President of Ireland stresses value of higher education as he prepares to address Class of 2014

  • May 12, 2014

Editor's note: This story from The Bloomington Herald-Times is being published here as a courtesy for readers of IU in the News.

By MJ Slaby

For more than 8,000 students at Indiana University, this weekend is the time to wear their cap and gown and receive their degree.

IU commencement is in full swing with the graduate ceremony at 3 p.m. today and undergraduate ceremonies at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday, all at Assembly Hall. Each day of commencement has a different guest speaker selected by the university.

“These are people who we think students should look up to,” said Kelly Kish, deputy chief of staff in the Office of the President at IU.

This year, the graduate speaker is Paul O’Neill, former secretary of the U.S. Treasury, and the undergraduate speaker is Michael D. Higgins, president of Ireland.

Both are IU alumni and will receive honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degrees.

Not all speakers receive an honorary degree, but when they do, that means they are someone the faculty already wanted to honor, Kish said. Typically, she said, the Office of the President is working at least two speakers ahead to plan who will speak when. 

And Kish said each speaker proves to be unique and match the moment in time.

“The ceremony wouldn’t be the same without them,” she said.

Kish said this year’s speakers are both high profile, and although they work in government, they come from different areas. Plus, Higgins is the only IU alumnus who is a sitting president, she added.

Q&A with Michael Higgins, president of Ireland

Higgins answered questions from The Herald-Times to reflect on his time at IU and the importance of higher education. His responses appear below:

Q: What attracted you to come to IU as a student?

A: I was a graduate in both arts and commerce of the National University of Ireland at Galway and had begun research in economics. I was also a graduate in English literature and language, as well as politics and sociology.

One of my colleagues, who was traveling on a fellowship throughout the United States, had been investigating the new subject of sociology and how it should be taught. He met Professor Grimshaw of Indiana University, who spoke of a new research program where the fieldwork was in Indianapolis.

I had had an interest in the intersection between sociology and economics and sociology and literature. I had been accepted at Berkeley to study with Neil Smelser, with whose work on the sociology of economic life I was familiar, but all their money was allocated. Indiana University offered me a teaching assistantship and thus, serendipitously driven, I was on my way to Willie Nelson country.

Q: How did your experiences at IU impact your later career?

A: The courses and the work I undertook at Indiana University influenced my teaching and my writing in a most fundamental way. Of course, it introduced the technical capacities, but also, it constituted a solid intellectual body of work, which I would critique and whose assumptions I would question even in later years.

Q: What do you want this year’s graduates to take away from your speech as they graduate?

A: I would advise today’s graduates to always be willing to challenge assumptions and to guard against intellectual hubris. Hubris, pride in false certainties, always brings consequences, and the history of humankind is replete with such moments.

Q: Higher education is something that’s proved to be important to you; can you talk about why that is?

A: I was the first in my family to go on to third level education, so this is a significant fact in itself. Crucially, however, I believe that higher education both here in Indiana and at home in Galway provided me with the critical capacity and technical skills to challenge the status quo. This ability to challenge false certainties greatly helped me throughout my political and academic career.

I am convinced that universities have a crucial role to play in overcoming the current crisis affecting both the United States and Ireland, a crisis that I see not just as economic but also intellectual. I feel that now more than ever it is time for universities to return to their roots of original thought and pluralist, emancipatory scholarship.

Q: Culture is another area that’s important to you. Can you talk about your poetry? Do you still find time to write?

A: My last book, “New and Selected Poems,” will be translated into Italian in the autumn. It’s been two years since I published poetry; however, I will be returning to it. I keep an image notebook.