2012 CLA Commencement Valedictory Address
May 13, 2012
Good afternoon. Before I begin, I wish to uphold a long-standing Willamette tradition and ask everyone present to observe a moment of silence in honor of Joshua Bowman, a member of this class of 2012 who passed away in October 2008, as well as our departed friends and colleagues Professors Nacho Cordova and Bob Hawkinson.
It seems a little presumptuous of me, a freshman, to stand up here this afternoon talking to the senior class. It was a year ago that I first stood up here on this platform and was introduced as the 25th president of Willamette. At the inauguration in February I got the official medallion, but it was at Commencement I received the most important symbol of office: the famous Willamette weather machine.
In retrospect, maybe it seems a little foolish to entrust control of the weather to someone whose family name honors the Norse god of thunder, lightning, and storms.
I want to first add my own “thank yous” to Dr. Rodriguez and our other speakers today, to our musicians, and to the scores of staff and volunteers who have brought this Commencement ceremony and the entire weekend together so beautifully.
And I want to offer my personal thanks to Board of Trustees, especially those present on stage with us today, and to the whole Willamette community for the warm welcome I’ve received this first year.
I think the faculty would agree that one of the great thrills of teaching at Willamette is the chance to form lasting connections with students, and to share in the intellectual and personal growth that occurs over four years.
For you seniors, of course, I came in at the end. We only had a year together, with you in the home stretch. I’ve enjoyed hearing about your research projects, watching your theater and dance productions, attending your concerts, cheering for you on the field, and just talking in the Bistro and at Wula.
You and your fellow students have driven home an important lesson during this, my listening year. It is a lesson that I already knew intellectually, but had to learn again in a deeper way, and that is that the strength of Willamette, and the power of a Willamette education, is in the things we do together.
We often talk of the goals of a liberal arts education in personal terms. At opening convocation this year I talked of developing the virtues of historical perspective, rational thinking, a moral compass, scientific inquiry, aesthetic competence, and speaking and writing well. For the most part, these are interior attributes, habits of mind.
But at Willamette we know that the meaning in our lives comes in large part from our engagement with others. Yes, you should write and speak well, but for the purpose of effectively explaining, teaching, persuading, or inspiring others. We want our graduates to transform knowledge into action, which means it isn’t enough to have a good idea, you need to know how to build support for your idea, or to attract partners and investors. You need to be able to work effectively in committees. You have to know how to weigh evidence and confront uncertainty, not just to understand the world, but to make hard decisions that affect not just yourselves but those around you. You don’t learn ethical reasoning only for its own sake, but because you need to understand how to balance the interests of the many and the needs of the few. Diversity is not a matter of numerical and statistical goals, it is a strategy for harnessing the strengths and skills of the whole community, and a challenge to step outside yourself and see the world through the eyes of someone from a different background, a different faith, with a different language.
The national conversation about higher education today is largely about credentialing and about how we assess success in transmitting a particular body of knowledge. Politicians and pundits fret about practicality of outcomes, and whether particular programs of study are aligned with what they perceive to be the needs of employers, often ignoring that what employers themselves identify as the most important areas for more focus in higher education are written and oral communication skills, critical thinking and analysis, complex problem solving, ethical reasoning, and teamwork skills.
Your Willamette experience seems anachronistic and inefficient to those who imagine a future of higher education with tens of thousands of online students for a class at Stanford, or a recent single class packed with 2700 students at Virginia Tech.
But given a choice between watching a flashy lecture from the back of a three thousand student lecture hall, with a famous guest lecturer beamed in by teleconference, or standing in a small circle around a piece of art at Hallie Ford Museum with Ricardo de Mambro Santos or John Olbrantz, well, I know which experience I would choose.
Lost in the conversation about efficiency and the poorly informed polemics about the relative economic value of study in one field over another, is a truth that is understood by Willamette faculty: the structure of a class can be as important as its nominal content. You’ve all studied at least one field deeply, and have gained broad exposure to different scholarly traditions. But you have also articulated and defended your ideas in seminars, struggled with stubborn lab equipment, wrestled with the tension between form and meaning in your writing or your art, explained your problem set solutions to another student. These are not incidental aspects of your studies, they are the very experiences we intend you to have. This is the reason we keep our classes small, that we design our buildings with hearths for interaction, that we encourage and support faculty to involve students in their own scholarship.
And it is the reason we choose to be a residential college, with a rich set of co-curricular programs. Those of you who were opening days leaders or who spent this year shepherding the implementation of the bias reporting system or the Willamette ethic, or who achieved the rechartering of Kappa Sigma, or who mentored a future college student at Willamette Academy, or who played varsity or club sports will carry away not just memories, but experiences and skills that, in the words of Willamette’s mission statement, prepare you for lives of contribution and meaning.
The theme of departure has been in the air in recent weeks. I had the pleasure of attending the Chamber Choir’s final rehearsal of the academic year, and was allowed (because I brought a prospective student with me) to sit right there on stage in the midst of the choir while they sang their signature closing number, the Gretchaninoff setting of the Nunc dimittis, with Simeon’s words from Luke’s gospel: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.”
Likewise, in the choirs’ final performances a few days later, the Male Ensemble invoked the ancient wisdom of Freddie Mercury: “Goodbye, ev'rybody, I've got to go, got to leave you all behind and face the truth.”
Of course we’ve been saying goodbye in many different venues, from the senior athletic awards to the lu’au, and now, finally, here at Commencement, where, just as we do at Opening Days, we observe the ending of one thing and the beginning of another.
Today is my last chance before you leave to remind you of the motto, non nobus solum nati sumus, but I know you have that memorized by now, so I’m going to let you in on a little secret and share the rest of the sentence: non nobis solum nati sumus ortusque nostri partem patria vindicat, partem amici. The words are Plato’s, translated by Cicero. "We are not born, we do not live for ourselves alone; our country, our friends, have a share in us."
We have a share in you. As you go forth, to do well and to do good, to change the world, Willamette goes forth with you. We have high expectations. We will be watching.
And you, too, have a share in Willamette. This university was built by generations of alumni and friends: by the original founders who shared the $4000 cost of buying this land and the original building from the Methodist mission; it was built by those who dug the clay of this very field and made the bricks to build Waller Hall; it was built by the commitment of the board of trustees that has guided our work for 170 years; and it was built by the thousands of alumni who have continued to share a deep and abiding belief in Willamette’s mission and the importance of the work we do here, together.
If Willamette is to thrive in the decades ahead, it will be because one day you, like so many before you, will take up your share of the burdens of service and leadership. You will give, as they did and do, your guidance and support to this old historic temple, the place where your adulthood began, that helped you become the person you were meant to be and set you on the path to your very bright future.
And now I’d like to close with the traditional presidential blessing:
“When you depart from this commonwealth of learning, may your life bring you some work of noble note, may you find meaning in your commitment to others, and may your memories of Willamette be undying.”
Good luck and good cheer.