Commencement, Summer 2009

Friday, July 31, 2009

On behalf of my faculty colleagues it is an honor to leave you with a few words which I hope will continue to resonate with you in the years to come.

I would like to begin by sharing with you a snippet of a conversation I had with my wife on the occasion of our 26th anniversary. Feeling sentimental, I remarked to her that, all things considered, I regarded her as the perfect wife. Expecting equally sentimental reciprocity, I must say that her response surprised me. “You’d better say that, buddy,” she said to me. And then she drove home her point by observing about me that I had not quite been the perfect husband, which only served—in her mind, at least—to further confirm that she had indeed been the perfect wife.


What is of particular interest about my wife’s definitive judgment is that I am the only husband she has ever had. While I know she thinks highly of her father as a father, I also know that according to her mother—that is, my inimitable mother-in-law—my wife’s father apparently is deeply flawed as a husband. I also know that she hears a similar indictment from her sister regarding my sister-in-law’s husband. In other words, while each of them has only been married once, and thus has no personal basis for comparison, my wife, her mother, and her sister each knows beyond a doubt that her husband is less than ideal. In my wife’s most intimate circle, the wives are perfect and the husbands less so.


Lest you think I am critical of my wife for finding me to be less than perfect, I want to hasten to add that on the contrary I regard my wife’s discernment as evidence of a quality that I personally value even more than I would her fawning affection. What my wife’s judgment confirms is that what she lacks in tolerance she more than makes up for with Platonic imagination. She has not experienced perfection in her mate but she has no trouble in delineating precisely in what areas he is lacking. 


I leave it to Mrs. Delaney to say whether our president, John Delaney, is a perfect husband, but I will say that whether or not he has something in common with me there is one way in which he has something in common with my wife. As my fellow vice presidents can attest, President Delaney frequently invites those of us who have the privilege of working with him most closely to imagine what kind of university we would build if resources were not a limitation. He calls this his “utopia exercise,” and none of us who gets to engage in these fantasies has any inability to do so. That is, we all have strong ideas about the qualities which define an institution uncompromised by fiscal or bureaucratic constraint, and thus in imagining the various ways in which UNF, no matter how good an institution it might be, could be made still better.


This way of audacious thinking actually has a long history in American culture. Running throughout the constitution of the typical American hero or heroine has been a strong streak of indomitability and resistance to conformity. As a case in point, you might recall the character of R. P. McMurphy in Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In one memorable scene McMurphy, precisely because everyone believes he cannot do it, attempts to lift off the ground a steel and cement instrument panel that weighs well over 400 pounds. “His arms commence to swell,” relates the narrator, “and the veins squeeze up to the surface. . . His head leans back, and the tendons stand out like coiled ropes running from his heaving neck down both arms to his hands. His whole body shakes with the strain as he tries to lift something he knows he can’t lift, something everybody knows he can’t lift.”


The fact that McMurphy ultimately can’t lift up an object this heavy does not diminish his stature but on the contrary only serves to magnify it. As he says of himself, “I tried, though. Goddammit, I sure as hell did that much, now, didn’t I.” Further, it is McMurphy’s undaunted attempt that inspires the narrator of the novel, the heretofore docile Chief Broom, to lift up the very object that defied McMurphy, throw it through a barred window, and escape from the oppressive asylum where he has long been held captive. Like his literary ancestor Huckleberry Finn, Chief Broom refuses to give in to the insidious effects of normative culture. As the irrepressible Huck Finn so memorably put it, “I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and civilize me and I can’t stand it.”


This is the charge and the challenge that I would like to give to you as you venture forth as new graduates of UNF. “Light out for the territory ahead of the rest.” Do not permit yourselves to become intellectually domesticated by convention or routinization. Do not accept the given as the ideal. Do not hesitate to attempt to lift objects beyond your strength, because in doing so you will either surprise yourself or empower others. Do not stop dreaming about how the places, the institutions, and
even the people whom you love can be helped or inspired to be even better than they already are. Do not let concerns about unavoidable constraints preempt you from defining the world you would construct if your power and your resources were unbounded. As President Delaney encourages his staff, define your ideal destination and only then worry about how to get there. Finally, I would exhort you to measure success precisely on the basis of the impossibility of ever fully achieving it. Like your education, the tasks that as university graduates are now most worthy of your talents might very well be those that you never finish.


Congratulations and good luck.