Dr. Thomas Sugrue: 2016 Jolyon Pitt Girard Speaker

By Angelina Miller
October 20, 2016


While social justice is in the air more than the daily fall flu virus at Cabrini University, it is not everyday that students get the chance to be submerged in information on one specific social justice issue by a knowledgeable scholar. From Monday, Oct. 17 to Wednesday Oct. 19, this year’s Jolyon Pitt Girard Scholar-in-Residence, Dr. Thomas Sugrue, spoke to Cabrini students, faculty and staff on the history of the social justice issue of civil rights and our current president, Barack Obama.

The Jolyon Pitt Girard Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence fund honors Jolyon Pitt Girard, a professor that has taught history and political science at Cabrini for more than 30 years. This program allows Cabrini to bring in historians and other scholars that have earned recognition for outstanding scholarship and share Girard’s passion for teaching to speak each year.

Dr. Darryl Mace, Cabrini’s chair of history and political science, reached out to Sugrue, knowing he would have endless expertise on the history of civil rights, liberalism and conservatism, housing and real estate, and poverty and public policy to share with Cabrini students.

Photo by Angelina Miller

He is such a prolific scholar, but also engaged in the community and in so many racial and social justice issues,” Mace said. “This really speaks to the Cabrini tradition and other scholars.”

As a 20th century American historian and current professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University, there was no question that Sugrue fit well as this year’s scholar recipient.

After accepting Mace’s invitation, Sugrue was welcomed to Cabrini on Monday. From Monday to Wednesday, he spoke in four different Cabrini classes, including a course on the American Presidency taught by Dr. James Hedtke.

In Hedtke’s class, Sugrue warned students that he was going to cover a lot of ground in a compressed period of time. He opened that period of time by asking them to use one word to describe Barack Obama’s presidency. Responses included “change,” “progressive,” “impactful,” “historic,” and “controversy.”

“Change is a really important aspect of Obama,” Sugrue said to a student. “No matter how you feel about Obama as a president, whether you agree or disagree with his policies, a lot has changed with his presidency. All of the presidents were also white men until Obama, which is obvious, but important. His whole campaign was about hope and change.”

Sugrue then went on to educate students on Obama’s consistency as a president, how he handled the controversy he was thrown, the Affordable Care Act, bipartisanship and how Americans have responded to all of this today.

“Thomas Sugrue is truly a brilliant scholar,” senior political science major and a student in The American Presidency course, Matt Harshberger said. “I was honored to have him speak in our class and hear his depth, engaging and educational analysis on President Obama.” 

Sugrue ended his time in the class with sharing his stance on politics in general with the class through an interesting analogy.

“One thing we learn as American historians is that the process of politics is ugly and messy,” Sugrue said. “Some say it’s like watching sausage being made. It’s ugly, you don’t want to see a pig being turned into a sausage. When you watch how politics happens, it’s ugly. But sausage is pretty tasty! The end product, even though it might not be the most nutritious, will still sustain you to the next meal.”

In addition to speaking in Cabrini courses, Sugrue also gave a keynote lecture in Cabrini’s mansion on the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 19 in which members of Cabrini students, faculty and staff all attended.

He opened the keynote by talking about his book Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North, and how it was ironically published on the day of Barack Obama’s election in 2008. From that day forward, he was motivated to comment on the historical significance of Obama’s election, and challenge the rumors of Barack Obama and his place in history.

Throughout the keynote, Sugrue discussed Obama’s presidency, how some thought it would be the end to the struggle of civil rights, and how Obama did his best to do that.

“We are in a moment of intense, deep polarization,” Sugrue said. “Obama’s promise was to attempt to bridge those differences. One dimension of Obama’s career that remains honorable is that he has at least attempted to overcome the bitterness that continues to poison our politics. We can only hope that politicians in the future will try to overcome those divisions as well.”

One thing that Sugrue made clear to everyone he spoke to throughout his days at Cabrini though is that he is very passionate about his occupation.

“My job as a historian isn’t to write an opinion piece, or an advertisement or propaganda,” Sugrue said. “My mission is to be as faithful to historic records as possible, and my calling is to bring critical eyes and perspective to current topics of our day.”

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Angelina Miller

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