2019 Commencement Address
Commencement Address by Michael P. Jacobson
Ph.D. Program in Sociology
May 31, 2019
Thank you, Provost Wrigley, President Connolly, and distinguished guests, and good afternoon everyone. I’m delighted to be here today especially because I wasn’t able to attend my own commencement when I received my Ph.D. in sociology from The Graduate Center in 1985. So, this occasion is extremely meaningful to me at many levels.
First and foremost, I’d like to congratulate all the graduates — this is your day and the culmination of a long road of graduate studies. And to the family and friends of the graduates who have been so supportive, loving, and proud, all the while thinking, “Dear God, is she ever going to get that degree?” Well, here’s your answer: Yes, she is, and none of these graduates could have done it without you.
These commencement addresses are at once both familiar and also a bit odd. There are thousands of them each year delivered by movie stars, politicians, artists, writers, scientists, talk show hosts, and comedians. They are usually and thankfully pretty short. (After some decades of giving and listening to speeches of all kinds, I have come to the unshakable conclusion that, unless your name ends with Obama, nobody wants to hear you speak for more than 10 minutes.) They are sometimes serious and solemn, sometimes incredibly funny, and sometimes even poignant and profound. They’re kind of all over the place.
Before drafting my remarks then, I took a look at some of the more well-known commencement speeches over the last couple of decades for some inspiration. I won’t bore you with what I found, though I’ve always been partial to George W. Bush’s sagacious advice at the commencement of Louisiana State University 15 year ago: “Always listen to your mother.” Hard to argue with that. In truth, though, I didn’t find all that much that led to any sort of epiphany of what notable advice I might give all of you.
Instead, then, I’ll spend a couple of minutes talking about where you just got your degrees from and what that can mean for how you spend the rest of your life as a citizen of the world. CUNY generally, and The Graduate Center in particular, is a remarkable institution.
There are 275,000 students who attend CUNY, about 4,000 of whom attend The Graduate Center. As the largest urban public university in the United States, CUNY, and especially The Graduate Center, has a very special, essential, and important place in the life of New York City and, by extension, the country. It is part of The Graduate Center’s mission, part of its institutional DNA, to not only turn out great scholars, writers, critical thinkers, and researchers but to very directly and purposely tackle public issues of inequality, injustice, and fairness. Whether those issues take the form of tackling mass incarceration, immigration, racial justice, climate change, food justice, hugely disparate health outcomes for minority populations, gender inequality in the workplace, the lack of women who hold political office in the United States, rising economic inequality or, closer to home, getting the state to fully fund CUNY to better support its students, faculty, and especially it’s overworked and underpaid graduate student adjuncts — The Graduate Center and its faculty and its graduates are central, are integral to finding ways to make these things better.
As Ph.D. and master’s graduates of The Graduate Center you, I would argue, like the institution you attended, have a special onus to take these issues on — not just in a critical somewhat removed academic way — but as public intellectuals who can contribute to an informed public discourse about a just and equitable path forward. One of the things that the Institute that I head at CUNY does — the Institute for State and Local Governance — is to measure inequality in very granular ways at the city level and work with policy makers to try to alleviate those inequalities. When we were meeting recently with the mayor of a large city in California to brief her on the start of our work there and were making sure she was getting everything she needed from us she said, “You know what I don’t need? I don’t need some academic report that tells me that everything freaking stinks. I already know that everything freaking stinks. I need the path forward. Got it?” Got it, mayor. Fair enough.
There is so much injustice in the world now, and while it remains hugely professionally and personally important to publish peer reviewed articles or attend and present at academic conferences or conduct random clinical trials, all of which may well be a central, valuable, and fulfilling part of many of your lives going forward, it is not enough. And nobody is better placed than all of you to also contribute to ending injustice, whether it be through popular writing, activism, organizing, running for political office, or teaching in prisons. You’re CUNY Graduate Center graduates — no graduate degree students know as much, have as much lived experience and diversity, or care as much about these profound and structural issues as you.
That is why, in addition to everything else life has in store for you — families, jobs, children, and all sorts of daunting responsibilities — you all have a special responsibility to use your degrees, your knowledge, and experiences to tackle some of the most difficult, intractable problems in the world — many of which are surrounded by a political toxicity not seen for a very long time. We need the path forward.
We now sadly live in a world where many of our elected leaders devalue and deny research, science, art, knowledge, and data. Policy around immigration, health care, and criminal justice, among others, is all too frequently based on fear, racism, and ignorance. Research and science are essential of course, now more than ever, but we need more. Research and science are necessary but not sufficient now to affect long-term structural changes in all these areas. The fact that there is any debate at all around climate change tells you all you need to know about this perverse dynamic.
We need the path forward and that will require public strategies, action, and involvement of all kinds. So, who is going to do that? Who? You are. You’re going to do it because you have to do it and if you don’t do it — if CUNY Graduate Center graduates don’t take this on, nobody will. I know it’s easy and facile for me to stand here and say that you have a responsibility as a newly minted Graduate Center Ph.D. or master’s graduate to do this when just finding a job seems so difficult and overwhelming. But I promise you, it will be among the most fulfilling, important, and rewarding work at so many levels that you will ever do in your lives.
In the end, as the Lee Ann Womack song goes, you can sit it out or you can dance.
I hope you’ll all dance.
Congratulations again everyone.