September 23, 2016
I want to begin by thanking all of those who have been involved in planning and carrying out this program and also for this invitation to speak, which I consider a real honor.
I also want to thank each inductee for excelling academically to qualify for membership in this honor society. Nothing is more gratifying and affirming for all of us in academic affairs, and also for me personally, than for students to take full advantage of the resources we make available for you to excel. You have done that. Thank you!
On behalf of my colleagues, I also want to congratulate you for this achievement. Earning this honor speaks to your intellect, commitment, and discipline. These are the attributes that will propel you to even more and greater achievements in the future.
Of course, an irony of honors is that as soon as you are recognized individually you are immediately reminded that the honor is not yours alone. Without the support of family and friends, you would not be here today.
Honorees, please show them your appreciation.
To the family and friends of the inductees, welcome to Fayetteville State University. I hope this is not your first time on our campus. But if it is, I hope it will not be your last time.
As the provost, I have primary administrative responsibility for making sure that we have effective and high quality instruction, degree programs, and academic support. In my role, I have the benefit of getting to know the work of our faculty and staff across the university. And I tell you I am amazed by and grateful for the individual and collective talent, knowledge, and commitment of the faculty and staff and department chairs and deans.
Please show them your appreciation.
I want to say a special word about the faculty. The most important way that I can support students is by supporting the faculty. Each of these faculty members is quite remarkable. To be a professor is to embrace with all of your intellect and energy and time a set of questions and methods of inquiry for answering these questions as developed within a specific discipline. They are your most important resource – each faculty member is much more important to you than I or any other administrator. Learn from each one – overlook their idiosyncrasies – and benefit from their expertise. You will never again be surrounded by such intellectual power. Take advantage of this situation to learn as much as you possibly can, try to not just learn from them, but to see the world as they see it. Though bear in mind that none of their answers can be your answers – you have to discover your own answers.
As I reflect upon this occasion, I am reminded of three of my core beliefs about a university education that have emerged from my own intellectual, academic journey and which inform my decision making as a provost. I would like to share them with you briefly. A university education is important because
- Of its power to transform the way we understand ourselves, others, and our world.
- Of the opportunities it provides to learn from and cooperate with those with whom we disagree.
- It provides the skills, knowledge, and habits of mind that enable us to leave our communities better than we found them.
The transformative power of a university education
There are many benefits of a university education. We hope that each of you will find success in a career – I hope each of you makes lots and lots of money and that you will consider giving a little of it back to support future students. We also hope you will become responsible and engaged citizens, that you will assume leadership roles in your professions and communities, and that you will enjoy personal well-being – financially, physically, and socially.
The most fundamental value of a university education, I am convinced, is its transformative power. I was probably in high school when I first encountered those images of Gestalt Psychology, the ones where when you look at it one way you may see a vase, but then with a shift of foreground and background, you see the profile of two people looking at one another.
This experience of looking at one set of images but seeing different objects has always served for me as a metaphor for the kind of transformation higher education brings. You suddenly see things differently. You gain a new perspective.
To this day I remember the intellectual excitement I felt the first time I encountered Plato’s Cave Allegory – written nearly 2500 years ago – which suggests we are all like prisoners chained in a cave with our eyes fixed on wall on which shadows are projected and we mistake the shadows for reality so that one of the most basic challenges of life is to distinguish the “real things” from appearances.
Similarly I remember encountering Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, written about 1640, where he said to establish a firm method for discovering truth, he must first find one certainty, one truth that will withstand all doubt. He systematically calls into question the certainty of sense experience – I can be certain of the things I see and hear and touch right now – well no, because I cannot prove that I am not dreaming right now. Then he says, even if I am dreaming the truths of mathematics are certain – 2 =2 = 4 whether I am awake or dreaming. But, what if there is some all-powerful, evil genius who uses all of its power to deceive me. He finally concludes, that even if there is this all-powerful evil genius, it cannot deceive me about my own existence since I must exist in order to be deceived. So, Descartes concludes that it must be true that I exist so long as I think that I exist – so his famous – I think, therefore I am.
While I don’t accept much of Descartes’ overall philosophy, I remain impressed by his clarity of thought and the rigor of his analysis.
(Incidentally I ran into two former students in Lowe’s. They graduated 20 years ago. After we spoke briefly and I was walking way – he said, Descartes – I think therefore I am – I still remember it. I wonder how often Descartes is quoted in Lowe’s!)
I have enjoyed many other transformative moments in my university experience – and that is the great thing about working at a university, one is able to continue to discover and learn. The fact that you are here tonight suggests to me that you have had such moments. Those of you who went on the study abroad experience this past summer had these transformative moments.
The reason I think this transformative power of higher education is so important is because the most essential fact about ourselves as humans is our capacity to learn and discover and to come to arrive at new insights. Many years ago, Aristotle suggested that the experience of discovery of learning and discovery is one of the highest and most fulfilling experiences in life. And that is one of the reasons why I am in this profession.
As provost – above all else, I hope to make this transformative power of higher education available for each of you.
- The opportunity to learn from and cooperate with those with whom you disagree.
A university education includes many opportunities for debate, discussion, and analysis of ideas. And in that give and take of discussion, I think we learn what it means to learn from and cooperate with others, even those with whom we may not agree. Two key ingredients:
- The dialogue, debate, and discussion so essential to a university education – which challenges our beliefs and thoughts — helps us develop a healthy skepticism toward our own certainties. I think we learn the humility and intellectual courage necessary to recognize that consider the notion that when we are most certain of our views, we may very well be wrong. (With more than 200 Ph.Ds watching what I do and say you can be sure that many times that have shown how I am wrong.)
- The dialogue, debate, and discussion so essential to a university education – at its best — helps us to develop a respect for others in their unique individuality instead of understanding or seeing others exclusively in terms of our own needs or prejudices. In philosophy, we sometimes speak of the “principle of charity,” that is, the practice of reconstructing our opponents’ views as strongly as possible as opposed to creating straw man arguments that can be easily defeated. This sense of charity is essential to learning from and cooperating with those with whom we disagree.
Note the qualities that emerge from a university education – humility, intellectual courage, respect for others, and charity – that a university education — at its best – helps us to develop.
What I am describing stands in contrast to a troubling aspect of social media that has been noted by many. The concern is that even though our virtual communities are typically much larger than our real communities – we can connect with hundreds and thousands of others – but all too often those with whom we connect all see the world the same way we do. So somebody tweets, “Clinton’s a fool,” or “Trump’s an idiot” and thousand people tweet back, “For sure!”
We must beware of our virtual communities serving simply to harden our unquestioned opinions – and make us less likely to develop the healthy skepticism about our own views and the charity and respect for others who disagree with us.
One of the most wonderful things about a university community – you will encounter many who challenge you and that’s a good thing – because without such challenges you will grow intellectually or personally.
This is the second reason why I am in this profession. And as a provost, my goal is to promote this kind of university community.
- The most important benefit of a university education, I am convinced, is that it enables us to leave the world a little better place than we found it.
For this point I make reference to my grandfather, who did not go to college and didn’t even finish high school. Wisdom is certainly not the exclusive possession of college graduates. By one of those rich coincidences this event occurred when I moved into my first senior academic administrative role and it has shaped my understanding of my role.
My grandfather lived in a small town in the mountains and he was diagnosed with cancer and knew he had just a few months to live. One of his projects prior to his diagnosis was to establish a place to collect used clothing that could be used by people in need or homeless people in the community. One of his top priorities after the diagnosis was to make sure that this used clothing resource would remain in place after he died.
It is a small example of someone trying to leave the world a little better than he found it.
This story has helped shape my understanding of my role as an educator and provost. We want to help you develop the wide range of skills and knowledge – communication and thinking and quantitative analysis and theories and methods and practical applications of the deep knowledge you are developing. But the ultimate benefit of what you learn and can do is not for yourself alone. Your ultimate responsibility is to use all that you learn to leave your communities and the world a little better than you found it.
I urge you to approach the world and your life NOT as an “all-you-can-eat buffet” – to get as much for yourself as you possibly can, but rather – to extend the metaphor – figuring out how you can expand the buffet to include more people. That is, to do what you can to improve the lives of others.
So, to those of you being inducted into this honor society today, I am confident that you have experienced and will continue to experience the transformative power of a university education. I am also confident you have learned a great deal about learning from and cooperating with those with whom you disagree. Let me challenge you to remember that with the honor bestowed upon you today comes the responsibility to do your part in some small way or grand way to make the world a better place than you found it.
Again, thank you for this invitation, thanks to all who made this event possible and to all in attendance.
Congratulations to our inductees!