John McGreevy: 2023 Graduate School Commencement Address

Author: Sue Lister

Thank you Dean Fuja. Fr. President Jenkins, members of the Board of Trustees and the President’s Leadership Council, Deans of our colleges and schools, family and friends who have come from near and far to be present for this joyous occasion and most of all, members of the Graduate School class of 2023. Welcome. Let us give the graduates a loud, extended round of applause; it is the first of many rounds of applause they will hear this weekend and they deserve each and every one of them.

Some of you graduates have completed a master’s in global affairs, a master’s of fine arts in creative writing, or a Ph.D. in biology. Others finished a master’s in Divinity, a Ph.D. in computer science or a Ph.D. in Italian. All of you did much of this work in the teeth of an unprecedented global pandemic.

The current term of art is grit; boy have you shown it. When the pandemic halted travel and fieldwork, you pivoted. You mastered Zoom and Panopto. If you are parents, you navigated shuttered schools and day cares. You figured out how to prepare your posters and conference papers for online and then in person sessions. You completed those final seminar papers, lab write-ups and theses with masks on, or, a year later, with masks removed. During all this, you figured out the rhythms of graduate school. You met with advisors, taught students and labored over your c.v. You figured out why the one graduate student-themed pub had the mysterious name of Danny Boy. Some of you, I’m reliably informed, attended the occasional seminar or workshop only because the advertisement promised free pizza. Or better, free wine and beer.

But now what? Your research matters. As graduate students at Notre Dame, you’ve seen this phrase – Your research matters – over and over. You may have the graduate school t-shirt. (The less formal among you may be wearing that shirt right now beneath your robes.) You may display the screen saver on your computer screen; or sip from the water bottle.

But sometimes — in the chemistry lab or the sculpture studio or in the Medieval Institute library — believing that your research matters is hard. Doubt creeps in. I think back to my own graduate training. I entered my history Ph.D. program enthusiastically. I enjoyed the coursework, the scholarly camaraderie, and the intensive challenge of the first two years.

But after completing my coursework I wondered about what would come next. I struggled. Is this worth doing, I asked? Will it make any difference? Does it really matter? Only eventually did I figure out that I had something to say, a question to pursue. Something clicked.

Now no matter what program you are in, that transition from consumer to producer of knowledge is the heart of the graduate school experience. For you, too, something clicked. That that click occurred at Notre Dame makes us proud. We hope that you will leave here as a loyal alumnus or alumna of what we claim to be the leading global Catholic research university.

But we also hope for more. This morning probably marks the end of your formal academic training but it is the beginning of something else.

The term university covers a lot of ground: the U.S. has over 4,000 degree granting colleges and universities, China 3,000, India 1,400, Greenland and Monaco each have one. Why? Over the last hundred years universities and the ideas developed within them have become central to economic development, to skill acquisition and to preparing the employees and leaders needed by industry, governments, medicine, and actually universities themselves. All of this the world still needs. But we need more.

I won’t list all of the challenges we face. No one can. Climate change, economic inequality, war in Ukraine, South Sudan and elsewhere; political polarization. One especially poignant division in the United States — on culture, politics, and much else — is between those of us lucky enough to be seated on this podium or in this stadium, those of us lucky enough to have had a college or university education, and those of us who did not.

These problems and many more matter . Your work as scholars and citizens to resolve them will matter too.

Let me end with two stories.

One of the most prominent twentieth century economists was a man named Albert Hirschman, who ended his career at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. Hirschman was particularly interested in economic development and democracy in Latin America, and he did much of his work in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, when both economic development and democracy faltered in that region. His most famous book was entitled Exit, Loyalty, and Voice. It addressed a particular question: what do you do when a business, or a political party, or even a nation is in decline or struggling? You could exit: become a patron of another business, leave the political party, emigrate from the nation.

Or you could exert voice: try and improve the business, the political party, or especially the nation.

This puzzle of exit, loyalty, voice applied with particular force to Latin America in the 1970s — after all do you work within an authoritarian government or do you leave and try to change it from the outside? — but it turns out there was a personal dimension to Hirshman’s scholarship too. Hirschman was Jewish, and he had barely escaped the Holocaust in 1940, moving from Berlin, where he was raised, to Paris and then hiking over the Pyrenees mountains into neutral Spain. Many members of his family were not so fortunate. That experience of exile and failed institutions shaped him and for the rest of his life it drove him to think about how to improve organizations in perilous times.

A second story is more local.

Notre Dame’s longtime President, Father Theodore Hesburgh, became in the 1970s interested in slowing down the nuclear arms race. He served on the Atomic Energy Commission in Vienna and he often on that topic. At one lecture in San Diego a woman in the audience approached him and engaged him in conversation. Could you really teach people, she asked, about peace and arms control and negotiations? Hesburgh said yes, but that you needed to build for the long haul, using endowments to fund programs for teachers and students. That woman turned out to be Joan Kroc, the widow of Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s. She gave a series of major donations to Notre Dame that became the basis of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

And as you’ll hear tomorrow, among its other achievements, the Kroc Institute helped draft the comprehensive cease fire in Colombia, brokered by our commencement speaker Juan Manuel Santos, a treaty that ended that country’s decades long civil war.

Both Hirschman and Hesburgh – born just a few months apart – had much good fortune. But both also knew that research and teaching mattered, that the work they had done as graduate students and then as intellectual and institutional leaders might have meaning far beyond anything they could have imagined in their own lifetimes. That they happened to know each other – Hirschman visited Notre Dame several times and met Hesburgh – is a coincidence less important than their shared commitment to intellectual work.

We hope you take this commitment to teaching and research with you when you leave this room this morning and after this weekend when you leave this campus. We hope you exert voice and excel in your chosen fields.

Do so with the conviction that your research, your teaching, and your service matters for a world deeply in need. And do so with the grit and spirit that we hope you have cultivated during these extraordinary times and at this special place. Congratulations again to to 2023 graduates and Go Irish!