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Graduate School degree recipients praised for ‘grit,’ reminded ‘your research matters’

John McGreevy, the Charles and Jill Fischer Provost at the University of Notre Dame, delivered the keynote address during the Graduate School Commencement Ceremony on Saturday (May 20) at Notre Dame Stadium, reminding members of the class of 2023 of the Graduate School’s motto: “Your research matters.”
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John McGreevy, the Charles and Jill Fischer Provost at the University of Notre Dame, delivered the keynote address during the Graduate School Commencement Ceremony on Saturday (May 20) at Notre Dame Stadium, reminding members of the class of 2023 of the Graduate School’s motto: “Your research matters.”

Not that they needed it.

“As graduate students at Notre Dame, you’ve seen this phrase — ‘Your research matters’ — over and over,” he said, speaking on a cool, overcast spring morning in South Bend. “You may have the Graduate School T-shirt. (The less formal among you may be wearing that T-shirt now beneath your robes.) You may display the screen saver on your computer screen, or sip from the water bottle.

“But sometimes — in the chemistry lab or the sculpture studio or in the Medieval Institute library — believing that your research matters is hard. Doubt creeps in.”

Thinking back to his own graduate days, the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History recalled enjoying the “coursework, the scholarly camaraderie and the intensive challenge of the first two years” but wondering afterward: What now?

“I struggled,” McGreevy, a Notre Dame alumnus, said. “‘Is this worth doing?’ I asked myself. ‘Will it make any difference? Does it really matter?’ Only eventually did I figure out that I had something to say, a question to pursue. Something clicked.”

Returning to the present, he said, “Now, no matter what program you are in, that transition from consumer to producer of knowledge is the heart of the graduate school experience. For you, too, something clicked. That that click occurred at Notre Dame makes us proud. We hope that you will leave here as a loyal alumnus or alumna of what we claim to be the leading global Catholic research University.

“But we also hope for more,” he said.

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Citing pressing global issues such as climate change, economic inequality, war and political polarization, he declared, “These problems and many more matter. Your work as scholars and citizens to resolve them will matter too.”

McGreevy also acknowledged the challenges of the pandemic, which interrupted portions of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years and delayed or complicated research.

“The current term of art is grit; boy, have you shown it,” he said. “When the pandemic halted travel and fieldwork, you pivoted. You mastered Zoom and Panopto. If you are parents, you navigated shuttered schools and day cares. You figured out how to prepare your posters and conference papers for online and then in-person sessions. You completed those finals seminar papers, lab write-ups and theses with masks on, or, a year later, with masks removed.”

He concluded with the story of two friends.

The scholar Albert Hirschman escaped the Holocaust and later devoted his career to the study of economic development and democracy in Latin America. His most famous book, “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty,” addressed the question of what to do when a business, political party or nation is in decline or struggling. In addition to troves of research, it drew on his very personal experience of exile and failed institutions in the lead-up to and aftermath of the Holocaust.

Former Notre Dame President Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., served on the Atomic Energy Commission and spoke often on the topic of slowing the nuclear arms race. Following a lecture in San Diego, he met Joan Kroc, widow of Ray Kroc, the McDonald’s founder. Kroc shared Father Hesburgh’s concerns about nuclear proliferation. She later made a gift to Notre Dame to establish the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, which, among its other achievements, helped draft the ceasefire in Colombia brokered by former President Juan Manuel Santos, this year’s undergraduate commencement speaker.

“Both Hirschman and Hesburgh — born just a few months apart — had much good fortune,” McGreevy said. “But both also knew that research and teaching mattered, that the work they had done as graduate students and then as intellectual and institutional leaders might have meaning far beyond anything they could have imagined in their own lifetimes. That they happened to know each other — Hirschman visited Notre Dame several times and Hesburgh — is a coincidence less important than their shared commitment to intellectual work.

“We hope you take this commitment to teaching and research with you when you leave this room this morning and after this weekend when you leave this campus.”

Following McGreevy’s remarks, Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., awarded degrees to each of the 547 spring graduates. Nearly 900 students graduated over the course of the entire academic year. That includes nearly 200 doctoral degree recipients and more than 600 master’s degree recipients.

In his subsequent charge to the class, Father Jenkins said, in part, “This is a distinguished class, boasting many accolades and accomplishments in every field and discipline. In addition to your accomplishments within your respective disciplines, you have learned how to meet the rigorous standards of your academic programs while managing, as Provost McGreevy reminded us, the special challenges brought on by a global pandemic. You may merit a second degree for that. We will not bestow that degree, but the lessons in perseverance, flexibility and adaptability you have learned here will, I believe, serve you well in coming years.”

He went on to thank Thomas Fuja, professor of electrical engineering and director of iNDustry Labs at Notre Dame, for serving as interim vice president, associate provost and dean of the Graduate School this past academic year.

“Tom stepped into this role in the midst of a significant transition, and he has admirably navigated these responsibilities and provided steady leadership for our graduate education,” Father Jenkins said, adding, “Tom, you have been a generous and selfless servant of this University and its students. We could not be more grateful.”

He concluded with a benediction.

In addition to McGreevy and Father Jenkins, Saturday’s ceremony featured Fuja and Patricia Champion, winner of the 2023 Rev. James A. Burns, C.S.C., Award for outstanding faculty mentorship. Fuja introduced McGreevy. Champion, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, delivered the invocation.

Graduate commencement was among a number of events Friday and Saturday (May 19 and 20) celebrating the class of 2023. Additional events are scheduled for Sunday (May 21), including the undergraduate Commencement Ceremony from 9 to 11:30 a.m. at Notre Dame Stadium.

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