Rev. Philip L. Boroughs, S.J.
Sept. 5, 2017
Good afternoon. It is good to be with you and I am grateful to all of you for working so effectively to ensure a strong beginning to this new academic year. I have to admit that it seems like yesterday we were celebrating Commencement and saying goodbye to students of remarkable accomplishments, students in whom we had invested our minds and hearts. As each student came forward to receive his or her diploma and shake my hand that day in the DCU Center, I was proud of their achievements, marveled at how much they had grown over the past 4 years, and was a bit sad to realize that their unique gifts were now to be shared elsewhere.
But as it always does, the cycle recently began again, summer programs ended, move-in day arrived, an excited and talented but also just-a-bit timid new class settled in, and our orientation leaders and staff did their job with extraordinary enthusiasm. Twenty-seven hundred of us celebrated the Mass of the Holy Spirit on Fitton Field, the rest of the student body trickled in over the following days and, to our collective relief, classes began. And we are off.
Typically, these are joyous days for the campus as summer wanes and hints of fall, our most glorious season, appear. Summer research has been completed, books and articles have been sent to publishers, new colleagues have been welcomed, the retreat center is busy, and the fall sports season has begun. This year, however, our country and our world face a number of very real challenges.
While our campus is predominately a place of light and hope as we enjoy the privilege of educating and, frequently, being educated by such a remarkable community of students; while we and our colleagues share a life-giving vocation which we hope, through our actions and that of our students, will ultimately lead to the transformation of our world; and while our alumni so cherish what they received here that they generously support our ongoing mission; … we see every day that the world around us is, in so many places, slipping into chaos and horrific violence. For those of us who lived through the Cuban missile crisis, the North Korean nuclear threat evokes long-forgotten fears; and as we see another buildup of military personnel in Afghanistan, we wonder what lessons we have learned from Vietnam? Middle Eastern tensions seem unsolvable, and the terrorism directly and indirectly connected with them has become increasingly global in its effects; and the influence of Russia and the upheaval in Venezuela are daily in our news. As our dysfunctional government regularly disappoints and embarrasses us, many of us are limiting how much news we watch and social media we follow.
The neo-Nazi and white supremacist violence of Charlottesville led many of us to the streets in protest, and today’s DACA decision announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, will certainly move many of us to return there. Freedom of speech and, simultaneously, the impact of negative speech on the safety and well-being of others have become major issues in society and higher education in particular. The impact of Hurricane Harvey, being experienced by Houston, Beaumont and parts of Louisiana, evokes memories of Katrina and New Orleans, and we know that relief and reconstruction will take decades, the work of millions of people and billions of dollars. And, as I speak, Hurricane Irma is bearing down on Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. And, the effects of climate change suggest that disasters such as these will only become more frequent.
While we enjoy a stimulating intellectual community and many blessings on Mount St. James, the last few years have made increasingly clear that we are not immune from some of the effects of these national and international issues. Not only do we try to support those on our campus who are directly affected by them, but we also study these realities in our classes and write about them in our research. The internet connects us to family, friends, and colleagues around the world who live in affected areas, and are victims of war, racial and identity violence, and discrimination, and social upheaval. As our campus community itself has become increasingly diverse, in our own relationships and those of our students, we see new possibilities for learning and engagement, and we also experience incidents of misunderstanding, inappropriate speech, and socio-economic divisions. At times, we who are faculty and staff, like our students, struggle to know how to respond to one another when differences surface, how to engage difficult topics which are personal as well as academic, and how to act effectively to promote change in our departments and at the College.
How Will We Respond?
We can become paralyzed by the enormity of all that is going on in our world and on our campus, and we may be tempted to retreat into what is familiar, where we have expertise, and what needs our immediate attention. We may try to keep so busy with what we have to do, that we can avoid these more troubling realities that we can’t seem to solve. One of our most successful trustees recently confided in me that he finds himself living in a state of perpetual and disturbing anxiety given all that is going on around us. I know he isn’t alone.
At our recent campus prayer vigil for the community in Charlottesville, I mentioned that the night before I had attended a rally for the same reason in front of Worcester’s City Hall. About 450 people gathered there on short notice, and I connected with about 20 members of the Holy Cross faculty, staff, student body and alumni who were also there that night. Over the course of the next hour, many speakers directly asked the white community to get involved, to take action and to demonstrate leadership to promote change. Diverse communities want those of us who are white to build coalitions that promote social justice. They are weary of carrying this struggle predominately by themselves.
Similarly, all of us who have attended various student-focused listening sessions on campus in the past year or two, have often heard our ALANA students ask the same thing of us. They want help and leadership from faculty and staff in creating places for difficult conversations across racial and socio-economic divides. They are worn down by coming to campus events about social issues where they are talking primarily to themselves, and they don’t know how to engage what they interpret as apathy among the majority of their white peers. In fact, they are not alone in their concern. Last spring, our SGA co-presidents, Emily Breakell and Ed DeLuca made a similar appeal to the Faculty Assembly. In response, I know that many of you already are working creatively to find appropriate ways to stimulate and guide student engagement, and I appreciate the recent letter from Susan Amatangelo, speaker of the faculty, and Amit Taneja, chief diversity officer, that outlined a variety of methods and resources for the classroom.
In this moment in history when global and national tensions are escalating rapidly, how we educate is becoming increasingly complicated. At the College, we recognize that factors beyond the classroom which directly affect the lives of our students can enhance or impede the learning we have planned. When students are worried about their own safety and well-being and that of their families, it is hard to concentrate. And as we become a more diverse community, we are hearing that there are distinct groups on our campus who wonder if they are truly welcome here, because they have not yet experienced that treasured sense of belonging that many others enjoy. And, frankly, this is not limited to our students.
With the global and national unrest that fills the news, and with the uncertainties and struggles that many on our campus experience, as faculty and staff it is time for us to ask ourselves, with new energy, the questions we regularly raise for our students: Who are we called to be? What are we called to do? How, then, shall we live, together?
As a Jesuit and Catholic institution, we hold that each of us is created in God’s image, that we are equal in dignity and worth, and that we are called to be an inclusive community committed to the service of Faith and the promotion of Justice. Diversity is a means toward living more authentically as the human family, and creates a more intellectually and socially engaged educational community. While these are fundamental principles of our tradition, how we embody them requires constant attention and assessment.
In her address to the faculty last spring, Margaret Freije, then-dean of the College, described the outcomes of a series of conversations she hosted last year with groups of faculty, and one with students, which were titled “Our Hopes for Our Students.” It seems to me that what Margaret is discovering as a consequence of these conversations holds true for us as faculty and staff, as well.
Margaret hoped that the conversations would identify the “skills and abilities… of our most successful students” and “the experiences which fostered them,” with the hopes of ensuring that all students might have similar opportunities. She told us that in addition to the abilities we typically associate with the desired outcomes of a liberal arts education such as “critical analysis, rigorous thinking … and effective writing and speaking,” another set of hoped-for skills also surfaced in these conversations: “self-awareness rather than self-consciousness,” “generosity of spirit and an openness to experience,” and an empathy that “moves one beyond understanding to action.” Margaret postulated that to help our students to achieve these goals would require that they learn not only how to speak, but how to listen to one another, with the goal of finding common ground rather than a counter-argument; that they acquire intellectual humility along with intellectual confidence, and that they build relationships and a level of intimacy with others that ultimately would come from unstructured, spontaneous and often play-filled interactions. She concluded that to achieve these goals, we should consider how to help our students become contemplative thinkers, as well as critical thinkers.
Contemplative thinkers, it seems to me, are distinguished by their desire to find meaning and purpose, their appreciation of giftedness of life, their sense of responsibility for the care of others and our world, and their joy in being human.
For us, as faculty and staff, the skills we see in our most accomplished students are skills which we want to see in each other and in ourselves. Like our students, I think that we, too, are being called to intellectual humility acknowledging that none of us has all the answers we need to address the global and national challenges we face, and that there is much we can learn from each other and from the experience of our students. In this time when our country is so highly polarized, the first step in healing that which may divide us, will come from listening to those who hold different perspectives and opinions, not to engage in polemics, but with the goal of discovering our shared humanity. There is an asceticism in listening which is demanding, but when accompanied by appropriate reflection, can be amazingly effective in reframing issues and questions. I think this is why many of our students want us to help them to structure these conversations on campus. If our humility and listening enable us and our students to develop relationships that cross cultures, socio-economic and identity differences, as well as political positions, we may find the insight and courage we need to take appropriate action and lead change. Our campus and our world will surely benefit.
As our new academic year begins, we find ourselves in a season of uncertainty, social upheaval, and polarization; as well as a time of emergent activism, remarkable innovation, and exciting creativity. The tensions and possibilities of this moment remind me of my own college years in the late ’60s and early ’70s. And while these two eras are not exactly the same, both have one important similarity: times like these ask more of us. The stakes are too high for business completely as usual, and knowing how, where and when to respond requires thoughtful discernment. Many of our students are looking at us for models and looking to us for guidance. As Margaret’s remarks last spring indicated, we and our students need to be critical thinkers and, simultaneously, contemplative thinkers. And, as our Ignatian tradition suggests, we also need to be contemplatives in action.