Commencement speech (full text): “Transformational Leadership for the 21st Century” by Dr. Luis Fraga

Dr. Luis Fraga, commencement speaker

Related Links:

Commencement address (as prepared for delivery) by Dr. Luis Fraga, at the 119th Goshen College Commencement on Sunday, April 30, 2017.


Thank you President Brenneman. I know that you will be leaving the position of President of Goshen College soon. Please accept my congratulations and sincere thanks for all you have done for Goshen College and the broader Goshen community. In the almost two years that we have known one another I say with no doubt that President Brenneman is a person of conviction, moral grounding, and deep faith. It has been a sincere joy to work with you. Let us all thank President Brenneman with a round of applause in recognition for all he has given to higher education.

Graduates, parents, families, guests, members of the Board of Directors, faculty, administrators, and students, it is a sincere honor for me and my wife, Charlene Aguilar, to be here with you today. I love commencement celebrations. They are moments of joy, family, and community. Graduates please stand up, look at your parents, grandparents, siblings, and all of those who worked so hard to give you the opportunity that we celebrate today. Graduates give them a round of applause to say thank you. All of you will remember this day for many, many years to come.

In the time that I have with you, and fully consistent with the true meaning of celebration, I want to talk with you about what I have learned in my 62 years, and my 33 years of being a member of the academy as a professor and administrator, about leadership, and what I think is the source and hope of the leadership our country, and our world, need in this 21st Century. To be more precise, the source of leadership that is needed in the 21st Century come from your values, and the hope driving that leadership will be provided by your vision. Graduates, I call you to build on the values you have gained here at Goshen College, and use them to ground you in all of your work….but do not be satisfied with success at your work. I call you to be bold, to be thoughtful, to be passionate, and compassionate in deciding what the meaning of your life will be to you, your family, your church, your community, your nation, and your world. Think of it this way, what is the vision that you have for what legacy you will leave your children and your grandchildren? It seems odd to ask you to think of this now when many of you are young. I want to tell you that if you think of legacy, what kind of understanding, what kind of empathy, what kind of love you want to leave to the most precious gifts God will ever give you, the next generations, you will make different decisions, better decisions, more Christ-centered decisions, than you would otherwise make. Use your values to live the vision that will drive you to have a life that makes a difference in our world.

There are two basic types of leaders in the world today. Perhaps, there have always been two types of leaders. One type of leader is the transactional leader. This type of leader is the one with whom we are most familiar. She or he is the person who is widely recognized for the position that they have attained and the elevated status that comes with that position. In fact, it is the type of leader, that, in the view of a number of thinkers, our colleges and universities most often produce. This is the successful professional: doctor, lawyer, minister, business person, scholar, engineer, nurse, teacher, and professor. They are well educated, do their jobs with diligence, and are often rewarded appropriately. Some even receive considerable financial compensation for their work. When they are leaders within their professions, in their offices, hospitals, law firms, and companies, they are appreciated by their organizations. What is most important to note, however, is that they see themselves as successful individuals within traditional frameworks of understanding. They succeed as individuals, they serve their families, they may even volunteer in their churches and communities, but, ultimately they are simply routine decision makers who do their jobs well, but only according to well established expectations. In their professional work, they could be replaced by many of their colleagues.

Graduates, I call you to have values and vision to be another type of leader. That other type of leader is the transformational leader. This leader also exercises great responsibility, works hard, and achieves her or his position because of their work ethic. However, this type of leader is not satisfied with the status quo, with achieving authority and status within established organizations, according to well accepted criteria. The transformational leader has as her or his driving motivation to move their organizations, their coworkers, their students to achieve goals they never thought about, to find inspiration in new ideas. Think of it this way, the transformational leader brings new, larger, richer goals to organizations. She and he work to empower coworkers to see their potential in new ways. The transformational leader, most significantly, is not satisfied with just serving those her or his organization have always served. Their focus is on working every day to serve those that their organizations and professions have not traditionally served. They are especially focused on including those who have not traditionally been included. They want their organizations, their coworkers, and their work to appeal to those it has traditionally excluded. The transformational leader has a vision that builds on the past, but sees even greater possibilities in growing. Transformational leaders look forward, not backward. They look within their deepest values to find a bigger, brighter, more inclusive vision of the future.

I am not supposed to be here with you today. To many, the odds were stacked against me. No one in our neighborhood had gone to college. Many of my classmates’ parents did not have the chance to have very much formal education. I grew up in a highly segregated neighborhood. My elementary school was 100% Latino and African American. My middle school was 100% Latino and African American. My high school had maybe 1% whites. It was not until I attended college at Harvard that I went to a predominantly white educational institution.

My grandparents emigrated from Mexico in the early 1900s: my father’s family, the Fraga’s, moved to Texas in 1905 from Ojuelos, Jalisco, MX. My father, Leopoldo, was born outside of Laredo, TX, in 1911. My mother’s family, the Dovalina’s, moved to Texas in 1915 from Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila, MX. My mother, Rosa, was born in 1924 in Eagle Pass, TX. My grandparents came here legally. But it is a little more complicated than that: it was impossible for them to migrate to the U.S. illegally. The category of “illegal immigrant” did not exist in American law then. Illegal entry was not a civil offense in American law until 1927-29. This is a fact that we often, conveniently, forget today.

My parents were very fortunate for Latinos of their generation. My father graduated from Harlingen High School in 1929, one of only three students of Mexican origin to graduate. There is a story that my grandmother told my father when he was young that “for people like us, there are only two options: you either get some education or you work in the fields.” She continued, “You can make whatever choice you want mijo, but you are going to get an education!” She was a very typical Mexican mother telling him what to do!!!! I love the picture of him in his graduation gown wearing a bow tie. I think that is why I have always loved bow ties, corbatas de gato, as we say in Spanish. My mother graduated from Eagle Pass High School in 1942. She was the only one of her 11 siblings to have a high school diploma. My mother was an excellent typist and won a scholarship to go to a business college in San Antonio. Her older brothers said…“Absolutely not!” My father studied law at a small proprietary law school, but he did not have the money to take the bar exam. He never became a lawyer. Neither he nor my mother felt that they could go to college.

I know now how blessed my parents were, nonetheless. My father told stories of how he, his mother, and sisters lived on the streets in Laredo with no other place to sleep. I don’t know how my maternal grandmother fed so many children when my grandfather lost everything during the Depression. Although they were not blessed with material well-being, my parents were, however, blessed with a deep faith in God, a deep faith in the value and virtue of believing deeply, personally, and publicly in their Christian faith, their Catholic faith. I have to think that it was their faith that gave them the strength to look beyond their challenges.

My parents were blessed as well, oddly enough, by being young adults during WWII. This was a challenging time for the country. There were, appropriately, conscientious objectors and those serving in civilian public service due to their religious beliefs. My father was in the Navy. My mother and father met during the War and fell in love. They married in 1946. My mother still lives in Corpus Christi, TX; she is 92 years old. My two sisters take care of her. She lives with my younger sister Lizz. My father passed on in 1997. I miss him every day.

My mother and father were part of a generation of Americans that lived through great challenges, but in doing so had faith in a limitless future and that sense of responsibility to build communities of understanding and inclusion. Please don’t misunderstand; my parent’s generation lived with the severe lines of separation by class, race, ethnicity, and gender that were the norm in their time. But their experiences demonstrated, beyond traditional prejudices and discrimination, what it was possible for our country to do when the nation worked together against tyranny and softened, however temporarily, the lines of separation that still challenge us today. My parents had a faith in what was possible when our country was at its best, and tried, however unevenly, to live up to its highest ideals. My parents had an ever-present faith in God and an ever-present faith in our country’s limitless future. They may not have experienced that limitless future themselves, but they prayed and sacrificed to make it available to their children, the next generation. My parents instilled in all of their children to believe in God, embrace our faith journey, and believe in the unlimited integrative capacity of American social and political institutions. They were motivated to build a country where all could live the American dream: all, everybody, regardless of status, ethnic-racial background, or gender.

As I reflect on my own path to leadership, I know that it is grounded in the deep Christian faith and an equally deep faith in a limitless future that I learned from my parents. What a belief in God can do, and has done for me, is to give me the strength to overcome inaction, a fear of failure, what in the social sciences is referred to as “risk aversion.” It has given me the self-confidence to see potential and capacity where others see barriers and fear. If my grandparents had been risk averse, they would not have migrated to the U.S. Whatever obstacles my parents faced in their own lives, they always gave to the Church whatever money they could, my father taught religion classes, my mother led prayer groups, and in their later years they both worked to evangelize their friends and neighbors to see the value of living a Christian life. They were the translators for parents who did not speak English in our schools, they led scout groups, they always gave us whatever support we needed in our education and in our sports activities. God, community, family, and faith, and nation were one. Believing and giving were one. Practicing one’s faith to help others was the example they gave my siblings and me. What gifts of values and vision they gave me. My parents gave me the values and vision to work every day to be a transformational leader.

It is not hard to determine if you are a transformational leader: a leader who is not satisfied with only their own success, but has the values and vision to help their coworkers, their organizations, their churches, their neighborhoods, their communities, their country, to become stronger, more inclusive, more understanding, more loving than ever before. I have learned that it is very easy to determine if one is a transformational leader if one asks oneself three straightforward questions:

  • First, am I putting myself in a position where I am out of my comfort zone? Am I taking risks, informed risks, but risks without a guarantee of success? As a leader, am I pushing myself and my organization and profession to do our work better than we ever thought possible?
  • Second, would my parents, grandparents, and ancestors who sacrificed so much to come to this country and endure struggle and discrimination to give me the opportunities that I have, be proud of what I am doing and attempting to do? Would I welcome the chance to explain to them, that first generation of our families that came to the U.S., why I have the goals that I do and why I have made the decisions that I have made?
  • Third, am I helping others in my work and in my life, especially those who are not accustomed to being helped and supported? Am I expanding opportunities to those who have few? Am I working with those who many would not expect me to work? Am I empowering those whom most others are unwilling to empower to be full, competent, responsible members of our neighborhoods, churches, and nation?

These questions are simple, but answers to them only result from brutally honest self-reflection. The answers require thoughtful discernment, continuous reassessment, and, I think, very deep prayer. It is, however, from these answers that we are in ever stronger positions to be transformational leaders in our work and our lives.

I have a life blessed by God each and every day. The values of faith in God and faith in a limitless future possible in the United States have given me the self-confidence to see beyond what others see, to believe in what others sometimes see in me, and to see in myself what others, still at times, do not see in me. When I was a junior in high school a counselor told me that I should apply to participate in a summer science institute at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, ME. I had never been north of San Antonio, TX. My parents said ok, but I would have to work and raise the money for the portion of the airline ticket and health insurance I had to pay. I did. I went. My parents supported me. I was one of twenty students working with researchers in one of the world’s most renowned centers for the study of mammalian genetics. I was the only student who was not white. I had never seen a pine tree, gone hiking, owned a back pack, or knew about camping. My first night there I was scared. I missed my family. I prayed, and prayed, and prayed. I knew God was with me. I went to mass every Sunday at the small Catholic Church there. I worked hard in the lab of Professor Robert Blake, a biochemist from Berkeley. I worked on better understanding the amino acid content in the urine of lethargic mice. We were doing basic research on the underlying biochemistry of phenylketonuria, a kidney disease that can be fatal in infants. It was there that I learned about the schools in the Ivy League. I was out of my comfort zone, but my grandparents would be proud of what I was doing, and I was doing something very few Latino high schools students would ever have the chance to do.

With the support of my parents and my high school counselors I applied to Harvard, Yale, and Columbia and was admitted to all three. I went to Harvard in the Fall of 1973. I was one of sixteen Mexican American/Chicano students in an entering class of 1600. Of the sixteen there were two women and fourteen men. The vast majority of us came from families and high schools that had little if any history of sending students to the Ivy League. Half of us left before graduation. The other half of us graduated from Harvard. Two of my classmates were Bill Gates, Jr., founder of Microsoft, and John Roberts, current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. It was here that I decided to try to become a professor of political science. I chose to go to graduate school at Rice University in my home state. I focused my studies on better understanding communities that were historically marginalized. I wanted to enrich the academy to broaden its understanding of how institutions of American government could become more inclusive of all Americans. I wanted to be a professor who worked to make a university better able to serve all students, whatever their backgrounds, and including those whom universities were not accustomed to serving in their research, teaching, and service. I wanted to bring a distinct and enriching voice to the intellectual capacities of universities all across the country.

I worked to do this at the University of Oklahoma, Stanford, and the University of Washington where I held faculty positions. I think I made contributions to make each of these universities more inclusive than they were previously. When Notre Dame invited me back three years ago, it allowed me to now bring all of my academic experiences, and outside experiences in consulting and advising in advocacy organizations, state capitols, and Washington, DC, to help Notre Dame continue to grow. It was yet another opportunity for me to be a transformational leader, grounded in faith-driven values and a vision of the unlimited capacity of institutions and their leaders of higher education to be inclusive of all people who want to contribute to our country.

Am I out of my comfort zone? I know that I work harder now than ever before. Would my grandparents and parents, mis abuelos y mis padres, be proud of what I am doing? My Mom tells me so. Am I helping those who are not accustomed to being included? I am working to build bridges of understanding, commitment, and love in transformational leaders who see an America were all are included. We are all the children of God, are we not?

Graduates, push yourselves—and let yourselves—be transformational leaders for your generation and the next. My wife Charlene and I need you, my children need you, one day my grandchildren will need you. We all need you to commitment yourselves to be transformational leaders by having higher expectations of yourselves, higher expectations of your values and vision, than ever before. As our nation grows in its multiculturalism—along the lines of religion, ethnicity, race, sexuality, lines of historical division in our country—your values and your vision, your transformational leadership, are needed now more than ever to build an America worthy of your and future generations.

May God be with you as your follow your life journey. If you look to God, if you look to Christ, for your values and vision, I assure you, your work will be transformational and you will be transformed as well. Being a transformational leader helps you live a more virtuous life. Although I am far from perfect, I know that I have been a better person because I have committed myself to this work. Our entire country will be better as a result of your your doing so.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you on your very, very special day. Congratulations to you and your families for all you have accomplished, and for what you will accomplish in your future. Buena suerte y que Dios los bendiga. Good luck, and may God bless you.

Again, thank you.