The head of the world’s largest museum and research complex called on Fordham’s Class of 2016 to use their Jesuit education as a tool for the common good at a time when citizens have deep doubts about America’s greatest institutions, and national conversations are marked by vitriol, suspicion, and fear.David Skorton, MD, the 13th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.—an accomplished cardiologist, musician, and former university president—said that this year’s graduates are among the best-educated and informed generation ever. Along with the privilege of a college degree, he said, comes a special opportunity and obligation to refocus our nation’s debate and direction.
“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,” Dr. Skorton told an audience of nearly 20,000 gathered on Edwards Parade on May 21 for the 171st Commencement ceremony. “This crisis in trust affects every aspect of our society.”
At the same time, the world itself is more unpredictable, he said, with increasing economic turmoil, and democratic and humanistic ideals “under siege.” Conversations taking place on college campuses and elsewhere on race, climate change, and income inequality are lacking in civility.
To rebuild trust in our institutions and in one another, he urged the new graduates to use the tools of a democracy–communication, education, laws, and “intolerance of inequality”–to lift the sagging spirit of the nation. Taking inspiration from both a Jesuit education and from Pope Francis’ messages of ending global injustice, he urged graduates to “be part of the virtuous circle” of change.
“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,” he said. “We are counting on you.”
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If the new graduates were in want of ways in which to act upon Dr. Skorton’s entreaty, they got it from Joseph M. McShane, SJ, president of Fordham.
Father McShane acknowledged that many in the Class of 2016 might feel ambivalence upon leaving college, and have “complicated” impulses pulling them in different directions. After offering them a balm (“Relax. You’re going to be just fine.”), he gave up three bits of sage advice: always remember where you came from; always remember where you went to school; and always remember that your New York City experience brings with it a special purpose.
“You were educated in that impossible, chaotic, frenzied, and imperfect city presided over by the Statue of Liberty,” Father McShane said. “Here, we seek to create one nation out of many peoples.” That endeavor—to welcome all people with love, respect, and goodwill—is a noble purpose that has not yet been achieved, he said. ”It is a dream that calls us to work every day to make this city, the mother of immigrants, the true city on a hill.
“Therefore, be bothered that the promise of America has not been fully realized.
“But don’t just be bothered,” he said. “Do something about it. Matter. Make a difference. God did not put you here to be ornaments. You were brought to this moment so you could take on the world, set it on fire, and change it.”
Father McShane said the members of the Class of 2016 have learned the quality of mercy from their parents and their time at Fordham. As they are the graduating during the Jubilee Year of Mercy, such work is their calling.
”Shelter the homeless. Clothe the naked. Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Comfort the sick. Console the dying. Visit the imprisoned. If you make the works of mercy the defining characteristics of your lives … you will be true sons and daughters of Fordham.”
In addition to Dr. Skorton, this year’s recipients of honorary degrees include
- Judith Altmann, vice president of the Holocaust Child Survivors of Connecticut
- Maurice “Mo” Cunniffe, FCRH ’54, a successful businessman and key supporter of Fordham
- Patricia David, GABELLI ’81, global head of diversity for JPMorgan Chase
- Gregory J. Boyle, SJ, founder and executive director of the gang-intervention group Homeboy Industries
- Sr. Carol Keehan, DC, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association of the United States
- Robert Battle, artistic director for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
- Henry Cobb, founding partner at the architecture firm Pei, Cobb, Freed & Partners
- Loretta A. Preska, LAW ’73, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
For more commencement coverage, visit our Commencement page.