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Speech at Spring Convocation 2013

Professor Heather Munroe-Blum
Delivered at Spring Convocation 2013

Chancellor, Chairman, Chancellor Emerita, Chancellor Emeritus, our distinguished honourary degree recipients, special guests, esteemed colleagues, proud family and friends, and, graduating class of 2013: Welcome to you all.

As Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University, it is my great privilege to welcome you here today to the lawns of our beautiful campus for this spring convocation. I know that some of you who are here as guests once graduated on these very lawns.

This will be my final convocation season as 16th Principal of McGill University. Every year, for more than 10 years, I have had the privilege of seeing you, our McGill students, complete this major chapter in your lives and embark on a new one.

Graduating students, today is truly a momentous day in your lives, a day of celebration that you will look back on and remember always. Congratulations. Savour this day.

As McGill students, you have worked very hard, without question. You have sacrificed much. But, as tough as it may sometimes be to be a McGill student, from time to time it can be even tougher to be a family member or close friend of a McGill student. And so, Graduating Class of 2013, I ask you to join with me in expressing our great appreciation to those who have helped you reach this day.

To say "thank you" is an enriching act. It is so important, in fact, that I’m going to do so myself. Serving McGill, serving you, has been in every single day, an exceptional honour for me. I have had you, wonderful students, to inspire me. Thank you.

I have had an outstanding team of academic and administrative colleagues, and volunteers, who show unparalleled devotion to McGill and our cause. Thank you.

Chancellor Emeritus Richard Pound used to say, “You are not the person you were when you came here. McGill changes you.” That is as true for me as I know it is true for you.

Today is a time to think about the You who walked onto our campus those few years ago, and the You who will walk off our campus later today. Today is a time to reflect on What you will hold on to, and What shall now be set aside.

I too have a list of things to hold on to – to remember, and to keep in my heart. I will remember the power of one. I will remember that a single person can change the course of events – and in so doing, make a positive difference to the lives of others. Each of you is such a person.

I will remember that I am not alone. Together, we are greater than we are as any one individual. Collective effort is the key to progress. Whether tackling personal problems or planetary problems, we are smarter, stronger, better, together.

I will remember who inspired me. My great Aunt Bonnie, who came from a poor, rural, single parent family in dust belt Illinois, and moved on, as a single woman, to became a fashion illustrator in New York in the 1930s. She was my girlhood role-model for knowing that no matter what your initial circumstances, you can shape a positive path forward.

Remember who gave you strength. Keep them in your heart.

And now, graduating class of 2013, you are about to join a second family, a family of McGill alumni that includes over 220,000 people worldwide, including our Chancellor, Arnold Steinberg, and our Chairman, Kip Cobbett.

Graduating class, as you leave our Convocation ceremony later today, know that as alumni, you will carry the good name of McGill with you everywhere you go. Please represent us well.

We are all part of something bigger than ourselves. Today, graduating class, you are participating in a tradition that is older than this country – McGill has been awarding degrees since 1833. And, in the awarding of degrees, we think of all that is possible for each of you, what we hope for, for you, and, for all of humankind.

Human endeavor is a miracle, but as a species, there are a few things that we’re sometimes not so good at. Politics, for instance. Not Canadians in particular, but the entire human species. As a species, we too often produce political leaders who seek primarily to differentiate themselves from their opponents. In so doing, they generate polarized positions that can be more extreme than what they themselves actually believe. This emphasizes conflict over co-operation, and does not serve the greater good.

We are also sometimes not so good at Religion. Historically, we’ve shown a tendency to become upset over disagreements in small details of what we claim to be the “truth.” And this tendency to argue over small details prevents us from seeing the larger good that exists beyond the details – the heart of the matter that we do all share in common.

So, we can be bad at Politics, we can be bad at Religion. But there are many things that our species is exceptionally good at. We’re good at Art. We’re also good at Literature. We’ve generated art, stories and poems that have continued to delight us, move us, lift our spirits, across hundreds and even thousands of years. These works of Art and Literature were often created by individuals. But, I said earlier, we are smarter, stronger, better together. So, what then are the areas of communal activity in which our species does do brilliantly? Let me speak to one example.

A long time ago, a community decided to seek out those of its members who showed evidence of very focused intelligence. And they gathered these people in one place, and provided them with shelter, and nourishment, and encouraged them to pursue their curiosity, their thirst for knowledge, wherever it led them.

That was a good idea. But what was even more inspired, was that the community took their young people and put them in the same place, and allowed them to be enriched by their interactions with these focused intelligences, who were themselves enriched by their interactions with the young. When these two ideas came together – supported, focused intelligence and interacting with the young – the communities that created this arena prospered. They rapidly advanced beyond their neighbours – in trade, in prosperity, in their culture, in their health, and, in the development of a peaceful, civil society.

And it was such a brilliant creation, that once these two ideas came together, the resulting institution gained momentum, moving from generation to generation, enriching every area in which it arose. It was such a good idea that it outlived politicians and political parties, it outlived whole systems of government.

This idea – which we call the University – is the highest achievement that our species has produced. And the communities within which these institutions were first created and supported became the most successful societies in our history. And this remains the case today.

In 1808, William Blake published a short poem[1] in which he expressed his aspirations for the spiritual life of his country. I will share now the final verse of this poem, which, with two or three words changed here, expresses my hope for the life of our University, McGill, and, our society.

Bring me my words of burning gold:
Bring me ideas that inspire:
Bring me my books: O clouds unfold…
Bring me my chariot of fire.

I will not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my pen sleep in my hand,
Til we have raised up our place of learning
In this green and pleasant land.

Thank you.


[1] “And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time,” written as the preface to Blake’s epic “Milton: A Poem.” The original stanzas read as follows:

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green & pleasant Land.

This poem was set to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1926. The resulting well-known hymn is titled “Jerusalem,” not to be confused with Blake’s epic poem of the same name.