I take the concerns stated above and turn them into effective advocacy for solutions? This is not simply my challenge, but a challenge for all of us at Trinity. We believe that education is the best, perhaps only, pathway to achieve the Good Society of fond aspirations. We also believe that education can illuminate the darkness where fear, terrorism, oppression, injustice of all kinds lurks. But what, specifically, can we do as a university community to be part of the solution and not just rant about the conditions?
We will talk more about this when school starts again in January, but among other things we need to continue the kind of programming we undertook in Fall 2017 — the Symposium on DACA and Dreamers brought the community together and helped to map out some strategies; the Trinity Reads program focuses the community on issues in racism and equality; the School of Education has a central theme of social justice in its research and public events. We are exploring development of a more distinctive focus on environmental studies across disciplines. Through the Billiart Center we consider a range of issues in social justice each semester. In a separate message, I will be asking members of the Trinity campus community for your ideas on more constructive ways to address topics of justice and advocacy.
Additionally, while I do a lot of writing and give speeches all of the time, I will be formulating more specific pieces of public advocacy on the topics that affect Trinity students in particular.
I will strive to do more to exercise creative excellence in my own work and the work of colleagues.
Everybody here works very hard, but sometimes we do not achieve the levels of creative excellence that are necessary to have breakthroughs — to get to real solutions, to build new programs and services that really can make a difference for our students and for Trinity. Sometimes we need to take time out of our busy lives to discover our creative spirits, to come up with solutions that are not simply good enough but that are outstanding.
What are some examples? In the last few months there’s been a lot of discussion about the problem of higher education in this country — a very few institutions are fabulously wealthy while the rest of us struggle financially; those same few elite institutions enroll very few students of color, very few low income students — and yet, if you only read popular media, you would think that those institutions are the only colleges and universities that have true worth for our country. The amount of media attention focused on a very few wealthy schools is frustrating.
Trinity deserves at lot more public attention for the great work we do, and yet, we also need to do better in our work in order to be worthy of greater attention. We have some examples. In recent years we have seen breakthrough excellence in the sciences, and the success of the undergraduate research movement in the science has prompted other disciplines to follow suit with good results. We should focus on how to achieve even greater results in learning through undergraduate research and publication of that research.
Trinity has received some major grants that reflect well on our creative work, and we need to leverage these even more effectively. In the sciences, the HHMI grant (Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a grant that is very hard to get!) supports expanding the great work of our faculty in making sure that low income women of color can enroll and persist in the science disciplines. In Arts and Humanities, the Mellon grants (now in the second round) support curricular reform to engage more students in those disciplines, also using undergraduate research and university-wide reading projects. We received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education that supports continuing development of our laboratories and pedagogies in sciences and nursing. The Carnegie Award for Academic Leadership supports a range of innovative projects in the various disciplines and also university-wide initiatives in advising, writing and related fields.
These are examples of ways in which Trinity has leveraged “creative excellence” to secure funds for even more innovation. In the year ahead, we must be even bolder in pushing our work to the levels of national recognition that merit additional investment and that demonstrate the fact that Trinity’s model deserves a great deal more attention in the discussion of the future of higher education.
Among the elite schools that get so much public attention, the theme of the networking opportunities that the schools provide is prominent. Trinity also has a great network of alumnae and alumni who are eager to work with us to help our students become even more successful not only in school but also at work. In the year ahead we will be developing a stronger plan to use our vast Trinity network more effectively to make sure that every student is fully connected to career and professional opportunities while in school and beyond graduation day.
A researcher once remarked to me that Trinity is like the “canary in the mineshaft” of higher education, meaning that Trinity is out in front on many issues that strike fear into the hearts of other institutions. Trinity is an example of an institution that embraced the idea of the “paradigm shift” in embracing a student population that is very different from other private universities; our students often come from the margins of our society, predominantly black and Hispanic students, mostly women, often very low income, but all sharing the same hopes and dreams we alumnae had since the first students enrolled in 1900: to get a great education in order to gain the power necessary to change our lives, the lives of our families and communities. This is true social justice. What we do at Trinity truly matters — it matters more than the size of an endowment, more than who wins the Orange Bowl, more than who wins the Final Four, more than bragging rights for the “best” this or that in some magazine.
In 2018, we need to be prouder of the ways in which Trinity truly matters in a world that is often confused about what it should value in higher education.
Our ultimate resolution for 2018 must be to try a little harder to achieve that level of creative excellence that makes it possible for Trinity to be strong, standing for justice with great conviction, making a radical difference in the lives of our students who carry our mission with them into the world.
What is your resolution for 2018? Share on the comments section below…
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Read my recent speech to the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, “Flickering in the Dark: Tiki Torches or Lamps of Learning?”