A Challenge to Graduates

By Robert Corrigan ’57 / July/August 2015
July 10th, 2015

Commencement, we are told, is meant to mark both an end and a beginning--a joyous  rite of passage where family and friends join with mentors and teachers, to celebrate the academic success of those graduating and to encourage them to put their education to work to achieve both personal and civic goals. You have labored hard to reach this high point in your lives and therefore those who love and respect you are here to sing your praises, while I have been brought in to deliver a challenge and perhaps, even, harrass you a bit.

[Scroll down to watch a video of Corrigan's address.]

Mike Cohea
Alexx Temena '15, Kinyani Youngblood Wright '15, and Yelena Bide '15 sing the "Alma Mater." 
The title I have chosen for these very brief remarks, ”Dare to Be a Daniel”, is also the title of a 1953 chapel talk by President Henry M. Wriston. Although he was the first Brown president who was not also an ordained Baptist Minister, Wriston did maintain the  
Freshman Chapel requirement.

Wriston, who was President from 1937 to 1955, is often credited for initiating Brown’s transformation from a small, primarily New England college, to a highly ranked national university. He was president during a frightening period in U.S. history which included unprecedented attacks on Universities and their faculty orchestrated by the infamous United States Senator Joseph McCarthy. Students who listened carefully to Wriston that day came away believing he had used his chapel talk to send a strong message to the Senator and his many supporters at a time when other college presidents, including some from the Ivy League, were running for cover and giving in to the ”bullies,” as Wriston called them, leading to the firing of faculty members exercising their Constitutional rights to free speech. Many Brown students, myself included, were proud of our president that chilly December day, but others  were quite upset. One angry student actually followed Wriston from Sayles Hall to his office in University Hall to argue with him about his talk —unheard of behavior in 1953, perhaps, but not uncommon during my years as a campus president.

The Daniel to whom Wriston refers was an official in the Persian empire ruled by King Darius. He responded to the King’s decree, that for the next 30 days no one was to offer prayer to any God or man except the King, by continuing to pray to his God, fully realizing that it could get him killed. Daniel was arrested by Darius and thrown into the lion’s den but then released the following morning when the King discovered  that he had not been killed by the lions.

The notes for Wriston’s speech show him praising the Biblical Daniel with phrases such as: He ”believed in something enough to risk his life”---”He saw what was wrong”-—He ”said what was wrong”—”And [he] took the consequences.” Wriston then mentioned a series of outrageous actions associated with McCarthy, without actually naming the Senator and ended with the courageous statement that ”We should have learned by our experience with the Kaiser, with Hitler and the Japanese that you cannot appease a bully—It is as true of freedom of speech or thought as it is of international affairs.”

Edward R. Murrow has been given much credit for bringing down McCarthy but he was not alone—he had our president, who was willing to accept the ”consequences of his action,” by his side.

For many of my generation, who as faculty or students were active in the Civil Rights and antiwar movements, a progression from community action to university curricular reform was a natural one. Rejecting the view that higher education should serve a predominantly elite population, we chose to diversify the student body and reform the university curriculum. Internally, as well as externally, there was a heightened commitment to the values of equity, justice, and diversity and a deeply-rooted concern for reforming the very institution that had given us our edge—the university.As we sought to open up the university to new ideas, Brown was again at the forefront under the leadership of then President Ray Heffner (1966-1969) when it came to new curricular strategies. Others of us worked on ways to serve new populations.

Today, major universities like Brown recognize the importance of their students developing a keen social sense and commitment to community, and it was another Brown president, Howard Swearer (1977–1988) who in 1985 partnered with presidents of Georgetown and Stanford, along with the former president of Indiana University, to create Campus Compact, which has enabled hundreds of thousands of students from around the nation to work in partnership with their local community. 

Our democracy depends on the readiness of each new generation to take personal responsibility for the maintenance of the value system that characterizes our nation. Since you are a very talented part of the newest generation, I suggest you get ready to take on the assignment. It is not an easy one judging from data in a poll conducted by the Harvard Institute of Politics that shows” just one in five voters younger than 30 considered themselves to be ’politially engaged’ or active” and  ”nearly 90 percent said they had never attended a political rally or demonstration, and just 68 percent of those eligible to vote said they were registered in the last election.”

In addition, we have the recently reported instances of bigotry and racism on more than a dozen major university campuses which have given rise to significant concerns about their moral and social values. Who would have expected a half century after the start of the Civil Rights movement, in which so many college students and faculty were major players, that in 2015 we would still have to fight bigotry and racism on our college campuses? If these fraternity and sorority members behave this way as students, then we will surely have to worry about what kind of citizens  they will be after graduating. Starting with the widely circulated reports of racially offensive language, chants, and a fraternity video at the University of Oklahoma, there have been stories published about 14 other colleges and universities. 

It was another great Brown president, Vartan Gregorian, who articulated a very clear distinction between freedom of speech (to be protected) and offensive behavior (to be punished) when he expelled a student following an incident in which the  drunken student shouted racial and ethnic insults and obscenties at a group of fellow students.

A recent study estimates that the nonwhite membership in majority white fraternities and sororities is between 3 and 4 percent, which might help in part to explain the problem. One important way to change the campus culture is to increase the impact of minority faculty which is exactly what President Paxson proposes in her plan to double the number of under-represented faculty by the year 2025.

I have travelled 3000 miles and 58 years to challenge the class of 2015, as you exit Brown, just as Wriston did to the class of 1957 as it entered. In doing so, I ask that you accept the charge of the great Jesuit teacher, Pedro Arrupe, to become ”agents of change in society; not merely resisting unjust structures and arrangements, but actively undertaking to reform them” and becoming a force for good in a nation that is increaingly insensitive to the needs of the less fortunate. ”Let there be men and women,” proclaimed Arupe ”who will bend their energies not to strengthen positions of privilege, but reduce privilege in favor of the underprivileged.”,

Father Arupe argues for a moral and social imperative that we should all embrace—the building of a world in which we would all like to live. Unfortunately, the world we read about in the newspapers everyday does not meet our goal: members of learned professions who spell out the conditions under which torture can legally take place and methods to be used; well connected men and women who lobby key legislators to amend federal law to greatly benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor; corporations which outsource both jobs and profits to avoid paying U.S. taxes and decent wages for Americans; corporate boards that approve CEO salaries that average 373 times what the average worker earns; real-estate interests that replace middle class and workforce housing with high priced rentals and expensive private homes; law enforcement agencies that fail to protect the most vulnerable of our citizens; drug companies and their investors, who reap huge profits as the ill among us sicken and die; federal employees who turn their backs on the brave men and women who have fought and died for their country; charlatans who prey on the elderly and steal their money; bigots who bring shame to the very religious institutions they claim to cherish; public universities that  no longer seem able to provide a high quality, low fee education to deserving students; and those who misinterpret the Second Amendment and refuse to accept responsibility for the deaths of so many innocent Americans. I could go on at length with the list but believe I have made my point and would instead urge you to follow St. Paul’s admonition that you not ”allow yourself to be overcome by evil but rather overcome evil with good” by working to bring about the ethical and humane reforms that are so necessary.

Mike Cohea
Robert Corrigan '57 gave the Baccalaureate address and then received an honorary degree the following day.
I appreciate that life has been difficult for some of you with skyrocketing education costs, an enormous loan burden, a job market that looks bleak and housing costs that continue to increase. This makes my challenge even more difficult to meet, and I don’t wish to sound unsympathetic. But you do have choices, real choices: you can be angry, despondent, selfish, uncaring, even greedy, and focused only on your own welfare. Or you can take on this civic challenge eagerly and use all that you have learned to address the great needs of your local community, your state, this nation, even for some of you,  the world. I believe that you will not be discouraged by the seriousness of the problems we face, or be afraid of change—but rather  be energized by the challenges, recalling the words of Luke: ”To whom much has been given, much is expected.”

One of the most significant challenges our nation faces is the restoration of civility, a word that comes from the Latin ”civis” meaning ”pertaining to citizenship.”  Currently we tend to define”civility” as courtesy and good manners. But as the theologian Harvey Cox has argued, ”We need to restore the original sense..which is based on the participation of citizens in a society in which [they] engage in reasoned debate and exchange about public issues based on the values they hold important."

Among the values you and I hold important I hope are mutual respect, a willingness to speak frankly and listen wholeheartedly to each other, and a genuine appreciation for diversity. As Americans, we cherish the right of free assembly, honor to a fault the guarantee of freedom of speech, respect and encourage dissent and independent thinking, welcome unpopular and challenging ideas, keeping to reasoned debate as Cox urges. It is not enough to practice civility in its broadest sense, while staying out of the fray when others violate our cherished values. We have to work at it.

I am not asking, but challenging, you to help make our nation and the world fairer, more ethical, and more peaceful. That you join with others in promoting and sustaining the values of a healthy world culture: with concern for human rights and for our environment; appreciation and respect for cultural and ethnic diversity; recognizing that higher education is a path not only to personal fullfillment but to achieving social justice and equity. In the words of the Reverend Cecil Williams, we work to ”find ways to bring justice and mercy and love and righteousness and compassion. We move, then, in this world to bring deliverance, liberation to the oppressed, the poor, the forgotten, the alienated, the abandoned.”

Sharing this celebration with you this weekend are the women and men who have guided you on this journey--the faculty members who have mentored and inspired you. They have sought to impart to you the qualities of what characterize the liberally, humanistically educated person.  They have helped you to acquire ”habits of mind”--ways of thinking, analyzing, weighing and deciding.  These are the tools that will enable you to deal with the complex issues facing our world.  At Brown, you have learned to deal with ambiguity and contradictions, to evaluate competing arguments and perspectives so that you will not have to fall back on the comfort-—and distortion—of a simplistic view of the issues and how to resolve them.

As you graduate, you take with you an ethical and social philosophy that perceives of every individual as a fellow human being deserving of respect and decent treatment. You have been nurtured and made ready for a role that might be expressed as a vision statement for this university ”to fashion a more just and humane world.”

Think about making the courageous Rosa Parks your role model, a woman who demonstrated something enormously hopeful and extraordinarily exciting as she refused to move to the back of the bus: the power of the passionate individual, motivated by principle and driven by equal parts of dissatisfaction and idealism. Observing her, we learn that one person can make a difference, can, in fact, reshape a world. That person could be one of you if you are ready to take the risk and Dare To Be A Daniel!

Tomorrow you will graduate and find yourself living in a world of extraordinary challenges, which I am sure your president and faculty are confident you will meet. The goal of the modern American university should be the education of free and creative men and women, enabled to act with moral conviction, inspired to think critically and to live generously. If that does not describe each of you, then Brown University has failed to do its job. But I don’t believe that for a moment.

Let me conclude by quoting President Wriston’s final words in the chapel speech that so impressed me:

”College is a place to grow up, to learn from books, to improve the mind, to acquire some social grace, but it is wasted if you do not grow up morally and are not ready to take a position and stand to it whatever may befall.” Thus spoke the man of courage who was willing to risk the lion’s den.

Having finished with my exhortation, I can now join with the thousands who are with us today in congratulating you and personally wishing you joy and success in the years ahead. 

Thank you and God Bless you. 




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Related Issue
July/August 2015