President Chabotar’s Charge to the Class of 2004
I’m supposed to give the charge to the Class of 2004. What’s a charge? The dictionary says a charge means I am to impose a duty or obligation on you. Just what you need is another obligation after four or more years of tuition bills, syllabi, exams, pop quizzes, all-nighters, evading traffic on West Friendly and dodging security in the Binford parking lot. But OK, I’ll do it.
Another issue was what to say? Should I be all presidential and serious, or tell a few jokes. I knew that certain kinds of humor would be inappropriate on such a formal occasion. At the end, I decided to just be myself because today is your special day. It is a bittersweet time for you — one marked by achievement and graduation, but also a day when you will leave this place and embark on a new journey hopefully with following winds and fair skies.
In my decades in higher education, I have heard my share of commencement talks. Some windbags think that for their speech to be immortal it also has to be eternal. So I shall spare you that. But neither do I plan to emulate a former governor of Wyoming named Nels Smith, who, when it came his time to speak, went up to the podium, looked out at the graduates, and said, “You done good!” Then he sat down.
Well, I think all of you have “done good” to graduate from Guilford, but I also have a few other thoughts I want to share.
Guilford College is finishing a strategic planning process where we have identified anew our core values — or the essential, timeless, enduring tenets of the college. Core values are not developed in planning; they are there all the time and need only to be recognized. I want to address those core values and urge you to make them a part of your new life — to regard them as part of the legacy that your alma mater bequeaths to you today.
The first core value is community. We are committed to the cultivation of positive relationships among students, faculty, and staff. Where everyone feels welcomed and included.
In the Quaker tradition, we use questions or queries, to challenge ourselves to live in keeping with our values. Thus, in terms of community, my query is: Will you act toward building a community that promotes the intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual good of everyone?
Helen Keller, who knew what it was to overcome individual handicaps, once said, “Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.”
Community reminds me of teamwork. In his book, A Coach’s Life, former UNC-Chapel Hill basketball coach Dean Smith emphasized the value of teamwork. “Basketball is a game that is dependent on togetherness,” he said. At Carolina, the player making the shot made a habit of pointing appreciatively to the teammate who passed him the ball.
Diversity is another core value. We are committed to creating an academic institution where students from all cultures and backgrounds and with conflicting ideas may succeed.
My query is: Do you respect persons with different political and social viewpoints, and encourage them to speak out?
The renowned poet, Maya Angelou, has said, “I note obvious differences between sort and type, but we are more alike my friends, than we are unalike.”
I am proud of our diversity. We have students from about 40 states, including 21 from the frozen tundra of Maine. We have 28 students from 19 other countries. We have more persons of color among our faculty and students than most of our competitors. In terms of age, this year we have students from 16 years old in Early College to age 64 in our CCE program. Indeed, our three student speakers today exemplify our diversity. One of them, Lucas Wolf, took my course this spring on public policy and administration, showing how far he’ll go for a letter of recommendation.
Another core value is equality. We are committed to creating an institution and a society where everyone is appreciated and judged based on their contributions and performance.
My query to you is: What will you do to insure equal opportunities in social and economic life and in education for those who suffer discrimination because of their gender, color of their skin, where they come form, how they worship or whom they love?
Attorney Catherine MacKinnon reminds us that: “In a society in which equality is a fact, not merely a word, words of racial or sexual assault and humiliation will be nonsense syllables.”
The core value of excellence defines Guilford College. We are committed to creating high expectations for achievement in the classroom, on the playing fields, on the stage, and everywhere. Be sure to take the expectation of excellence with you as you leave. Never settle.
My query is: How will you support the Quaker ideal to develop your spiritual strength as well as intellectual and practical skills?
The English critic and historian Isaac D’israeli once said, “It is a wretched taste to be gratified with mediocrity when the excellent lies before us.”
To illustrate excellence at Guilford, I could mention several of our established academic programs, or I could point to the success of our relatively new major in forensic biology — the first of its kind in the state. But instead, I want to note the little things.
- A student working late in Sternberger this year to stage Seascape or Metamorphoses;
- The faculty member in Archdale or Duke trying to balance teaching, advising, research and service to college and community while trying to preserve some semblance of a family life;
- A groundskeeper or housekeeper taking that extra time to plant a garden near King Hall or to clean a lounge in Mary Hobbs; and
- A basketball game in Ragan-Brown, an art exhibition in Hege Library, fellowship with students in Founders Hall or a world class speaker in the Bryan Series in Dana Auditorium.
Integrity is a core value. We are committed to creating a community that acts with forthrightness and honesty.
My concern with Guilford College sometimes being a “fact-free zone” echoes President Kennedy’s warning of over 40 years ago that ” … the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinions without the discomfort of thought.”
My query to you is: Will you speak the truth even when it feels difficult to do so?
Guilford student Nathaniel Heatwole had integrity when he tested airline security last October. While we might debate whether this was true civil disobedience, Nat certainly saw a need and took individual action to try and be the change he wished to see in the world.
Justice is another important core value. We are committed to the peaceful resolution of conflict, sharing of resources and parity in educational opportunity.
Remember Dr. Martin Luther King’s protest that “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
My query is: Will you promote the Quaker peace testimony in your personal and professional relationships and in the larger society and world?
Before the Civil War, Quakers at Guilford College helped to let freedom ring for countless slaves via the Underground Railroad. The strong interest in justice that caused these Quakers to oppose slavery is part of the legacy of this College. Take it with you.
Our final core value is stewardship. We are committed to making decisions that ensure the long-term survival of this institution.
John Woolman, the quintessential Quaker, reminds us that “all we possess are the gifts of God to us; now in distributing it to others, we act as his stewards.”
My query is: How will you cultivate the habit of being generous with your resources to help meet the needs of others less fortunate than yourself?
We had a majestic example of good stewardship in Guilford’s Our Time in History campaign that concluded last year. Supporters of this college made gifts and pledges totaling $56.4 million. Over 7,000 alumni contributed. Many of you have received scholarships from those gifts. There’s no way you can ever repay those donors who helped you — but you can help others who are yet to enroll here. You can pass it on.
So there you have it — seven core values: community, diversity, equality, excellence, integrity, justice, and stewardship. They have served Guilford College magnificently for 167 years.
Passing these core values on to you reminds me about the new preacher who moved into the church rectory. He noticed right away that the lawn needed mowing, and the church handyman showed him the lawnmower. It was a gas-powered mower and had one of these ropes that you pull on to start the engine.
So the preacher went out there and pulled on that rope and pulled on it, and pulled on it — but the engine would not start. The church handyman chuckled and said, “I forgot to tell you one thing. You have to cuss some while you pull on that rope in order to start it.” The preacher was shocked, “Oh, I couldn’t do that. When I became a Christian, I deleted all those old cuss words from my memory.” “Never you mind,” said the handyman. “You just keep pulling on that rope and they will all come back to you!”
So that’s what I would say to you about making our core values an integral part of your life. Just keep working on it. Just keep pulling on that rope. And as Churchill said, “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.”
So congratulations on this joyous commencement day and also good luck and God speed in all the years of your lives. Be well. Do good. And thank you.
May 8, 2004