Queen’s University Belfast Honorary Degree Ceremony

Mutual of America Building
New York City
September 26, 2008

Thank you Vice Chancellor Gregson… Chancellor Mitchell…the entire Queen’s University Family… It is truly a privilege to be here with you this evening, and I am deeply moved by your recognition. This is an honor beyond words for me.

My first visit to Ireland this past May was truly unforgettable. As my friends from Queen’s know, my name is a bit deceiving. While my father’s family came to America from Naples in the early part of the last century, my mother’s family came from Ireland in the last half of the 19th century. I don’t know whether my mother has ever been more proud than to have her son receive an honorary degree from such a distinguished university.

Over the course of these last few years, Georgetown and Queen’s have come together in a range of projects that have strengthened both of our universities, and expanded the opportunities for our faculties to create platforms for engaging in ever-deeper work in their chosen fields of study. Our colleagues in disciplines ranging from law and government… to Irish studies and English… to cancer research and cell biology… have all strongly benefitted from the relationship which we entered into just a few years ago.

I’d like to offer some remarks this evening about what it means to be a University in moments such as this. What does it mean for two venerable institutions to come together now in the ways that we do?

I believe that this moment requires a re-imagining of what it means to be a University. We can place different labels on what it is about this moment that is different. For tonight, the term “globalization” will do, recognizing that it needs to capture more than the revolutions in information and transportation technologies that have made our world so much smaller.

We need to acknowledge the profound changes that have occurred in this past generation, which have contributed to making the world in which we engage our work so different. This would include the end of the Cold War, or the end of what Philip Bobbitt has called “the long war,” the period that constitutes the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, as well as the Cold War…

This is also a moment of such profound change for Ireland, in large part due to the extraordinary statesmanship of your Chancellor George Mitchell. This is a moment that requires that we rethink the nature of the relations between nations… of the very architecture of the international system… and the ability of that system to respond to global phenomena like pandemics, climate change, terrorism, and global financial instability…

Perhaps at no moment since the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia have such profound issues been at stake. Queen’s has a long and distinguished history…Michael Roberts, writing in the mid-point of the last century, established some of the very framework in which we understand the contemporary international system—both how it evolved and how it is sustained. In defining times—and we are in one now—nations, and now the global community, look to their Universities for the insight, for the knowledge, for the constancy of dedication and commitment to the work that enable us to re-imagine the nature of our place in the world.

In these times, I believe there are new opportunities calling for the engagement of Universities. Three in particular have emerged in recent years… First, involving questions of human development… Second, opportunities to foster interreligious understanding… And third, the role we can play in peace-building.

First, it is important to acknowledge that we are alive during a moment in what political scientists would call a “regime” is evolving. This regime might best be termed “human development.” These two words have been used for generations to capture different kinds of ideas, but since 1993, when the United Nations issued its first “Human Development Report,” it’s come to mean something very specific. It’s the idea embedded in the work of the Millennium Development Goals…embedded in such popular campaigns as “Make Poverty History”…and it served to shape the framework of the G8 meeting in Gleneagles just a few years ago.

The idea, grounded in the path-breaking work of the economist Amartya Sen, holds that there’s something—more than average growth in GDP—which will constitute the development of our peoples. It recognizes the need to build the capacities—the capabilities—of every human being in ways that will enable each person to flourish, and the need to create the opportunities for these capabilities to be developed… Right now, we have an opportunity to create a new framework—a new understanding of our responsibilities to one another… This is an extraordinary moment—let’s ensure that when future generations look back, they will find a people who grasped this opportunity and established a new regime of human development, of responsibility for each other.

The second area calling for our engagement is interreligious understanding. Our Universities have the unique opportunity to engage questions that for previous generations would have been off-limits. Because of the “religious character” of the issues now demanding our attention—whether it be dialogue between Muslims and Christians, or Christians and Jews, Muslims and Jews, or trialogues involving all. Hindis and Sikhs with Muslims. The combinations are endless, and the urgency is readily apparent to all—that as globalization has made our world smaller and smaller, the fact that we are living side by side demands that we come to understand one another at ever deeper levels. I don’t think there’s a community on earth that could offer more insight into the dynamics involved in fostering dialogue between religions than the people of Northern Ireland.

As a segue to a third and final point—170 million people died at the hands of their government in the last century. This moment cries for ever new ways of imagining the nature of the relationships between peoples of different backgrounds, religions and ethnicities… and for institutions, like universities, to recognize the roles that must be played in our societies to foster peace— to promote reconciliation and serve justice. It is beyond the role of any government and requires the full engagement from all institutions of civil society—none more important than our Universities.

But we need to be Universities. And while some of what I have just described would be best understood as the very “interested” search for truth, we are places that provide space, perhaps the only place in our societies, for the disinterested search for truth. The University community commits itself to providing a framework that will enable our members to follow the truth wherever it may lead. One of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received was from a distinguished journalist in Washington, visiting campus, who once said to me, “It’s nice to be on the one piece of untitled real estate in Washington.”

Economies may fluctuate, political leadership will change, fashions will evolve, but we provide a constancy, a place that will ensure a continuous engagement in the search for truth. We engage in the world and we critique that very engagement. Our beauty, our unique role in societies, is to provide the context—where the tension lives—which enables both that engagement and that critique to take place. I think it was the vision of our founders at Georgetown, who chose as our motto “Utraque unum,” “Both and one,” to capture this tension, and this balance, that we seek to achieve in a University community.

No one captures this need for balance quite like your own Seamus Heaney—the strength and the fragility…the constant and the ephemeral…the suffering and the joy, that always must be kept in balance, and is what I believe is the unique role of the University. A poem that he wrote in the last decade captures the sense of this dynamic:

          “St. Kevin and the Blackbird”

          And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
          The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
          His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

          One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
          As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
          and lays in it and settles down to nest.

          Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
          Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
          Into the network of eternal life,

          Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
          Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
          Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.


          And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
          Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
          Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

          From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
          Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
          Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

          Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
          Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
          ‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

          A prayer his body makes entirely
          For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
          And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

Our Universities…”in a posture of endurance…at the intersection of natural process and the glimpsed ideal”… provide a home for this kind of engagement, for this kind of critique, for this kind of balance. For Georgetown to move forward into this new century, with a new partner like Queen’s University-Belfast, that shares both the dedication and the energy necessary for this endeavor, is truly exciting… and an honor.

So thank you again for collaborating with Georgetown and for all you contribute as a University in our new age…And since I am now an official member of both Queen’s and Georgetown, I look forward, even more so, to watching our relationship grow as we embark to fulfill our shared mission.

Thank you again, and good night…