Unpopular prophetic graduation message: Universities must be vehicles for transformative change

Graduates line up outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington during the Catholic University of America's May 2016 commencement. (CNS/CUA/Dana Rene Bowler)

With the end of the academic year comes the parade of famous college commencement speakers. It is a wide range of politicians, actors, artists, CEOs, comedians and pundits who don caps and gowns and share their advice with graduating seniors across the country. Typically these speeches are meant to inspire graduates as they head off into the "real world." They are told to work hard, be kind, seize the moment, pursue their dreams and to make the world a better place.

At Santa Clara University's 1982 commencement, Jesuit Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría gave one such address. Ellacuría was born in Spain but by that time was a professor at the Jesuit-run José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA) in El Salvador's capital city of San Salvador. He was a driving force behind the school's animating commitment to the El Salvadoran people. Ultimately he wanted UCA to be a force for positive change in the face of the country's long civil war and its myriad of related social ills. Like the prophetic stands of many before him, his did not come without great cost. His outspokenness against the El Salvadoran government about human rights abuses ultimately led to his execution and that of five of his Jesuit brothers, their housekeeper and her daughter, by elite U.S.-trained Salvadoran forces in November of 1989.

There is no shortage of lists of "best" commencement speeches. A quick online search will find numerous such compilations by organizations like NPR and the Huffington Post. You will not find Ellacuría's 1982 speech on any of these lists. But in this graduation season, his little-remembered address is worth revisiting.

While most such speeches are addressed to graduates, Ellacuría's stands out in that he did not so much address the graduates as much as he did the idea, the mission, the very purpose of a Catholic university. Most graduation talks in some way reiterate the distinction between "college life" and the "real world," as if the former somehow was totally insulated from the later. While many elite colleges are often social bubbles, in his short but powerful address, Ellacuría reminded his audience that any such divide is artificial.

As he laid out what he saw as the two foundational components of an institution of higher education, "There are two aspects to every university. The first and most evident is that it deals with culture, with knowledge, the use of the intellect. The second, and not so evident, is that it must be concerned with the social reality — precisely because a university is inescapably a social force: it must transform and enlighten the society in which it lives." Speaking of the El Salvadoran context of UCA, he stated that in the face of oppression and poverty, "What then does a university do, immersed in this reality? Transform it? Yes. Do everything possible so that liberty is victorious over oppression, justice over injustice, love over hate? Yes. Without this overall commitment, we would not be a university, and even less so would we be a Catholic university."

Ellacuría's prophetic vision of a Catholic university is a challenging and uncomfortable one for those who work in Catholic higher education. It expands the obligation to recognize the social ills of the world and work to heal them. Not only is it up to graduates once they leave the ivory tower to be agents for positive change, in Ellacuría's framework, it is also on the institution, and those who run and inhabit it, to be an active part of this process. It calls on administrators and professors to be discerning, reflective and mindful of how their university communities can be socially transformative.

It is a time for deep change, both within the university and outside of it. As Ellacuría hopefully laid out, the university can be a vehicle for transformative change with the unique tools at its disposal.

Often flagship Catholic institutions of higher education will acknowledge the radically transformative potentials of such a vision. Yes, these schools are undoubtedly sites of tremendous research, teaching and outreach. But more often than not these institutions are animated by the chase of academic power and prestige.

In many ways, the challenging and uncomfortable message of the prophet is reason enough that these types of commencement addresses are not very popular. When students graduate from elite universities, they and their families don't necessarily want any more challenges. The hard part is supposed to be over: the credits earned and the tuition paid (or at least the loans procured!).

But, for Ellacuría, a larger part of the message is about solidarity. Not only did he believe that his award at Santa Clara was bestowed as "a gesture of solidarity and support" for the UCA; moreover, Ellacuría believed that the award was a larger gesture in solidarity with the poor and marginalized in society. This solidarity must come at the expense of a government that focuses on war and oppression. Ellacuría minces no words:

[The United States] must take into consideration the real interests of the American people; but, more important to us, it must respond according to the principles of political ethics, to the needs of a people who suffer misery and oppression, not because of their fault or indolence, but because of a chain of historical events for which they cannot be held responsible.

This is the kind of message very few graduates want to hear on their big day.

But there is another reason why these types of prophetic commencement addresses rarely take place on university campuses: There aren't very many prophets. As Ellacuría's Jesuit brother and community member, Jon Sobrino wrote five years after the Santa Clara address, "Without falling into unjust anachronisms, it cannot be overlooked that Christian universities have left much to be desired in their response to the world and have even contributed to strengthening the anti-kingdom."

All of this, of course, is not to say that there are no prophets in our world today. Two such prophets are actually popular speakers at Catholic university commencement exercises: Jesuit Fr. Greg Boyle and St. Joseph Sr. Helen Prejean. In 2001, Boyle founded Homeboy Industries, "the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the world." He has spent his entire adult life working for justice and peace. Boyle was awarded the 2017 Laetare Medal by the University of Notre Dame for his life's work. Prejean has been a tireless opponent of the death penalty in the United States and wrote the book Dead Man Walking, which inspired a major motion picture. For her steadfast work, Prejean was awarded the aforementioned Laetare Medal in 1996.

But what has become of their messages? Both Boyle and Prejean are frequently on the receiving ends of attacks on social media for their stances. Only recently, the Cardinal Newman Society labeled Boyle an opponent of Catholic teaching and admonished Notre Dame for bestowing on him their highest honor. At roughly the same time, Prejean was the target of an extensive harassment on Twitter. Her crime? She was carrying out her long-term advocacy against the death penalty. In this case, she was opposing the executions taking place in Arkansas in the last days of April 2017.

Despite these examples, it is safe to say that this brand of prophecy — in the model of Ellacuría — is not in vogue on commencement day. In an age of dystopian news feeds, increased inequality, climate catastrophe, unchecked militarism and pervasive sentiments of detachment and resentment, a speech like Ellacuría's may not be the one we want to hear, but it is certainly the sort of message we need.

[Chris Staysniak is a recent Ph.D. graduate of American religious history at Boston College. Dan Cosacchi is Canisius Postdoctoral Fellow and lecturer of religious studies at Fairfield University]

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