David Brooks was presented with a Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, on Sept. 21 by Sacred Heart University at an academic convocation in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, followed by a dinner and lecture at SHU’s Community Theater.
Brooks is a New York Times (NYT) op-ed columnist focused on politics and social sciences, as well as a commentator for networks like NBC and NPR, according to his NYT biography.
“It is always meaningful when we confer an honorary degree on someone who embodies the mission and vision of this university,” said SHU President Dr. John Petillo during his welcome, according to a SHU press release.
Rev. Anthony Ciorra, chair of the honorary degree committee, explained that to be selected for this honor, the nominee must be approved by the committee, the Board of Trustees and Petillo.
“You want a process that’s as inclusive as possible because an honorary degree is the highest honor a university can give to someone,” said Ciorra. “You want to make sure that you are being faithful to the mission and the culture of the university. Brooks is someone who thinks deeply. He is a role model for students, faculty and staff. You put all those pieces together, and he is an extraordinary candidate.”
Sophomore Jeff Palma welcomed Brooks on behalf of SHU students.
“The school feels more like a home, and that is really the message that I wanted to convey,” said Palma.
Dr. Michelle Loris, Chair of Catholic Studies and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, noted how Brooks’s speech reflected discussions in Catholic Intellectual Traditions (CIT) classes.
“Brooks spoke about the spiritual, moral and relational crisis challenging our world today. He stated how our soul gives each person dignity and value. He also talked about the importance of being able to engage in meaningful conversations with each other,” said Loris.
Jason Ebert, Executive Director for University Special Events, said that the discussion of “diminishers” versus “illuminators” really stuck with him. The university press release reported that Brooks defined “diminishers” as those who make others feel small and unseen, while “illuminators” make others feel bigger and respected.
“He didn’t say be an influencer, he didn’t say be a leader, he said be an illuminator,” Ebert said. “I think that so many people want to lead, very few want to follow and even fewer consider themselves someone who can provide enough light to just let people go on their own.”
According to SHU’s press release, Brooks noted what he feels are some of the biggest moral challenges.
“To me, the problems in our politics flow from a problem in our souls. Somehow this spiritual crisis leads to loneliness and meanness. This shows up most significantly in a drop in social trust,” said Brooks.
Despite this, Dr. Brian Stiltner, a professor of theology and religious studies, also recognized hope in his speech.
“He felt that, although there’s a lot of problems in the world, there’s a lot of hunger you can see in people, and maybe in this younger generation, for a sense of spiritual and moral gravity,” Stiltner said.
Sophomore Kelsey Donnelly attended the dinner and lecture following the academic convocation and left inspired by his words.
“It’s not very often that people in his position use their platform to talk about issues facing the country from this perspective,” said Donnelly. “I think that, if more people listened to what he has to say, we could see some positive change in how our society relates to one another.”
Brooks was especially thankful for this honor, according to Ebert.
“His reaction to receiving the honorary degree was the first of its kind. There was something about Brooks’s appreciation for what it meant,” said Ebert. “When he accepted the degree and the honor, he said, ‘I’ve gotten a few of these over the years, but this one feels different.’”