Loyola University Chicago College of Arts and Sciences 2018 Commencement Address
May 11, 2018 | Speech

This is exciting! Thank you. I thought that, if you want this many Loyola students to listen to you…your name had better be Sister Jean! This is a great honor for me—something I could not have imagined when I graduated from Loyola in 1974.

In the spirit of a Jesuit Catholic university, let me start with a confession. Have you ever heard someone joke that college was the best five or six years of their life? For me, college was a journey to three schools and lasted not four, five or six…but ten years.

I have another confession. I didn't end that journey at Loyola because of core values—caring for others and the community. I came to Loyola because of…convenient night classes.

But, I left a better person.   

I left with curiosity about the world, a sharpened social conscience, and the self-confidence to act on it. I left prepared to go to work, but also to contribute—through a life of leadership, service, and a quest for justice.   

Thank you, Loyola, for that.

Thank you, President Rooney, members of the Board of Trustees, administration and faculty, families and friends, for the opportunity to be a part of this amazing day. And, congratulations to you—Loyola graduates of the class of 2018.

You are entering the wider world in 2018; just when the world truly needs ambitious, compassionate people like you who want to make it a better place. 

You are here in cap and gown. Your last papers done; your final exams complete. But you are not finished. You are not finished tackling hard questions with no easy answers. So, let's spend our time together thinking about one of those hard questions. And yes, there will be a test.  The test is what you do tomorrow. What you do with the incredible asset that is your Loyola education. What you do to find meaning in your life.

Here's the hard question: Is justice even possible?

It is tempting to be cynical; to turn inward; to disconnect. But, your Loyola education has affirmed that the world demands your engagement; and that the world is more just when actions are moral, rational, equitable and fair. Is this kind of justice – social justice, justice for all, justice defined by our humanity and highest aspirations – even possible?

You can guess my answer to that question. I lead an institution whose mission you hear every time you turn on the radio and listen to NPR.  The MacArthur Foundation's mission is to build a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. 

Is justice possible? The answer must be yes, but it is certainly not inevitable, maybe not even probable. So, how can we increase the odds? 

We can do that by paying more attention to the essential building blocks of justice: a commitment to the common good; to our shared humanity; and to investment and trust in institutions of accountability. If our actions reflect these commitments, we are creating the conditions where justice can thrive.

Even here at Loyola, those conditions were not always in place. I was a student here only a decade after African American Loyola team captain Jerry Harkness walked onto the basketball court…and right before tipoff, did the unthinkable.

He shook hands with Mississippi State's white team captain Joe Dan Gold. With that game, basketball was changed forever.   

Ten years later, I took a class from a priest who refused to call on any female students, not one—throughout the entire term. He'd ask a question… and call on a male student. If only a young woman raised her hand… he'd answer the question himself.

Today, you—young women and men alike—have completed a Loyola education designed to challenge your curiosity, engage your intellect, and demand your participation. This is Loyola in 1963 and today… helping to build a more just society. 

What can you do? You can answer yes to the question: is justice is possible?

And then, work on its essential component parts. First, commit to the common good. Acknowledge that each individual has a stake in the betterment of society as a whole. Second, embrace empathy and our shared humanity. Challenge the racism that people of color experience as they go about their daily lives. 

Say no when someone smears an entire group of people as criminals and undesirable "others." 

Third, invest and build trust in institutions of accountability. Like people, institutions are imperfect. But work to improve the administration of justice—law enforcement and the courts. Engage in the political process and demand that it be responsive and responsible. Rebuff attacks on science and the academy. Value the truth. Demand that the media give you the facts, tell the stories and lift up voices that are seldom heard. Will you do this? 

At a time of existential threat from climate change and the risk of nuclear war; when the current political environment encourages us to express our hatreds and insecurities; and accelerates the decline in trust in institutions and those who lead them; when, in a world of digital intimacy, we have become strangers without connection.

Will you commit to the common good, to our shared humanity, and to perfecting the institutions through which accountability for justice is exercised? I think you will.  Why do I think that? Because I have both hope and optimism; but they are not the same. Hope is a feeling of expectation and a desire for a certain thing to happen. Optimism is laced with confidence that something will happen.

For me, hope comes from the incredible number of women who are running for political office, to get inside the political system and make it work for more people. Hope comes from the vigor of social movements: Black Lives Matter; #MeToo; the Dreamers; sanctuary cities and campuses; defenders of science; anti-Islamophobia activism; LGBTQIA advocacy; the Women's March; and the inspiring leadership of young people as they demand that adults look beyond their "thoughts and prayers" as a response to gun violence and take action to secure a better future. 

Certainly, unjust forces are at work, but there is a real battle underway.

I have optimism as well; a personal example here. Two years ago, as part of something we call 100&Change, MacArthur invited proposals on any topic, from anywhere in the world—to make real progress on a profound problem of our time. Our offer: 100 million dollars to a single organization or collaboration willing to think big. 

From 1900 proposals, we chose a partnership of Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee, to provide early education and the foundation for a better future for young children displaced by conflict in the Middle East.

Even more important than the single award was the fact that 1900 universities, organizations and collaborations stretched their imaginations and said yes they could solve a problem. 100&Change demonstrated that, in a world fraught with challenge, solutions are possible; that brilliant, caring, courageous people see it as their personal and professional mission to help other people and the planet.  

Actions small and large; individual and collective; provide the hope and optimism needed to propel us forward in the pursuit for justice and a better life for all.

Twenty-five years ago, the author Toni Morrison received the Nobel Prize for Literature. In her remarks, she shared a parable. It was about a young child who thought he could out-smart an old, blind woman known for her wisdom. He approached her, grasping a small bird in his hands, and asked: "Is this bird dead or alive?"

His plan was, if she said, "It's alive," he would squeeze the life out of the bird. If she said it was dead, he would let the bird fly away. Either way he would be right.

"Old lady, is this bird dead or alive?" She stood there silent. The boy started to laugh. Then she spoke. "It is in your hands."

Loyola Class of 2018: Is justice even possible? The answer is in your hands.

Thank you and congratulations.

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