Commencement Address at University of San Francisco

Graduate College of Arts and Sciences
University of San Francisco

May 21, 2010

Thank you, Provost Wiser, distinguished platform party, friends, guests and members of the College of Arts and Sciences Graduate class of 2010.

It is an honor for me to be here in one of the world’s most beautiful cities at one of California’s oldest and most venerable institutions of higher education.

The spectacular vistas of this campus, the ocean, and the dramatic hills of this city remind me—if I needed reminding—that I am not at home in Indiana anymore. Nevertheless, I feel at home here.USF has about 9000 students, and a well deserved reputation for service to justice; it was founded by a Catholic religious order in 1855 and rebuilt after an early fire. The University of Notre Dame, my home, has roughly 11,500 students, was founded in 1842 by a Catholic religious order, and was rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1879. Like us, you have a priest as your President—my good friend Fr. Steve Privett. And I’ve heard that you had graduation speaker controversies in 2004 with Mayor Gavin Newsome and in 2007 with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

You may have heard that there was some controversy last year at Notre Dame when we invited President Barack Obama to speak at our commencement ceremony. My guess is that Fr. Steve in his wisdom was looking to avoid a controversy by inviting a Catholic priest—albeit a non-Jesuit. Although this year lacks the drama of a controversy, focus of this ceremony is back where it should be—on you, the graduates, and on your families.

Similarity between our institutions is not the only reason I feel at home. This is a personal homecoming for me, for I was fortunate to study at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley in the early 1980’s, and receive there an excellent education and was shaped by the values of the Jesuit tradition. And I would often come across the Bay to revel in the riches of this city. I would walk the streets, marvel at the striking scenes at almost every turn, listen to the many languages spoken on the city blocks, dine at an Italian restaurant in North Beach, go for a Chinese meal in Chinatown, or try any other sampling the array of ethnic cuisine offers. With friends, I would attend a Puccini opera at the Opera House, or enjoy the Irish music and a pint at the Plough and Stars pub. Like few other cities in this nation, San Francisco is a feast of cultures and peoples. I am from the Midwest, and I love that part of the world, but San Francisco was and remains such an exciting collection of cultures that makes a stroll through its streets feel like a trip around the world.

The Golden Gate Bridge is the perfect symbol for a city that is a crossroads of the world, a place where you can look west across the Pacific, or east across the continent. The city was populated by waves of immigrants of European origin from the east, and peoples of the Pacific Rim from the west. For nearly two centuries, it has been a bridge for immigrant dreams, of which Latinos are only the most recent. It is today an international city, where nearly as many residents were born outside the country as were born in the state. This small peninsula of a city is the meeting point between east and west, north and south that manages to bring so many cultures together in an extraordinary tapestry.

Like any great university, USF both reflects and contributes to its environment. You are recognized as one of the most diverse student bodies in the nation. A relatively high percentage of the student body comes from outside the U.S. You embrace it all, and weave it together in a single community.

One of the university’s proudest moments occurred in 1951 with its football team. I’m from Notre Dame. I know football. Yet the story from 1951 was not primarily about football. The 1951 football Dons were undefeated and untied and prepared to go to the Orange Bowl to play for the national championship. It was suggested, however, that they leave behind the two African-American members of the team, for they would not be welcomed to play there. The team voted that they would not go without their teammates, and passed up the chance to play for the championship. Due to loss of revenue from that decision, football was discontinued at USF for financial reasons. But I know of no triumph by any team in any sport anywhere in college athletics that should inspire more pride in an institution.

Such a richly diverse community that respects every individual and every ethnic background is appropriate for any university, but most of all for a Catholic university in the Jesuit tradition. You recognize the gifts, not only of every individual, but of every culture, and you draw them together to be reflection of the grandeur of God.

This year, for the first time, there will be more so-called minority babies born than white babies in the U.S. The majority will soon cease to be the majority as we become ever more ethnically diverse. And the hegemony or isolation of any group will no longer be possible as we become more global. This university and you graduates are particularly well positioned to find a way to bring this diversity into a deeper and richer unity. 
You know that meaningful diversity—diversity that enriches a society—is more than putting together people of different backgrounds and beliefs in a single place. It requires ever deepening understanding, mutual respect, honesty about differences, and the ability to find constructive solutions to conflicts.

One of the things that worries me most is that at a time of greater diversity in our nation and our world, at a time when greater understanding and honest dialogue is most needed, we seem to be showing a loss of respect for one another: the sarcasm, the contempt, the demonizing of one another in public debate is all too common. This is far more dangerous than any policy challenge because it attacks the immune system of our society. It diminishes our ability to identify threats, listen to one another, agree on a plan, and take action. But constructive discussion seems to be ever more rare; and ridicule and personal attack seem to have become a cornerstone of political strategy.

Civil dialogue, on the other hand, is completely different. It is marked by many acts of courtesy and gestures of respect, by listening carefully and speaking honestly. If you aim to persuade someone, you’re hoping they will see something in a way they’ve never seen it before. A mind sees something new only when it is open, and it is open only when it is unthreatened.

A few months ago, President Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast. He said, “Progress does not come when we demonize our opponents … Progress comes when we open our hearts, when we extend our hands, when we recognize our common humanity. Progress comes when we look into the eyes of another and see the face of God.” I cannot imagine a better reflection for graduates of a Jesuit university like USF.

I can think of no institution that should have more interest in and more responsibility for fostering serious, reasoned, respectful dialogue on issues that matter than a university. Sometimes, however, the discussion that comes out of members of universities is as shrill and vitriolic as the more abrasive radio talk shows or cable TV commentators. Those who should be the guardians of reasoned discussion have sometimes become examples of the opposite. Yet is time for universities like USF, ND, and other universities to step up to the challenge and responsibility of fostering civil discourse. We must be places that address the issue and not attack the person, that insist on reasoned analysis and not ideological purity, that fairly characterize and not caricature the views of an opponent, that come to a discussion as open to learning as to lecturing. Indeed, to be what they proclaim to be: places that foster respectful, reasoned dialogue.

Graduates, you leave this university but I hope you have been shaped by it. You will go into your careers and further endeavors with knowledge and training that will enable you to succeed. My charge to you is to become people who will bring to a society badly in need: respect for others and their differences from us, the courage to address the most difficult issues of society, and a commitment to respectful, reasoned dialogue. As graduates of the University of San Francisco, we will expect nothing less of you. You should expect nothing less of yourselves.

God bless, and congratulations class of 2010.