Graduate Schools Commencement Greeting


May 20, 2017

Thank you, Sister Rodee. Welcome to the University of San Diego Graduate Schools Commencement Ceremony.

First, let me thank our USD Board of Trustee members for joining us this morning: Monsignor Duncanson, Dan Herbert, Sr. Theresa Moser and Susanne Stanford. I also want to thank our beloved Bishop of San Diego, the Most Reverend Robert McElroy, for serving as our commencement speaker. Your spiritual leadership and active voice on behalf of those who are most vulnerable has mobilized our students to turn dialogue into action as they serve those who are marginalized in our society. You are truly an inspiration to our graduates and to our entire campus community.

I love the pomp and circumstance of graduations, and it is great to see everyone in their gowns and regalia. A few years ago at a commencement ceremony as I was passing out diplomas, a rather tall man came across the stage, and instead of reaching for his diploma, he started reaching toward me. I stood still as he reached out grabbed the presidential medallion and said: “wow, very cool – nice bling!”

To our students…congratulations! While you may not be earning any bling today, you have worked tirelessly to progress to this moment of celebration and achievement. Reaching this extraordinary milestone is a tribute to your tenacity and drive. This proud moment is also shared by many individuals who have helped you along the way. So graduates, how about a round of applause for your loved ones who offered their support to you during this incredible journey? You have been educated by a renowned and distinguished faculty that are led by very capable Deans who are highly regarded by their peers. Let’s recognized them as well.

You are now joining the ranks of an alumni network that is actively engaging society in ways that are making the world a better place. Our alumni are serving in prominent leadership positions in corporations, in local and state government and in the highest levels of the federal government, including the halls of Congress. Our alumni are leaders in the military and in non-profit organizations that serve the public good. The impressive credentials of our alumni are very often undergirded by an innate desire to serve as ethical leaders and compassionate citizens.

Last week I completed teaching an undergraduate course on leadership. One of leadership authors we discussed was Jim Collins, In his book, Good to Great, he describes the pinnacle of leadership as Level 5 leadership. His extensive research uncovered a reoccurring theme that great organizations were most often being led by leaders with a unique combination of fierce resolve and humility.

Many years ago I worked at a Catholic college in Cincinnati, and the president asked me to fill in for her at a meeting regarding an old train station that was being converted into a science center. She told me the people attending the meeting were high ranking government, corporate and higher education officials, o I arrived at the meeting early and spoke to a few people who were waiting for the meeting to start. I spoke to a guy named Ron who said he was there representing Proctor and Gamble and then I met a fellow named Neil who said he was a faculty member at the University of Cincinnati.

Neil was older than I was and he asked me about my family, and it turned out he had grandkids the same age as my children. We had a very nice chat, and then the meeting began. The person chairing the meeting didn’t bother to have everyone introduce themselves as we began, but I could tell people were deferential to Neil and a few others around the table. As the meeting ended, I stood up and told Neil how much I enjoyed speaking with him and casually asked “Neil, I didn’t catch your last name.” He looked at me and said “Armstrong.” 

Yes, I had not recognized Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, the man who uttered those famous words “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” But he immediately saw the horrified look on my face and said, “Don’t worry Jim, no one recognizes me without my helmet.” We laughed and walked out to the parking lot together.

When he passed a few years ago, many people mentioned how dedicated and driven he was to be the best scientist and astronaut he could be. Throughout his career, he had doubts and faced many challenges, but he persevered. He also was known for being dedicated to his community, serving on committees and working to advance science education to children. But what most people said about him was that he was humble about what he accomplished and always gave credit to those around him. He didn’t need to tell people he was great. His actions spoke louder than words. 

Another example of this type of humble leadership can be found on the feast day we celebrate today, the feast day of St. Augustine of Canterbury, who lived in the 6th century and is best known for bringing the Catholic faith to England, but not before experiencing many setbacks and failures along the way. Behind the lofty title of “Apostle of England,” is a very human saint who suffered, as we do at times, with indecision and fear. For example, filled with self-doubt during his first venture to England, he ended up making a big U-turn back to Rome. He made mistakes and met with failure in various peacemaking attempts. He often wrote to Rome for decisions on matters he could have decided on his own had he been more self-assured. When he was faced with opposition and disappointment, he would turn to his mentor and counselor, Pope Saint Gregory the Great, for encouragement and inspiration. The Pope’s words of wisdom to St. Augustine are relevant to us today.

He said, “He who would climb to a lofty height must go by steps, not leaps.” 

St. Augustine always labored patiently, and in time, he did reach lofty heights in his work. In addition to spreading the Gospel to the English, he was also credited with founding the King’s School at Canterbury—the world’s oldest school! In the midst of these successes, Pope Gregory cautioned St. Augustine against pride.

The Pope wrote, “Fear lest, amidst the wonders that are done, the weak mind be puffed up by self esteem.”

University of San Diego graduates of 2017: When life presents obstacles and frustrations, may you persevere in humility like St. Augustine--or the more modern example in Neil Armstrong--and be satisfied with gradual advances in all of your endeavors as you set your sights on the many profound and meaningful ways in which you will impact the world. Do this, with fierce resolve and humility, allowing your actions to speak louder than your words. If you do so, your lives will represent more than small steps, but rather, giant leaps for humankind.

Congratulations, and God bless you!

James THarris III, DEd