AUST Commencement Speech

Wednesday, July 18, 2007 - The Rev. Peter M. Donohue, O.S.A., President, Villanova University

Madame President, Your Excellencies, Honored Guests, and the Graduating Class of 2007. Thank you for the invitation to be a part of this evening’s celebration and for giving me a reason to visit your beautiful country.

Have you ever thought what might be said at your funeral? Recently, I was attending a funeral and as a number of people spoke about the qualities of the deceased my mind began to wander into the future. What would be said at my funeral? What facets of my life would they recall? Would they have found me to be a faith-filled Augustinian priest? (I would like them to say I was holy but I don’t think that would be said.) Was I a passionate teacher, a noteworthy theatre director, or a visionary leader? I hope that they would say that I was a generous person, a compassionate listener, a loyal friend. Of course, I want them to forget my propensity for sarcasm and my frustration over the stupidity of others. It goes without saying, that there will be comments that I had a slight tendency to be theatrical and had no interest in sports and my real hero is the person who invented air-conditioning. Certainly, mention will be made of my love of music and that it didn’t take much effort to coax me to a microphone. Ultimately, I wonder, how has my life collided with others and what effect has that collision had upon them?

Perhaps the notion of lives colliding sounds harsh, raising images of destruction. But I prefer to view the image in a positive way. Not to see our lives as an accident but rather that we have the power to make choices and those choices will determine the direction we take and the impact we can create. A multitude of factors collide and determine the type of people we become. Some help us move forward, while others cause us to retreat from our true potential. Today you, the graduates, reflect on your University experiences both in and outside the classroom, your successes and your failures, discoveries as well as the challenges, the love found and the love lost, the people who supported you and those that opposed, the illumination of truth and the annihilation of deceit. Today as you begin new journeys, all of these factors impact your lives and how you wrestle with them will determine the direction of that journey.

We can make conscious decisions to change our lives, to select our relationships, to confront our beliefs and to challenge our values. We have the freedom to determine our place in history and the community. We can embrace the courage to celebrate our accomplishments, to acknowledge our failures, to confront our pain and to realize that we can heal the ruptures in our lives to build something new.

Every day we are faced with change and appreciating that fact, we have the ability to become agents of change. If the unknown creates fear and anxiety, it will prevent us from moving forward. To quote St. Augustine of Hippo, a man who struggled with his own impact on the world: be always unhappy about what you are if you want to reach what you are not. If you are pleased with what you are, you have stopped already. If you say; IT IS ENOUGH, you are lost. Keep on walking, moving forward, trying for the goal.

This image of lives colliding is more than an intellectual exercise. As members of the American University of Science and Technology (AUST) community, you must embody the principles set forth in its mission. I am sure you know this mission but today you must acknowledge that they are the foundation of your diploma and must be the fabric of your lives. You must continue to search for truth, to live in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom without discrimination as to religion, gender, color, national origin, or socioeconomic background, to be agents of social justice, catalysts for peace and promoters of human rights, to respect the rights of others, to develop analytical, critical, and creative skills, to be models for the use of technology in education, to value the ecology of your country and strive to ensure its preservation for future generations, and to be the image of excellence in the region you serve.

This educational mission may sound lofty and idealistic but, simply put, it has asked you to join your heart and mind together and answer some fundamental questions: What are you willing to achieve? What are you willing to confront? What are you willing to confirm? What are you willing to give? What do people hear when they come in contact with you?

You stand at the threshold of change. The faculty and staff have provided you with bold ways of thinking and behaving. In a century where technology will become more and more superior, you must teach others not to depend on it but to rely on their hearts. A computer, no matter how sophisticated, will never provide empathy. Only human beings have this ability. In a world economy that will continue to favor the great wealth of a few, you must find ways of alleviating the plight of the many who will continue to exist in poverty. You must give them a voice to make new and boisterous demands for social justice.

In comparison to other educational institutions both in this region and around the world, AUST is relatively new. Whereas I am the 32nd president of Villanova University, you still have number one. This institution has fought for its name and its placement among Lebanon’s leading educational institutions. You graduate from a University that has unprecedented partnerships with twelve Universities around the world: in Canada, America, Italy, Spain, Jordan, Bulgaria, and France. You share an educational mission that stretches from Milan to Arkansas. In many ways this institution reflects the unique flavor of this country’s history and culture that has been shaped by variety of traditions: Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Islamic, Ottoman, French, and American, creating a distinctively Lebanese culture that combines the East and the West, the past and the present. I was particularly pleased that on the Web site the list of sports name football and volleyball along with Hip Hop and creative dance. It is a fascinating and unique collision of the dancer as athlete and the athlete as dancer.

In a similar way it is like a collision of musical forms that took place in the twentieth century. The melodious European waltz drifted into the past as jazz became the musical metaphor for a new age. The formal, controlled beat of the left hand collided with the improvisation of the right hand to produce a sexy new rhythm. As in the case of today’s rap music, jazz horrified the traditional segments of society and, in America, it energized a rejected segment of the population to create new ways of thinking. As we move forward into the twenty-first century, what combinations will energize our cultures? What melodies will carry us forward? It may mean throwing out those old notes, the standard definitions, and search for more vibrant compositions.

Today as you take your place in developing and leading this century, know that you face a clash between ancient cultures and globalism, between tradition and technology. Today’s global economy forces every nation to dance to the same tune. Television programs are transmitted into every village in the world and places that 10 years ago were considered remote are now connecting to the rest of the world through the internet. Land-line phones are passé and in a few years the average cell phone will be as well. Franchises are everywhere: McDonald’s, Disney, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Starbucks, Nike, and The Wooden Bakery. We have convinced ourselves that pop culture can’t be all that bad. People emulate the style and beauty of Beyonce or dress like Pink. Still others hunger for the latest news of Angelina and Brad. We overdosed on watching Paris cry her way to jail and we are flooded with ads for Pepsi’s Sea of Stars. However, cultural icons can simultaneously attract and repel. There are places in the world where the idea of instant communication is frightening. You will face people who view free speech and individual choice as subversive. In cultures where tradition has governed life for centuries, such tenets and images are perceived as threatening to sacred truths and embrace these cultures with a lethal kiss (referenced by R.C. Longworth in the Chicago Tribune in 1998).

In a recent Miami Herald editorial, the journalist, Leonard Pitts, wondered what history will someday say about this time period where torture is defended, the rule of law is ignored, civil liberties are abridged, hates groups are rising, corruption is exposed in governments and religions, and people live in fear. During your time here you have had the opportunity to place yourself in a learning community, a place that offered you a perspective of the past, an assessment of the present, and the tools to conceive of new ideas that can alter the world that you will inhabit with others. As the Roman Empire positioned itself between the fourth and fifth century, St. Augustine faced a world with numerous problems and offered a creative solution to his world: “You say, the times are troublesome, the times are burdensome, the times are miserable. Live rightly and you will change the times. The times have never hurt anyone. Those who are hurt are human beings; those by whom they are hurt are also human beings. So, change human beings and the times will be changed." (Sermon 311, 8) Do you have the courage to face today’s world with the same insight and compassion? Do not become the cynic who strangles or aborts hope rather, be the idealist who cultivates a place for it.

As you move through life, you will undergo many collisions both with those you know and those you do not. How you recover from these moments will be determined by your flexibility and willingness to reshape your world in relationship to others, to recognize that your world does not orbit in isolation, but that you have been given treasures to share with others and it is in fusing those treasures together that each will gain. The opportunities before you are numerous and, from my own recent experience, your life can change by simply saying yes. In the past year, my world has changed by becoming a University President. I have had to give up several things that I loved. Teaching has always been a passion but I have been given a new platform for teaching. Theatre has been my career and now I am acting more than I ever have before. I have experienced the exhilaration of being inaugurated as the President and the pain of burying my mother last month. Take time to examine your own experiences and evaluate how they have challenged you and how they have changed your image of the world. Today, I have the honor to share with you some of my thoughts. A year ago Beirut was a name in the news and now it is the faces before me and the hands that I embrace. These events deepen the realization of who I am and the abilities I have been given. Each of us wants other people to understand who we are, but if you want to be heard, you must also listen. What will be said at my funeral or at yours? Ultimately, it will depend on the way our lives collide. We can crash or we can fuse. Discover and listen to the world around you and LET THEM HEAR YOU!