Commencement, Spring 2009

Friday, April 24, 2009

On behalf of my faculty colleagues I would like to leave you with some thoughts that I hope will continue to resonate with you in the years to come. Specifically, I would like to address the future of the University of North Florida and how this might bear upon your own future. Even as you are on the verge of leaving UNF behind, there are ways in which your lives and the life of the university will be inextricably bound together no matter how far afield you might travel in space and time.

 

I am sure that most of you are aware of what can fairly be called the turmoil that characterizes higher education in the State of Florida at the current time. Every college and university in the State, from the smallest and most humble to the largest and most renowned, is being buffeted about by the turbulent economy. Students and their families will likely feel the impact of the economic downturn when they have to begin paying higher tuition than has historically been the norm in Florida, which heretofore has prided itself on charging the lowest university tuition in the nation. Institutions are feeling the effects of the downturn in the form of reduced resources for hiring and retaining faculty, purchasing equipment for research, and carrying out other critical functions. At the same time, there is a somewhat belated but nevertheless growing recognition among our legislators that if Florida is to remain a vibrant state that will continue to provide its residents not only with essential social services but a high quality of life, it is the universities which will be key to achieving this goal through their unique ability to generate intellectual and social capital and thus the kind of economic and cultural development that is founded on and that attracts a well-educated, productive citizenry.

 

In the face of shrinking resources a university can only hope to navigate through these challenging times by being absolutely clear about its priorities and ambitions. I am pleased to say that UNF possesses such clarity. It will get gradually bigger, and I have no doubt that both in measurable and less tangible ways it will continue to get better, but I am confident that UNF’s purpose will not waver. UNF is unlike those massive state institutions focused exclusively on research, and it is equally different from the community and state colleges whose focus by necessity will remain on teaching. Instead, harkening back to the original meaning of university as a “communitas magistrorum et scholarium,” a community of teachers and scholars, the faculty of UNF share a dedication to educating their students intellectually and civically through direct engagement in the processes of discovery, learning, and application, whether that engagement take place in the classroom, the laboratory, the field, the local community, or the world beyond Jacksonville. This dedication of the faculty is grounded in and perfectly captured by UNF’s mission: to “foster the intellectual and cultural growth and civic awareness of its students, preparing them to make significant contributions to their communities in the region and beyond.”

 

It is important to note about this mission that it entails equal responsibility for faculty and students alike. UNF faculty are charged with fostering the growth and awareness of their students. It is only UNF students, in turn, who can validate the university’s mission through their actions after they leave UNF. Indeed, this is where the future of UNF and the future of its graduates are deeply interdependent. If, looking back in time from some point in the future, UNF can claim to have been successful in carrying out its mission it is those of you who are about to receive your diplomas who will have to provide the proof of our effectiveness by conducting yourselves in the manner in which my colleagues and I have hoped to prepare you. I implore you to take this responsibility seriously, not just to affirm UNF’s institutional integrity, but because the contributions you are now prepared to make to your communities are urgently needed by a world whose one certainty is the accelerating rate at which it is changing.

 

In a world characterized by change the quality of the contributions you make to it will be a function of your ability to change as well. I would like to provide you with two metrics by which you can gauge your own ongoing growth as educated and caring UNF graduates. There is a lovely passage towards the end of James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses, his modern-day retelling of the Odyssey, in which the narrator lists the contents of the library of Joyce’s unlikely hero, Leopold Bloom. The collection is modest but nevertheless it reflects a broad range of interests extending from the philosophy of the Talmud to modern astronomy. You have now reached a point in your lives at which you must become your own teachers. You might do so, I would suggest, by accumulating a library like Leopold Bloom’s that will serve to deepen what you already know and extend your knowledge into domains you have yet to explore. You must buy books, borrow books, listen to books, but—as many of you did at the end of each semester with your textbooks—you may no longer indulge in the custom of selling books, for they are the food you need to nourish and grow your intellect. Dare I say that when it comes to the acquisition of a library you should never finish?

 

Second, if the quality of your thought is informed by what you read, then the quality of your character is to a large extent not only confirmed but more fundamentally constructed by what you do. You cannot merely be a good person simply by thinking of yourself as such; on the contrary, as folk wisdom suggests, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Instead, you must achieve your goodness by demonstrating that goodness to others. Goodness, in other words, is a function not of mere intentions but of real action taken on behalf of others. To be a citizen one must act like a citizen. Both Odysseus and Leopold Bloom, solitary and reflective heroes by disposition, only fulfill their heroic potential when they return home to assume active responsibility for their respective sons and wives, and by extension, their communities. So, if your first metric is a measure of what you read, the second metric is a measure of what you do. And dare I say again that when it comes to doing good, you should never finish?

 

I am hopeful that, like Odysseus and Leopold Bloom, if you spend your lives thinking deeply and acting nobly, you will create lives of great value both for yourself and others. Those of us who are remaining behind at UNF are depending upon you to do so. Your future and our mission are now in your hands.

 

Congratulations and good luck.