2017 School of Law Commencement Greeting


May 20, 2017

Thank you, Provost Allen. It is an honor to be here at the School of Law’s 60th Commencement Ceremony. 

During my time at USD I have been impressed with the caliber and success of our alumni and today we have on stage two of USD’s finest. I wish to specifically thank USD alumnus and Board of Trustee, Dan Herbert, for joining us this morning, and his fellow Law School alumnus and Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich for serving as our commencement speaker. You both are an inspiration to our graduates and represent the very best in USD’s School of Law.

I love the pomp and circumstance of graduations, and it is great to see everyone in the 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.

Speaking of bling, the person who used to wear this medallion for 12 years is with us today – president emeritus of USD – Dr. Mary Lyons.

As our alumni will attest, you are graduating from a Law School that is the crown jewel of the University of San Diego and nationally recognized for its rigorous curriculum, outstanding clinical programs and scholarly faculty.

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 is led by an extremely capable Law Dean who is nationally regarded by his peers -- Dean Stephen Ferruolo. Let’s recognize 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 Law School alumni are serving in prominent leadership positions 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. They are engaged both nationally and internationally as judges and public defenders.

The impressive credentials of our alumni are very often undergirded by an innate desire to serve as ethical leaders and compassionate citizens.

This week, I completed teaching an undergraduate course on leadership. One of the 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. So 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. 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 humble he was but also how dedicated and driven he was to be the best scientist and astronaut he could be. He also was dedicated to his community, serving on committees and working to advance science education to children.

I know that it is unlikely that the U.S. will be sending any of us to the moon any time soon (although I would not be surprised if sending a college president and a bunch of attorneys to the moon is the punch line to a joke).

But my point is this, if the first man on the moon can be both driven and humble and committed to serving his country when he could have rested on his laurels, then all of us can strive to do the same.

There are many role models we could choose to emulate in our careers, but for those with law degrees, the person whose image you passed in the foyer of Warren Hall is someone else to emulate - St. Thomas More.

There is a popular prayer that I will share with you as I end my remarks today. It is a prayer to St. Thomas More asking him to intervene on your behalf. It reads:

I pray that, for the glory of God and in the pursuit of His justice, I may be trustworthy with confidences, keen in study, accurate in analysis, correct in conclusion, able in argument, loyal to clients, honest with all, courteous to adversaries, ever attentive to conscience. Sit with me at my desk and listen with me to my clients’ tales. Read with me in my library and stand always beside me so that today I shall not, to win a point, lose my soul. Pray that my family may find in me what yours found in you: friendship and courage, cheerfulness and charity, diligence in duties, counsel in adversity, patience in pain—their good servant, and God’s first. Amen.

So USD law class of 2017, take this prayer with you on your journey as you set your sights on the many profound and meaningful ways in which you will impact the world. Congratulations, and may God bless you!

James THarris III, DEd