(The following remarks were delivered at Fordham’s 171st Commencement Ceremony on May 21, 2016 by David J. Skorton, MD, the 13th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.)
“To my esteemed colleague and good friend Father McShane, Mr. Robert Daleo, Chair of the Fordham Board of Trustees, Fordham trustees, faculty, staff, students and members of the administration, my thanks for the honor of speaking at the 171st commencement of Fordham University.
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“To the graduates, my congratulations. While it’s a great privilege to receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters this morning along with the distinguished company with whom I am sharing the stage: Judith Altmann, Maurice Cunniffe, Sister Carol Keehan, and Robert Battle, today is your day. Because today, we celebrate your achievements and your hard work enormously well done.
“I also offer my heartfelt congratulations to the faculty and staff of Fordham University. It takes all of the creative and talented individuals who make up the community of a university to convey the information, support and spirit of academic pursuits and you at Fordham do it exceedingly well.
“I also now ask the graduates to join me in recognizing and thanking your family and friends. I know you will agree that we would not be here, celebrating today, if not for them.
“Look back on what you’ve accomplished and savor the present moment of recognition and joy. Look forward to your future and please be determined to make it a better future for us all. You are now among the best educated and informed generation ever, thanks to your dedication and hard work at this great university and to the longstanding emphasis on high quality higher education in the United States.
“Please recognize that earning a college degree is still a privilege—only 40 percent of Americans between 25 and 64 have graduated from a two- or four-year college. You have been particularly privileged to attend Fordham, a school where the curriculum is cutting edge and incredibly broad and, importantly, based in part on faith and service to others.
“At the same time, you are entering an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world, a world still in the stubborn grip of economic turmoil and a world where our core values are being debated on college campuses, on the streets of our cities, and around the globe, as traditional democratic and humanistic ideals seem to be under siege.
“Every day we watch and listen as the conversations on the great issues of the day – from climate change, to income inequality, to race– are marked not by civility, cooperation, and consensus, but by vitriol, suspicion, and fear.
Despite the urgency to address these problems, concrete progress seems elusive and, at times, purposely frustrated. As a result, we begin to doubt the commitment of our leaders and the very institutions – of government, education, business, and community —on which our fortunes as a nation were built and now rest.
“The American success story is based on trust and on the notion that free speech and a free press will ensure the broadest possible public involvement in the direction our country takes. The effectiveness of our mechanisms for public input in charting the nation’s course is constantly debated. And the trust that our institutions will do the right thing is weakening. Noted Yale economist, Robert Shiller, was recently quoted as observing, “We’re just not in a trusting mood now.”
“Indeed. According to a 2015 Gallup Poll, seven in 10 Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track and eight in 10 are dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed. This is not a partisan issue. Only one-third of Americans, 33 percent, have “a great deal” or a “lot of” confidence in the institution of the presidency. Thirty-two percent feel the same about the Supreme Court and just eight percent have confidence in the Congress as an institution. As the world’s greatest democracy, that more than two-thirds of the people do not trust our government should be a clarion call to us all.
“This crisis in trust affects every aspect of our society. Just last week, Time Magazine’s cover story cited a recent Harvard Institute of Politics survey concluding that “a majority of citizens [are]uncomfortable with the country’s economic foundation—a system that over hundreds of years turned a fledgling society of farmers and prospectors into the most prosperous nation in human history.” Gallup results underscored that finding– only 23 percent of Americans trust banks, and just 19 percent have confidence in big business. And newspapers and television news, a foundation for an informed electorate, average even less.
“Very profoundly, only 42 percent of the American public has confidence in organized religion.
“Unfortunately, we should not be too surprised that our trust in these institutions is falling. Public institutions thrive in part by promoting the common good. Over the past two decades, the public has had ample reason to question whether that is still the case. Perhaps this is a matter of perception. Whether it is or not, public perception is of great consequence and great concern.
“Endless wars, deep partisanship, and gridlock in Washington shake our confidence in government. We trust less our financial institutions following the events that led to the Great Recession of 2008. Instances of bias and fabrications in reporting lead us to question the media’s objectivity. And the recent problems surrounding the Church no doubt contribute to American’s declining confidence in organized religion.
“Despite the seemingly pessimistic picture I have just painted, I remain an optimist and hope that you share my optimism. Ways to increase our trust in our institutions and, frankly, in each other are well-known. Communication and education; laws and the enforcement of those laws in a way that strengthens community; intolerance of inequality, and promotion of shared understanding. A study on trust and inequality by three British economists concluded that good policy initiates a virtuous circle: policies that raise trust efficiently, improve living standards, raise civil liberties, enhance institutions, and reduce corruption, further raising trust. Trust, democracy, and the rule of law are the foundation of abiding prosperity.
“When our institutions are under siege, we turn to individuals, working together, to make the difference in this world. As Pope Francis advised us in his address before Congress last fall,
“Our response [to the issues of today]must be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice. We are asked to summon the courage and the intelligence to resolve today’s many geopolitical and economic crises. Even in the developed world, the effects of unjust structures and actions are all too apparent. Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples, We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.
“I am convinced that your education, your hard work, and your commitment to the values and traditions of this great and venerable university give you a special opportunity and obligation to answer Pope Francis’s call, whatever your religion or background.
“As a spiritual person, I recognize the value of the spiritual foundation Fordham has provided you. As a great Jesuit university, Fordham is a place where all religious traditions interact to strengthen one’s understanding of faith and the conviction of his or her beliefs.
“As Father McShane has said—or perhaps the word is “exhorted”—“if you have been at Fordham for any time at all, you know that I am tireless—some would say relentless—in advocating for the University’s mission, in urging our students, and indeed all of you, to be men and women for others. I have said, many times, that I hope our graduates leave the campus bothered. Bothered by injustice. Bothered by poverty. Bothered by suffering.”
“Fordham has taught you that education is not only a path to a more satisfying and secure future but as well a tool for the common good. And there is plenty for you to help fix. The lack of trust in our institutions is an easy invitation to withdraw from our communities and look inward. As Fordham graduates, I’m confident that this is an invitation you will not accept.
“As you enter the next phase of your lives and careers, please think beyond your own employment prospects and think about how you can lead in the rebuilding of our trust—in our governments, in our schools, in our business, in our churches, mosques and synagogues and in each other. Be part of the virtuous circle.
“And always be guided by the values your Fordham diploma represents. Honor them. Share them. And renew them by staying in touch with your mentors, your professors, your friends, your school.
“We are counting on you. Congratulations.”