Friday, August 26, 2022

Convocation Remarks 2022

 

 

 We hosted opening convocation yesterday, welcoming 624 new students and their families to Susquehanna. Below is the message I shared with them.

Convocation Remarks

Convocation means to be called together – from vocare meaning voice. We are called together to signal your entry into the life of this university and to celebrate the beginning of your matriculation. It is an opportunity to declare a new beginning for all of us, to be drawn together with one voice to affirm what we are called to do.

 

Students you are beginning an extraordinary chapter in your lives, but in addition to your excitement, I know you are experiencing cognitive overload. This is a moment in your lives when you are likely experiencing the most concurrent change: a new community; a new role; soon to be new classmates, neighbors, and friends; will they like you, will you like them; a new academic experience with a different kind of faculty (you’ll soon discover how great they are) and a different set of academic responsibilities. For most of you, for the first time, home has just become a place different from where your family lives.

 

You are all hitting your limits of newness. You are probably also reaching your thresholds for the unfamiliar and different, and here I am in a pink velvet robe acting as if you will remember anything I say to you today.

 

In addition to formally welcoming you and signaling the beginning of Susquehanna’s 165th academic year, I believe that this is an important occasion to affirm why you are here and to give you some basic, but critical advice on how to make the most of your college experience.

 

As many of you already know, Susquehanna’s mission statement is: We educate students for productive, creative, and reflective lives of achievement, leadership, and service in a diverse, dynamic, and interdependent world.

 

More succinctly, we help students to become better neighbors and better citizens. We are here to help you discover your best selves and to prepare you to live your lives most fully. Those are lofty goals, but I have the privilege seeing them fulfilled every day. The greatest rewards are reaped by the students who dive in deepest and are most present.

 

Every spring, seniors lament that their four years went by much too fast, and they scramble to make every possible remaining connection.

 

Life goes by faster and faster, and your college years especially will go by in the blink of an eye. It is an experience much like how almost 1300 years ago, the Venerable Bede described the passing of our lives in the kingdom of God. He wrote:

 

The present life of people here on earth (as a comparison to our uncertain lifetimes) is like a sparrow entering the house, and flying through swiftly, it enters one window and straightway flies out another, while we sit at dinner in wintertime…the room made warm by the fire kindled in our midst while all places outside are troubled by the raging tempests of winter rain and snow. For that moment, the sparrow feels not the winter storm, but after a brief moment in passes again from winter to winter and escapes our sight. So, our lives appear here for a brief season, and what precedes and follows we surely know not. [1]

 

You have the wonderful privilege to savor the comfort and luxury of that metaphorical warm banquet room. My fear is that you will miss out on truly life-changing relationships because of your own fear of missing out on superficial virtual engagements. You are all vastly interesting people, which means you are surrounded by vastly interesting people. You are in a beautiful place brimming over with opportunities. Put down your phones and revel in being here with each other. Dive in and make the most of your time here, because we need you to be enlightened and able leaders prepared and eager to steer our weary world to better times.

 

We are here because deeply engaging in the life of the mind and opening ourselves up to the holistic world view that is the core of a liberal arts education prepare us to make good and often difficult decisions.

 

Each of us hopes to seek the truth, and we find our calling, our vocation in advancing what we believe to be in our own, and hopefully our collective best interest. This is what it means to have a life well lived.

 

This is why you are here. This is why we are all here.

 

The faculty and staff at Susquehanna are here because they share a commitment not to tell you what to think, but they will prepare you to discern what is true, what is good, and what is just.

 

They will prepare you to figure out what matters and why, and more importantly, they will help you to develop the skills to be advocates for the causes that become your passions.

 

As a living learning community, we must always strive to be better. We must commit to being a community where all members feel welcome, respected, loved, and able to flourish.

 

This is what we are called to do. This is our one voice, our vocare.

 

We must be an example for our neighbors. This is what is means to achieve, lead, and serve. This is what it means to be Susquehannans.

 

At the laying of the cornerstone of Selinsgrove Hall in 1858, which was the founding of this great university, Joseph Casey stated, “Education, in its legitimate sense, includes not only the cultivation of the mental powers, but the proper training and development of the moral sentiments and faculties, and its true object is to ‘make us not only wiser but better…’”[2]

 

Today, I invite you to your graduation in May of 2026. Each year, I give this charge to the graduates. Today, I challenge you to commit to doing all you can during your time at Susquehanna to meet this charge to your fullest.

 

Achieve all you can for good,

Lead with honor and humility,

Serve with love and pride,

And always strive to be not only wiser, but better.

 

Welcome home!

 



[1] Adapted from Bede: Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, translated by J.E. King, 283-285. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press—Loeb Classical Library, 1930

[2] Joseph Casey, Esq.: “Remarks delivered at the laying of the corner-stone of the Missionary Institute at Selin’s Grove, PA, September 1, 1858.”

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

The Bully Pulpit

 

The Bully Pulpit

 

I recently attended a lecture given by Jon Meacham at Chautauqua Institution where he was introduced as “One of America’s leading public intellectuals.” Meacham responded with his trademark self-effacing humor and a quip to the effect that just by being a public intellectual these days qualifies you as a leading one.

 

We certainly have a surplus of pundits, or at least talking heads promoted as subject experts across the spectrum of news outlets and media feeds, but Meacham may be right in recognizing that we are experiencing a time in which the recognition and value of public intellectuals has ebbed.

 

This would align with the precipitous decline in Americans’ faith in institutions. A recent Gallup poll showed that across parties, Americans are expressing record low confidence in institutions ranging from congress to newspapers to medical systems and public schools. In Meacham’s talk, he noted that in 1965 76% of Americans believed the U.S. government would do the right thing most of the time, and now, that number is 9%. If we don’t trust institutions, it should be no surprise that we may feel the same way about high-profile individuals.

 

What I find intriguing is that at the same time, campus communities seem to want their leaders to speak out on a wide range of topics.

 

When I was student in the 1980s, I don’t recall the president of my alma mater publicly opining on any major issues of the day. That was typical across higher education. In recent years however, students, faculty and staff, and more and more alumni have expressed a desire for their institutions to articulate a position, typically through the voice of the president, on major events and issues.

 

College presidents do have the luxury and the curse of possessing some of the few remaining bully pulpits outside of social media. As I have written before, we can and should be political, advocating for our institutions, our students, our employees, and our alumni, but we can’t be partisan

 

Like many of my peers, I have made public proclamations about Pell funding, DACA students, research funding, and academic freedom, but I stay far away from endorsing candidates or parties. Public partisanship from campus leaders could jeopardize an institution’s access to Title IV funding, but lobbying and advocating for policies and programs that benefit our constituencies is part of our jobs.

 

Often, we are called upon to make statements that are less directly aligned with our duties as institutional advocates, including topics of social justice, human rights, geopolitical conflicts, and legal issues. Determining when to speak and when to remain silent can be a challenge. We want to be responsive to members of our communities in need of support, but that can run the risk of alienating others, or creating new institutional lightning rods. It is also important to recognize that expressing one’s personal beliefs may be incongruent with articulating an institutional message.

 

According to a recent survey from the Chronicle of Higher Education, fear of sparking controversy has led many presidents to become less inclined to speak out on pressing current issues. That survey revealed that the following percentages of respondents indicated these topics are “so controversial that you self-censor your public remarks to avoid creating controversy for you or the institution.”

 

            National politics                                                83%

            State politics                                                      66%

            Gender/sexual identity                                      41%

            Racial justice                                                      37%

            Diversity, equity, and inclusion                       32%

            Free speech                                                        20%

            Covid-19 policy                                                   15%

            Academic freedom                                             13%

 

An institution’s mission, and in some cases, its religious affiliation, as well as if it is public or private, all affect whether a president can or should make proclamations on specific issues.

 

Universities are built on principles that create institutional identity. One of the duties of president is to foster and promote that identity. Another is to cultivate meaningful discourse on topics of consequence on our campuses and beyond. That is a core foundation of our enterprise.

 

A number of my colleagues at sister institutions have created decision trees and/or guidelines to help them determine when to comment and when to defer. I use our institutional Mission Statement and our board’s Statement on Ethical and Inclusive Living as touchstones in making that determination. When the conclusion remains ambiguous, I consult board leadership.

 

Most of the time, that works. There will always be members of our extended community who take exception with any position I articulate. That’s what one should hope for in an intellectually diverse community.

Welcome!

Happy Thanksgiving