This past Friday (6/3/16) was the Graduate Center’s Commencement. Eero Laine spoke at the event, and this speech is posted with his permission.
Thank you and greetings, Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost Rabinowitz, Trustee Schwartz, President Robinson, Graduate Center Trustees, our distinguished guests, members of the Platform Party. Thank you and gratitude to the faculty, without whom none of us would be graduating. And thank you to those who got us through the front door of the Graduate Center in the first place: mentors, friends, family—some of whom have travelled very far to be here today…some of whom just got on the subway, and some of whom can’t be here…some of whom are no longer with us, and some of whom might not even know that they are the reason we are here. And that leaves…colleagues, friends, scholars, fellow graduates…Thank you!
It is a great honor to speak here today, it is humbling, it is a little nerve-wracking. But, thankfully, it’s not nearly as terrifying as a dissertation defense…or a dissertation proposal…or the second exam…or the first exam…or that first day of graduate school sitting in that classroom across the seminar table from some of those people who would come to define our experience at the Graduate Center and who at the time seemed like the smartest and most intimidating people in the world. As you sit next to some of those people today, I hope you feel a sense of collegiality, a bond of mutual labor and accomplishment, a common purpose and vision, a recognition that the City University of New York is our shared foundation, and we are CUNY.
Seeing that I am standing on a stage, I feel inclined to start with what I’ve spent so long studying. I simply want to acknowledge that we are in one of the most significant centers for the performing arts in the US and, indeed, the world. This hall, originally the Philharmonic Hall, opened in 1962, one year after the Graduate Center. Lincoln Center, like the Graduate Center, was imagined at a time in US history that would open a new era full of hope and unrest, struggles in the streets and in classrooms, demands for justice, equality, and the fair distribution of resources. That is the work that the CUNY Graduate Center is founded upon. And that is the work we have continued at the Graduate Center and throughout the City of New York as we made our ways from borough to borough from class to class, from job to job and, yes, from book to book.
As much as we’ve studied and labored over our own research, we’ve shared that emerging knowledge with one of the most diverse student populations in the United States. As CUNY graduates, we have taught across and throughout the entire CUNY system and the New York City Metro Area as teaching fellows, tutors, adjuncts, and in other often contingent positions. We know firsthand what the New York Times reported earlier this week in a front page article on the state of CUNY: we’ve taught in leaky classrooms, under an expired contract and without raises, we’ve seen budgets cut while administrative salaries grow, we’ve seen our students miss an exam so they could pick up a shift, we’ve seen tuition go up. We’ve seen the impact of financial neglect in our classrooms, in the hallways, in our meeting with a student as we’re both walking to the bus and we’re both on our way to a second job, sometimes third job, sometimes family, sometimes just anywhere other than home.
And we also know that there are more stories to tell. That CUNY is resilient. That amidst what the news will report as a sad and sentimental tale of crumbling public infrastructure, we’re still here. And our students are still here. And our professors and mentors are still here. That while there is no denying the fact that CUNY needs more support and that it requires a substantial and sustained assurance to future funding, there is also no denying the fact that right now there are hundreds of thousands of committed students, faculty, and staff that are absolutely dedicated to the undertaking of public education for the City of New York. We know because we’ve seen that too: when a student in a Latin class at Hunter realizes they can understand a dead language, when calculus finally clicks at Bronx Community College, when the microscope comes into focus at Brooklyn, when a student finds something of themselves in a play at the College of Staten Island, and says “I didn’t realize I could do this.” “I didn’t realize I could be this.” Those realizations have changed all of us, as they have changed our students. They have to. Because those realizations, those breakthroughs are what sustain CUNY, they are at the very heart of public higher education and its vitally necessary future.
Not only have we advanced as scholars and teachers, CUNY has shaped us as active (and, indeed, activist) members of the New York City public. Look around the theatre: graduates here have dynamically shaped the Graduate Center and CUNY, voting on program- and institution-level governance alongside the faculty, advocating for reforms like a fair and open parental leave policy, the establishment of all-gender bathrooms, and resisting the FDA’s discriminatory bans on blood donations from men who have had sex with men. Outside the halls of the Graduate Center, graduate students have organized and marched with faculty and undergraduates against tuition hikes, in solidarity with striking workers, for racial justice and against stop-and-frisk and police brutality and illegal surveillance. Graduates here today have exposed social problems through scholarship, connecting history, economics, technology, and policy to real lives, to people, to the public. Graduates in this theatre have been fighting for a better Graduate Center, a more representative CUNY, and a New York City that puts the public before profits.
The City University of New York is intertwined with the city—it is the public. But public education, it seems, is a radical idea again. And it’s a radical idea worth fighting for because the profound promise of public education is at the very foundation of CUNY.
So, in closing: on this joyous day and momentous occasion, surrounded by our loved ones, I ask you to think about how you can take this promise of public education beyond the Graduate Center. I realize we might end up in other cities, in a variety of institutions, in new libraries, in different classrooms, and with different students. But none of that changes the fact that as scholars and graduates of the only public graduate degree granting university in New York City we are uniquely qualified to not only contest and defy the privatization and enclosure of public education, but to cultivate and expand the very idea of what might be considered public through our research, our teaching, and our advocacy. Fellow graduates, that is our work. Congratulations, and it is an honor to celebrate this day with you.