The weather in Champaign-Urbana on December 17, 2016 was beyond shitty. There had been rain on Friday the 16th, followed by a cold front that turned the rain to ice on the ground, in the air, on streets, sidewalks, cars, steps, and railings. Being outside on the morning of Saturday the 17th wasn't just miserable. It was dangerous.
And yet the Foellinger Great Hall in the University of Illinois' Krannert Center for the Performing Arts was full of people and of joy. It was 10am. There was no easy or safe way to get there - the gash on my hand from half-falling on the ice took two weeks to heal - - but upwards of two thousand seats were full.
The event that led so many to risk limb, if not life, was the winter convocation for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois. We were gathered to present degrees to students who had worked to learn the ins and outs of economics, molecular and cellular biology, psychology, anthropology, history, chemical engineering, religion, and much more. The list of majors is too long. Students with last names Adamjee, Ahmed, and Alcorn walked across the stage with Wynns, Yoons, Youngs and Zhangs. Defying instructions to hold applause to the end, supporters who had shuffled down icy sidewalks or skidded across frozen parking lots unleashed screeches and whoops, shouts of "Yeah man!" and "That's my baby!" It was a beautiful, electric, hope-filled ceremony. Exactly what I - - and I think we - - needed, heading into a dark and uncertain season.
I have grown to love winter convocations. Graduation ceremonies are wonderful in general, but the off-cycle, celebrity-free, intimate gatherings that happen in December, after most students have fled campus, are my favorite. I can't say exactly why, but it is at least partly because the December convocation is small enough that my college can fit all of its graduates into one hall - - albeit a large one - - and can display the wide range of things that our students do, and that we do. I love reading down the list of graduates:
Zhilu Wang, Chemistry
Lauren Warwick, Psychology and Spanish
Elizabeth Weaver, Creative Writing
Michelle Weber, Actuarial Science
Among other emotions, this list evokes pride in me. The garbage that flies our way from the fools who devalue colleges and universities can't begin to tarnish the achievements of these young people or the contributions of faculty to the flourishing of our society. But what I felt at Winter Convocation 2016 was, more specifically, pride in the politics that my college embodies, and to which most colleges and universities aspire. And make no mistake, convocations are now political gatherings in a pre-partisan sense. It is now a political act to care about arguing from evidence, to value knowledge and the pursuit of truth, to communicate in more than 140 characters, and to celebrate with equal enthusiasm the achievements of Ilhardt, Imam, Iskander, Izzo, Khan, Kim, and King.
There was not a single mention of the presidential election during the convocation ceremony. Nobody referred to party affiliation. But by simply being present, everyone in the hall resisted the anti-politics of deception, manipulation, and unreason abroad in the land. And by defying winter weather warnings to get there, students, families, and friends told the world that the politics of fact-based knowledge, critical inquiry, and global community will not go down without a fight.
This politics that higher education embodies is, of course, imperfect. There is no such thing as a perfect politics this side of the City of God. But in spite of its imperfections, it is the foundation of modernity, and it is absolutely worth driving on ice and even losing a little blood to perpetuate.