Graduate Center Commencement 2010

Time and Place:

6 p.m., Thursday, June 2, 2010, Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, 10 Lincoln Center Plaza (Columbus Avenue & 65th Street).


Morris Dickstein, eminent cultural historian, Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center. “One of our best and most distinguished critics of American literature"—Norman Mailer.

Commencement address

Honorary Degrees:

Doctor of Musical Arts to Paquito D’Rivera, multi-instrumentalist, conductor, and composer, whose extraordinary career has influenced American music across Latin, jazz, and classical genres

Doctor of Humane Letters to Richard Sloan, renowned psychiatric researcher of the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute

Student Speaker:

María Elena Torre, Ph.D. in Social-Personality Psychology


410 doctorates and 50 master’s degrees awarded

Morris Dickstein – Commencement Speaker

Morris Dickstein is a distinguished professor of English, theatre, and liberal studies at the Graduate Center and “one of the foremost cultural historians in the United States” (Forbes). He is author of the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award–nominated Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression. Dickstein’s eclectic style of criticism—analyzing politics, history, and popular culture alongside literary works—has made him a versatile and sought-after commentator in the media on various topics in twentieth-century American culture. His other books include Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties; Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction, 1945–70; The Mirror in the Roadway: Literature in the Real World; and Double Agent: The Critic and Society. Formerly, Dickstein was editor of the Partisan Review and a founding member of the National Book Critics Circle. He has published many essays and reviews in the New York Times Book Review, the New Republic, the Nation, the Times Literary Supplement, and other periodicals. He received his Ph.D. from Yale University.

Closing Remarks

President William P. Kelly

Citation for Paquito D’Rivera -- Doctor of Musical Arts

Paquito D’Rivera, you are widely celebrated as an innovative musician and composer. Moreover, you have been a generous mentor of young musicians and a champion of the rights and liberties of artists around the world. Born in Havana, you played with the National Theater Orchestra when you were just ten and became, at seventeen, featured soloist on the clarinet and saxophone with the Cuban National Symphony. A restless musical genius, you were, at the same time, a founding member of the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna and codirector of the groundbreaking group Irakere, which garnered the 1979 Grammy for best Latin jazz ensemble. In 1981, you sought asylum in the United States and were welcomed with open arms by musicians on these shores. Since then, you have received universal acclaim as an instrumentalist and composer, with a discography of more than thirty albums ranging across a wide spectrum of musical idioms. In 1996 you won your first Grammy as a soloist for Portraits of Cuba; in 2003, you were the first artist to win that award in both the classical and Latin jazz categories. You are, indeed, a musician for all seasons and styles. Recognition of your compositional skills came with the awarding of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2007. You have been composer in residence at the Caramoor Center, where you created Conversations with Cachao, a concerto that paid tribute to Cuba’s legendary bass player Israel ‘Cachao’ López. And, as an author, you have given us My Sax Life and your novel Oh, La Havana. Organizations of artists and writers have showered you with honors, among them: the National Medal of the Arts, the Kennedy Center’s Living Jazz Legend Award, and the Hispanic Academy of Media Arts and Sciences Annual Achievement Award. In 2009, the National Arts Club presented you with their Medal of Honor, and DownBeat magazine named you Clarinetist of the Year for the third time in a row. In gratitude for the joy you have brought to audiences throughout the world, for the extraordinary breadth and depth of your artistry, and for the gift of music with which you have enriched our world, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York is pleased to present you with a Doctor of Musical Arts, honoris causa.

Citation for Richard P. Sloan -- Doctor of Humane Letters

You are a renowned teacher and researcher, a leader in your field, with a fierce commitment to scientific integrity and the courage to challenge widely and passionately held convictions. As the author of Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine, you have succeeded in debunking the notion—already taught in medical schools and fast becoming a standard consideration of health-care professionals—that religious practice promotes health and healing. By scrupulous analysis, you and your colleagues revealed the flawed science that has promoted this belief. You have raised serious ethical and practical issues created by the linking of medicine and religious practice—an association that benefits neither. You have pointed out how manipulating the religious sentiments of vulnerable patients is a gross abuse of the physician’s privileged position, and how subjecting religion to “biomedical scrutiny” is a disservice to religion itself. This you have done, not as one who denies the power of faith, for you recognize fully how faith can provide comfort if not cure. As Nathaniel Wharton Professor of Behavioral Medicine in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and Chief of the Division of Behavioral Medicine at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, you have done groundbreaking work on the physiological consequences of psychological factors, unlocking secrets of the heart to show how risk factors such as depression, anxiety, or hostility contribute to and sustain heart disease. A native of Newark, New Jersey, you earned your B.S. from Union College and your M.A. and Ph.D. from the New School for Social Research. Since your college days in the turbulent ’60s, you have been committed to the pursuit of social justice through science and education. This you have done as teacher and mentor, by expanding the boundaries of psychological and biomedical research, and by raising trenchant issues of ethics and justice in medicine. In gratitude for a career characterized by the rigor of your research, your commitment to scientific integrity, and your compassion for society’s most vulnerable, it is our privilege to present you with a Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.

Commencement Address by Morris Dickstein

Distinguished Professor of English, Theatre, and Liberal Studies, CUNY Graduate Center

Before I begin I’d like to thank President Bill Kelly for the inspired leadership that brought us here—and, more personally, for according me the honor of addressing you on this happy occasion. My thirty-five years of teaching at the Graduate Center, among stimulating colleagues and exceptional students, have given me some of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. During that time the school has grown from a local to a national institution with students from all over the world, with increasing financial aid and a double-barreled commitment to access and excellence. In the name of my colleagues I’m delighted to extend congratulations to today’s graduates and their families, who no doubt shared many of the trials and joys of completing this work. We on the faculty know how exacting this was; we’ve gone through similar rites of passage ourselves, which no doubt helped us guide you through them. But many of you now face daunting obstacles that we did not have to confront.

It’s no secret that the academic job market, which took a sharp downturn soon after I joined the faculty in the 1970s, has recently contracted even further, thanks to the recession that has curtailed employment throughout the economy. There have also been major structural shifts in universities as they deploy more part-time faculty, with few benefits and no job security. This dependence on adjunct teaching by doctoral students has seriously lengthened students’ time to degree; they put in additional years with no assurance of later gaining full-time work. CUNY has fought these pressures with greatly enhanced fellowship support. But the attrition of tenure-track jobs has led some observers to suggest that graduate study in the humanities has become some kind of scam to entice cheap part-time labor. Some graduate students have taken comfort from the notion that they have, if not a secure career path, then at least a high number in the big academic lottery.

Science students have more options than those in the humanities, but the figures show that even our humanities departments have done reasonably well in placing their students, though often in jobs less prestigious than their talents deserve. So who would blame them or their families for feeling discouraged? The cover of the May 24 issue of the New Yorker says it all: a freshly minted Ph.D. is hanging his diploma in what is obviously his boyhood room, as his troubled parents look on anxiously from the doorway. This is perhaps a far-fetched case: unlike recent college graduates, few new Ph.D.s are likely to be moving back with Mom and Dad, in part because they are already long in the tooth, perhaps with families of their own. On the cover instead we see a guy who looks like the ’50s comic-book character Archie Andrews, someone who never got out of high school, who today, sixty years later, is still trying to decide between blonde Betty and dark-haired Veronica. This pop-art image takes us back to a more innocent era when a high-school degree, not a doctorate, was a prerequisite for many jobs.

Now that a doctoral degree has become just such a credential, with an incentive for overproduction, it turns out too often to be not enough of a credential, a milestone more young people have reached than our society thinks it needs. At this point the predictable role of the commencement speaker, faced with an insoluble dilemma, would be to reassure the graduates of the intrinsic worth of the research they’ve done, of the knowledge and experience they’ve gained, and of the handsome accolade about to be bestowed on them. But having received my own degree in the 1960s, in the twilight of the academy’s golden age, when American society was in upheaval but jobs were plentiful, I’m in an awkward position to stress idealistic goals in the face of adverse economic conditions. In 1967 our world was in flames over the Vietnam War, the draft, and our country’s racial divisions. On the same day I was due to deposit my thesis, I joined with 400,000 other people on both coasts in a huge demonstration against the war, which was then tearing our whole society apart. But I already held a tenure-track job. I could afford to be high-minded, with few worries about how to support a wife and ten-month-old son, even on a paltry salary. Students today cannot readily fall back on the luxury of pursuing learning for its own sake, out of their god-given talent, love of their subject, and the noble urge to contribute, however modestly, to the sum of human knowledge.

Yet neither are today’s students faced with the quandary of new graduates during the Great Depression. Higher education then was only a fraction of the size it is today, and even the brightest graduates rarely went out for advanced liberal arts degrees. College teaching positions were scarce, especially for the children of immigrants. Instead the best of them wrote seminal books, founded magazines, did politics or journalism, worked for foundations, and took day jobs where they could find them. Only the great expansion of the university system after World War 2 enabled them to find academic posts, much to their own surprise. Some who would later be numbered among CUNY’s most eminent professors, including Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Michael Harrington, Alfred Kazin, and Irving Howe, had no doctoral degrees; they made their mark on a larger stage as public intellectuals rather than specialized scholars. They helped turn the university into a more cosmopolitan place, a school that cultivated scholarship yet also interacted fluently with the life of the city, the nation, and the world.

This is part of your heritage today, sharpening the value of the work you have done. Current scholarship in the humanities and the social sciences is typically more relevant to social problems than the kind of Ivory Tower research that was the norm before the war. It is shaped by the contemporary world, even as it explores remote times and places. Your work has honed your skills as writers, trained researchers, and historically informed thinkers. The world needs what you have to offer, though it may not fully understand how much it needs it. So I say to today’s graduates: You are the best and brightest of your generation. You must be especially gifted, or you wouldn’t be here today, but you’ve chosen a difficult path, not to go to law school or business school, where your economic prospects might look brighter, not to go for the money but to pursue advanced knowledge in a field you love, that taps into the best you have to offer. To get this far you had to show not only talent but persistence, stamina, intelligence, discipline, and imagination, qualities that could serve you well, and serve the world, in many different professional arenas, not simply in college teaching.

My own field of literary study, once the province of antiquarians and gentleman scholars, has become far more engaged with present times, partly under the gun of theory but even more because literature itself is so engaged. When I think of the writers I’ve taught this semester alone, writers like James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, Vladimir Nabokov, Elie Wiesel, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, John Updike, and Philip Roth, I’m amazed that, besides the sheer pleasure their work gives, they shed so much light on issues like race, immigration, genocide, personal and cultural identity, marriage, gender, morality, and the very nature of truth. We don’t study them for practical use but we use them nonetheless. They enlighten us not with didactic messages but with fresh experiences. They introduce us to people and situations we might never encounter, in language at once unexpected and unforgettable. As we engage with them critically and feel their power, their meanings become more accessible to us; they inform and alter who we are. This deeper understanding lights up the best work in history, in philosophy, in psychology, in anthropology, in every field that the French aptly call the “human sciences.” This is the thrill of scholarship that rewards us for the hard labor.

But the methods we use in that scholarship have been immensely transformed in recent years. We live on the cusp of a new era. Like most new technology, the digitization of knowledge offers both a boon and a threat. It’s become a cliché to say that it poses the greatest challenge to book culture since the invention of movable type. Thanks to the Internet, never have we had so much information at our fingertips or so much uncertainty about how to organize and interpret it. As in our daily lives, we risk being overwhelmed by the sheer flow of information, the kaleidoscopic demands on our attention. One benefit of the book is that we read it page by page; it’s like what Keats called his Grecian Urn, a “foster-child of silence and slow time.” If a book proved a boon for reading, the Internet is ideal for searching. It’s better suited to skimming than to careful reading. It speeds us up where books slow us down and give us pause. Books make knowledge seem palpable yet offer space for reflection.

If any search is to be worthwhile, we must know what we’re looking for and how we might explain it once we find it. No search can simply plumb the void; it must be thoughtfully conceived in the first place. If your graduate education has given you anything, it gave you the tools to trawl the new knowledge environment, the skills and instincts to turn information into insight, dumb fact into articulate idea. This power of critical thinking will serve you well in any field you enter, and it will make the difference between journey work and genuine achievement. It will help determine whether society will benefit from what you do and whether you yourself will reap genuine satisfaction from it.

Right now the obstacles for advanced graduates are great and will grow even greater with the budget cuts that are sure to come as government and the private sector cope with the troubled economy. The path before you could prove to be a minefield. The arduous course on which you first set out some years ago may be even more challenging today, despite the proud accomplishments that brought you here. My hunch is that you do what you do because you love it, and because nothing else can be as meaningful to you. Pursuing knowledge today, and especially taking the academic route, in a society that has never valued education enough, requires a leap of faith not unlike the one attributed to the early Christian theologian Tertullian, who said that he “believed because it is absurd,” a leap later described by Pascal as a “wager.” I hope this wager pays off handsomely for you. I wish you all well as you set out on career that combines a sense of social purpose with a deep feeling of inner fulfillment.

Closing Remarks by President William P. Kelly

The final words are mine and they will be brief.

Education, my friends, is about transit – from its Latin root e –ducare – a leading out, a progress from darkness to light

In undergraduate teaching that journey involves the opening of doors, the suggestion of possibility. As with the raising of children, it is concerned primarily with fitting wings and encouraging flight

We measure its success in terms of departure.

Doctoral education is something entirely different.

The relation between student and mentor is far more intimate

The connection formed is enduring – its gestation lengthy; its maturation marked by advice and counsel, by continually updated letters of reference, by the exquisite pleasure taken in a student’s professional success

As the relationship between student and mentor develops it assumes the true form of scholarly practice. That is to say it becomes a genealogical undertaking. We are the heirs of other’s work, we make our contribution, we pass the torch.

Personality is necessarily subsumed in that process. We train our students to exceed our grasp, to render our work obsolete.

But our intent is not self-erasure. Scholars live beyond their time in the work of their students. Children may transmit our genetic codes; students extend the life of our minds.

So when we gather at commencement, we don’t celebrate your departure or take pleasure in your capacity for flight.

Rather, we rejoice in the promise of a connection unbound by time.

In short, my colleagues, you’ve given us a great gift for which we are profoundly grateful.

Do good work and embrace the joy so deeply embedded in a life of research, teaching, and scholarship.

Well done! Congratulations!

Submitted on: JUN 2, 2010

Category: Commencements