August 26, 2011
Thank you, Steve, and good morning, faculty and staff colleagues, students, parents, and distinguished guests. It is my great pleasure and honor to welcome you to Willamette University.
To convene new students at Opening Convocation is a persistent and compelling rite, repeated annually at Willamette and at other college and university campuses across the nation. Convocation symbolizes and celebrates the opening of a new academic year, of course, and our shared commitment as a community in Willamette’s College of Liberal Arts to an intensive model of education that does not merely teach our students a set of specific skills, but facilitates a capacity to think critically and objectively; and to bring to problems and issues a wide and deep historical perspective and understanding.
As others have pointed out, I am myself a product of Willamette, if indirectly. The son of a Willamette biology professor, who is today’s faculty marshal, I spent a lot of time on this campus while I was growing up. It was not always academic in nature – as a teenager, I washed dishes in Doney Hall, right behind this podium – but my early experiences here and with Willamette’s faculty informed my idea of what an undergraduate experience should be:
- A truly educated person has acquired knowledge across a broad spectrum, including the arts and humanities, mathematics, sciences and social sciences, and values life-long learning.
- At a university like Willamette, teaching and learning are the paramount activities, strengthened through active participation in research and scholarship.
- Low student-to-faculty ratios and small class sizes on a human-scale, residential campus are a powerful recipe to build a community and foster civic, intellectual and social engagement.
I chose Carleton College for its Willamette-like values and qualities, and from there, my journey took me to Princeton, Caltech, U.C. Santa Cruz, and now, nearly three decades later, back to the Willamette University campus, where it all began.
When I teach introductory astronomy, I always end my last lecture with a quote from T.S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
I now find this an apt description of what it’s like to return to your hometown and take over the family business.
Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, you have set sail to seek a newer world. In preparation for your journey, you had the unenviable task of sorting through piles of admissions materials, spending hours researching on the web and perhaps traveling hundreds or thousands of miles touring college campuses.
You have made a wise choice. So have we.
I’d like to take a moment to say a few words to the parents. The physicist in me would tell you that time travel is impossible, and yet, somehow, here you are. Even though you may have thought about this day a thousand times, it is hard to believe it has arrived, when only yesterday, it seems, you stood on the sidelines of another middle school soccer game, hoping against hope that either the rain – or the game – would eventually come to an end.
I can easily imagine your various reflections and mixed emotions this weekend – enormous pride in your son or daughter’s achievement, the sheer delight in raising an independent young adult, ready to fly solo – as well as the fear associated with leaving them in a new environment to manage life (somehow) without you.
During these college years, you will have the joy of watching your daughter or son transform into the person they were meant to be.
The President’s Office received this note over the summer from a parent of a student from Mercer Island, Washington, who wrote:
“My son transferred to Willamette last fall. I wanted to write to you because I have watched him transform at Willamette. The quality of the school in academics, and the caring environment, fostered by your professors and staff, have been instrumental in his growth.”
The father goes on to say, “I taught college for about seven years and education has always been our priority in our family. You cannot imagine the satisfaction and pride I have in what my son is being taught and learning at Willamette. He is learning how to learn, think and reason… Willamette University is a great value.”
Yes, the core of a liberal education is civitatas: or citizenship; women and men who have developed the virtues of historical perspective, rational thinking, moral compass, scientific inquiry, aesthetic competency and speaking and writing well. These are the engaged citizens who shape our nation’s culture, lead institutions and organizations and help make ours a better world in which to live.
My hope is that four years from now, this father’s sentiments will mirror your own.
I thank you in advance for trusting your most precious treasure to the Willamette community. I promise you that they shall be well educated and nurtured.
Now, to the students: I pledge to you that we will do our level best to provide you with an exceptional – even transformative – college experience.
Political comedian Jon Stewart1 once said, “As a freshman I was quite a catch. Less than five feet tall, yet my head was the same size it is now. Didn’t even really look like a head, it looked more like a container for a head. I looked like a Peanuts character if Peanuts characters had terrible acne. But what I lacked in looks, I made up for with a repugnant personality.”
Now, keep in mind that this is a guy who People Magazine named “One of 50 Most Beautiful People in the World,” thus proving that college has the capacity to transform even those who seem to others – and to themselves – the least likely to be transformed.
You are both capable and ready to be transformed – to become the person that you were meant to be.
Publisher Malcolm Forbes once said, “Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.” A liberal arts education will open your mind to great thinkers and your heart to the possibility that a great thinker lies in you.
Willamette is an intellectual community, not merely a congregation of individuals devoted to self-cultivation. We seek to understand our connectivity to social and political forms, to ideas of good and evil, to natural laws and the sciences, and to other forms of human expression and contemplation. We appreciate and create beauty. We seek a more complete knowledge of our place in and relation to cultures not our own, and to the life-sustaining elements of the Earth, Carl Sagan’s pale blue dot, set amidst the vastness of the cosmos.
It is in this sense that we educate you to serve humanity.
This is not the last journey that you will take during the course of your life. But it is one with the potential to have a profound impact on how you live your life. Your success here depends on your commitment to be successful. Do not squander this gift that is given to only a few. Respect it and work hard to making something good out of it.
Throughout your journey into self-discovery, find inspiration, as so many others have before you, in Willamette’s motto, Non nobis solum nati sumus, (Not unto ourselves alone are we born). The motto reinforces the premise that Willamette’s educational objectives are deeply rooted in and connected to human experience and human endeavor.
Which is an excellent segue to introducing our 2011 convocation speaker. Robert Hass is a liberally-educated and widely celebrated American poet, deeply rooted in and connected to the human experience – its triumphs and frailties and all of the liminal spaces between.
“You can aim for perfection,” Hass has said, “If you stay away from the hard subjects.”
An environmentalist and teacher of great eloquence, clarity and force, Hass served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1995-97, and Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2001-2007. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2005. A MacArthur Fellow and English professor at UC Berkeley, he has twice earned the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Hass has published several highly-regarded and award-winning books of poetry, and is author or editor of several other collections of essays and translations. His most recent collection of poems, Time and Materials, won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
With his lecture entitled “Meaning a Life: How to Become a Reader and a Human Being,” please welcome our distinguished guest speaker, Professor Robert Hass. [END]
1Commencement address, College of William & Mary, May 20, 2004.