Commencement 2013: Student Speaker

“On Behalf of the Graduates”
Gregory T. Donovan, Ph.D. Program in Psychology

Good evening and thank you for coming to this moment of commencement. Welcome, President Kelly, Provost Robinson, Honorees Lawrence Weiner and Robert Wilson, Trustee Berry, Senior Vice Chancellor Shaw, honored guests on the platform from the Graduate Center Foundation, Graduate Center faculty and staff, and my colleagues, the graduating class of 2013.
To all our friends and family who traveled far and wide to be here: I want to especially thank you. Thank you for celebrating with us today, thank you for helping get us here, and thank you—most of all—for withstanding the emotional dysphoria that can surface during the final stages of writing “The Most Important Dissertation of All Time.” We owe you one.
To my fellow graduates: We have finally made it! Today is a day many of us have dreamt of . . . some of us a little longer than others. As graduate students, so much of our personal histories has been defined by a narrative of finishing. Finishing papers, finishing courses, finishing projects and presentations, finishing applications and grading papers, and most importantly finishing dissertations. We even finished that final doctoral scavenger hunt where we had to navigate “The Beige Maze of 365 Fifth Avenue” to collect signatures from rooms with office numbers like 8107.07. First the eighth floor, then the seventh floor, then the library circulation desk, then back to the seventh floor, then back to the library to finally deposit a meticulously printed and officially approved stack of 25 percent cotton business paper. We finished it all and now we’re done. Now we are doctors. And, I could not be more honored or excited to stand here with all of you and consider what we are commencing.
Today is the beginning of a new path in our life course where we draw from what we’ve learned at the Graduate Center to better ourselves, our communities, and our society at large. As citizens and students of New York City we have witnessed the injustice and structural inequality of everyday life. We’ve also witnessed the empowerment and resilience that is possible in spite of and often because of such problems. From Stand Your Ground to Stop and Frisk, this year has thrust to the fore the havoc that uncritical methods can sow. Just this week, Kaitlyn Hunt, a high-school senior in Florida, has been shamed and shackled for nothing more than loving her girlfriend, who was a freshman at the same school. Again and again, we witness injustice carried out under a false banner of security and too often it is our young that bear the brunt of this deception. We know that humanity’s development has been unequal and uneven, but we also know that scholarship can transform this development into something more just for all. Brought under the glare of sustained critical inquiry, the racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia embedded in these methods of governance are being exposed, entered into public debate, and contested in our courts and on our streets.
Right now, we live in a city known for its Silicon Alley, an area of new media businesses that stretches from TriBeCa to the Flatiron, notably ending just ten blocks south of the Graduate Center. Silicon Alley is doing research, publishing content, generating and visualizing big data, and producing patented algorithms. These have become essential economic practices and we as scholars offer a powerful and critical counterweight to this proprietary production of knowledge. Google may deliver results for just about any query but they don’t reveal their methods. That, my friends, is the critical difference between a search engine and a scholar. Their methods of inquiry are the secret sauce of a multinational corporation, whereas the more ethical, transparent, and critical our methods become, the more valuable are our results. That is what we came to the Graduate Center to learn, and that is what we leave the Graduate Center to do.
Academies are places of study that check and challenge dominant bodies of knowledge and that help make everyday life better for the public, whether or not doing so is profitable. Through our collective research, pedagogy, governance, publishing, and activism, we enhance and expand the public mission of CUNY to connect higher education with everyday people. While our society increasingly communicates in 140 characters or less, we write dissertations of two hundred pages or more. While social media allows people to instantly publish content anywhere and at any time, we spend a year or more navigating slow and rigorous peer-reviewed systems to publish a single article in a specific journal. Despite a cultural ethos of “fast and cheap,” we choose to slow it all down and take on debt just to do work we believe in while living in an unbelievably expensive city. It is this time and this space that we share that distinguishes our education as much as our community.
We all share a common scholastic soul and we all come from an audacious place within this society. It is a place that has afforded us a chance to be unconventional, to be creative, and to plan better futures through thoughtful academic inquiry. What does it say about us that we choose to spend so much time (and so much money) to exist in such an audacious place? I believe it says that we have a different way of making knowledge. It says we all have the courage to rebel, to craft new methods, ask new questions, and to do it all in a hostile socioeconomic environment. CUNY exists to dismantle the ivory tower and to empower everyday people by keeping higher education from becoming an elite practice that only a select segment of the public gets to savor.
With privatization seemingly ascendant in every aspect of daily life it is radical to think someone could or even would discover a solution to an epidemic and make it public. Yet that is exactly what our fellow CUNY graduate Jonas Salk did in 1955 when he developed a vaccine for polio and choose not to seek a patent for it. It was radical, it was just, it was a public act that made the world a better place, and it was possible in no small part because of CUNY. Salk, like many CUNY students, came from a working-class immigrant family and had the opportunity to explore and innovate because quality education was available to him. Salk benefited from the generosity of the public and in turn Salk paid it forward.
In our contemporary information society, access to the means of producing knowledge is more important than ever. There is a reason why the Graduate Center is home to communities of practice like the Center for Place, Culture and Politics and the Public Science Project as well as communal platforms like the Academic Commons and OpenCUNY. This place fosters both platforms and practices that collaboratively produce critical bodies of knowledge for situated interests. We all know there are alternatives to war and violence, incarceration and intolerance, forced institutionalization and foreclosure, disease and poverty. Through the arts and sciences we bring into focus and engage these complex problems. That we all have chosen this path and earned our degrees from this public university affirms my belief that a more empathetic and understanding public is indeed in the making.
In conclusion, I want to thank the Graduate Center for providing me a radical community and an intellectual home. I want to thank you, my colleagues—my friends— for teaching me about humanity. We leave here with all the skills, capacities, and passions of learned scholars. We also leave here as students of an exceptional public education. As you commence your new lives, remember the good that government can do and the power quality education can foster. May we all continue to succeed by looking out for more than just ourselves. Let us look out for a more just public.
Dr. Gregory T. Donovan graduated in May 2013 with a Ph.D. in environmental psychology from the Graduate Center. He serves as a senior instructional technology fellow at Macaulay Honors College, founded OpenCUNY Academic Medium, and is a researcher at the Public Science Project.

Photo credit: Howard Jay Heyman

Submitted on: MAY 23, 2013

Category: Commencements