Congratulations, Class of 2005!
Each year at Commencement, it is customary for the president to address the state of the college and the state of the world into which we send our graduates.
I am pleased to tell you that the State of Trinity is well: just look at these magnificent women and men we transform into our alumnae and alumni today. You are Trinity’s finest, our hope for the future, the culmination of years of hard work, the evidence that teaching and learning at Trinity are in good stead, indeed. You are the first Trinity graduates to claim that very special term “university” as your own, and you are so proud to be part of Trinity’s transformation into the university we are today. You also happen to be the largest graduating class in Trinity’s history.
This year at Trinity, we have realized some notable accomplishments. In cooperation with the Intelligence Community, we have created a Center for Academic Excellence in Intelligence Studies, and ten Trinity students will study abroad this summer as part of the Intelligence Scholars Program. With the support of Medstar, the Washington Hospital Center and Kaiser Permanente, Trinity has begun planning for the development of programs in nursing and allied health professions to respond to the critical workforce shortages in those fields. Yesterday, in southeast Washington, in Ward 8, Trinity participated as a partner in the opening of an exciting new venture — THE ARC, the Town Hall Education, Arts and Recreation Campus. Trinity will be the only university at THE ARC offering collegiate programming and pre-college programs as well. Our partners on Mississippi Avenue include the Levine School of Music, the Washington Ballet, the Corcoran School of Art, the Metropolitan Washington Boys and Girls Clubs, Covenant House, Children’s Hospital, and most notably, the Washington Middle School for Girls.
This year Trinity has also undertaken a new campus master planning process that will draw up plans for the shape of our campus in the next ten years. Our goal in this process is to create a University Academic Center right here, on this library site, with new library, classroom and science facilities. Along with planning this new facility, we are planning the next capital campaign that will provide the funding necessary to bring this vision into reality.
This year at Trinity, we have taken some time to celebrate and remember in symposia and liturgies the heroic work of our founders, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, as they observe the bicentennial of their founding. In this celebration of 200 years of women’s education, global leadership and great faith, we have found the inevitable link between the State of Trinity and the State of the World in 2005.
200 years ago, a French peasant woman named Julie Billiart started an educational revolution. She believed that the girls left orphaned in the French Revolution deserved an education, even the poorest among them, and that through the power of education they would develop the skills they needed to succeed in life, and this work would be for the greater glory of the Good God. Julie pursued her vision with such fervor that it generated quite a bit of excitement, and soon the bishop in her native Amiens, France was asking her to cool it, to slow down the pace of developing schools for girls. In a women’s tradition we have come to know very well at Trinity, Julie didn’t take “No” for a direction, she simply packed up and moved across the border to Belgium, to Namur, where her sisters, now the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, would be able to continue their important work in the education of girls and women.
She didn’t take No as the answer.
Decades later, some SNDs came to the United States, establishing schools in Cincinnati and Boston and Philadelphia and Baltimore and Washington. 108 years ago, the heirs of Julie Billiart finally decided that women should be able to pursue higher education as well, and that it was a great scandal that Catholic women in 1897 were being denied admission to Catholic University. So, Sr. Julia McGroarty and Sr. Mary Euphrasia Taylor set about the business of founding Trinity. And like their spiritual mother St. Julie Billiart, they soon ran into trouble from more conservative clerics. Sr. Julia McGroarty was told to cool it, to slow down the pace of developing this college; there were rumbles that perhaps a Catholic college for women was even a heresy. But Julia McGroarty did not take “No” for a direction. And, soon, proving again the power of determined women, in spite of the opposition Trinity College opened its doors in November 1900, and the course of history for thousands of women, and later, men as well in our graduate and professional programs, was changed forever.
Our founders didn’t take No as the answer.
Even as we celebrate all that the Sisters of Notre Dame have given to us at Trinity, their worldwide presence today reminds us that hundreds of millions of people throughout the world remain illiterate, the vast majority of them women; more than 65 million girls who should be in school are not able to obtain an education, dooming them and their children to even more poverty, violence and oppression. Sisters of Notre Dame have founded schools in Nigeria and Kenya and Congo and South Africa and Brazil and Bolivia and Peru and other places in the world where the education of girls and women is forgotten but for the advocacy and action of the great women we call our sisters.
Ironically, even as we spent time this year discussing the need to enlarge Trinity’s mission in partnership with the Sisters of Notre Dame to reach even more girls and women around the world, a careless remark by the president of no less than Harvard University — suggesting that women might have innately inferior capacity to succeed in math and science — served to focus attention on the fact that even in some of the greatest halls of learning in this nation, women are still slightly suspect — suspected of not being as capable of learning hard subjects as men, suspected of not being as intelligent in some fields, suspected of denying reality or committing the terrible academic sin of political correctness if they object in any way to being treated as intellectual suspects.
Julie Billiart, and Julia McGroarty would not have let the mere opinion of the Harvard President rattle them. They would not take “No” for direction. If they were here, they would tell us not to argue with such nonsense, but rather, simply go about proving what women can do. So, we have. The proof sits before us today, a new generation of Trinity women receiving degrees they have earned the hard way in mathematics and science and social sciences and all of the liberal and professional disciplines.
Trinity graduates prove each day that we will not take NO for an answer.
Another Sister of Notre Dame also refused to accept “No” for an answer this year, and she paid for that refusal dearly, with her life. Sister Dorothy Stang chose the Amazon basin for her ministry. She became a powerful figure opposing the leveling of the rainforest by the loggers who are systematically destroying one of the world’s most important ecosystems.
The loggers wanted to stop Sr. Dorothy, and they threatened her. But like Julie and Julia and so many other SNDs, she didn’t let mere threats stop her. She didn’t take “No” for direction. She kept going, kept talking, kept teaching, kept advocating for environmental justice. And so they silenced her voice, forever, guns blazing, a cruel murder of a 70-something nun on a lonely back road in the jungle.
Dorothy Stang did not take “NO” for an answer.
We must never take negation of human life for an answer.
Julie Billiart, Julia McGroarty, Dorothy Stang all stood for the persistence of justice in the face of intimidation, the imperative of conscience despite all of the risks. This is the heritage you take with your Trinity degrees today. Your degrees come with large expectations, established through ten decades of achievement by the Trinity graduates who came before you. Graduates like the alumna we honor today, Barbara Bailey Kennelly, Class of 1958, who is one of our greatest exemplars of public service and courageous leadership for justice for the citizens of our nation.
Today, you are called to action for justice in the many places of work and communities you inhabit, in your citizenship and stewardship for the life of this nation, society and global village.
As the heirs of Julie and Julia, we have a special call to action to work for educational justice for children. How many more studies must line the shelves of our libraries before we convince the leaders of the world of this one simple fact: education is the gateway to economic security for families; education is essential for democracy to flourish; education is a fundamental human right that no person should be denied. Every citizen of this planet should be taught how to read, how to add and subtract, how to write a paragraph. Literacy, numeracy, communication ability are essential to the full enjoyment of our humanity. Universal global education must be a fundamental principle of human life and dignity.
Too often, however, we permit NO to become the answer when it comes to education. We give lip service to leaving no child behind when we know that even not very far from here there are children for whom the impoverished conditions of their families, their neighborhoods and schools will relegate them to lives of low achievement, marginal work and the likelihood of violent, early deaths.
We cannot let this be the answer. I challenge you, women and men of Trinity’s Class of 2005: let your answer be YES to the call to action for educational justice in this city and region and nation and throughout the world. You are now at the vanguard of a new movement — some of you are even called New Leaders for New Schools — and, even if you do not choose to work formally in educational structures, all of you as future employers and civic activists and citizens with a vote and a voice can make the cause of educational improvement for the next generation your personal commitment.
To our graduates who are current and future managers and business leaders, public officials and legislative staffers and lawyers and judges: You are called to action to ensure that the last century’s legacy of civil rights and women’s rights and equal opportunity in the workplace and in the community is not abandoned in this century’s preoccupation with security and defense.
There are those who will tell you that it’s time that Americans got over their concerns about affirmative action and racial justice. There are those who will tell you that equality has been achieved, that hiring practices are now colorblind, that Title IX is no longer necessary to protect women’s opportunities in education.
We surely can’t take that for an answer. We are called to say YES to the need to protect the individual rights and liberties and equal opportunities of all citizens at work, in the community, and in the equal distribution of the benefits of this nation. Including social security benefits!
We are all called to action for justice to achieve peace in this very troubled world. You may not know any better than I know what to do about the problem of Iraq, but you have a profound obligation to be informed and conversant about this war, to insist that our leaders work toward the earliest possible peace. Some people may tell you that you shouldn’t go there, that you should not raise questions, that it’s best to avoid the topic of the war entirely.
You surely cannot take NO for the answer. Peace is an essential cause of a just society, peace is necessary for democracy to flourish. Peace is not just something that world leaders will make happen at the end of conflict. Peace will arise from the moral conviction of citizens working together to ensure the ends of freedom. Consider these words of President John F. Kennedy: “But peace does not rest in the charters and covenants alone. It lies in the hearts and minds of all people. So let us not rest all our hopes on parchment and on paper, let us strive to build peace, a desire for peace, a willingness to work for peace in the hearts and minds of all of our people. I believe that we can. I believe the problems of human destiny are not beyond the reach of human beings.”
The call to action for justice is yours because you have received this gift of a Trinity education. You sit in a place today where thousands have sat before you, and they are with you right now, in solidarity across ten decades. The alumnae and alumni of Trinity have truly made a difference in our world, in the halls of government and the classrooms of Anacostia, in the fields of Apopka and villages in Lesotho, in AIDS clinics in cities and neighborhood law offices, in parish halls in Boston and homeless shelters in Los Angeles, in federal agencies and corporate boardrooms and more PTA meetings than any of us will ever know. The hallmarks of Trinity graduates are everywhere: their unyielding integrity; their insightful intelligence; their passion for justice; their generosity to those in need; their capacity to inspire charity and hope; their deep faith.
May the joyful solidarity of this day give you strength for the challenges ahead. May the work you have begun here at Trinity become a true quest for lifelong learning, expanding your intellect, deepening your faith, and increasing your potential to be true agents for change, apostles for justice in the communities you will inhabit and influence. May the example of our founders among the Sisters of Notre Dame, our faculty, our alumnae and alumni give you confidence and inspiration on your most difficult days. May you go forth from this place today armed with the wisdom and love of the Trinity, the light to guide you on your journey for all of the years to come.
Congratulations, Class of 2005!!