President Chabotar’s Charge to the Class of 2007
Now it’s my turn.
In preparing a charge to the Class of 2007, I realized that we share a history. In 2003, many members of this class were not the only newcomers to Guilford College. I too was just settling in, with only a year since I arrived from the wilds of Maine. I too was excited about my new life in Greensboro. Except, in my case, it was all about Fresh Market, Harris Teeter, the Ralph Lauren outlet, obviously the Lexus dealership, and especially the weather.
You remember the story about the surveyor and the homeowner who thought she had lived in Maine for 30 years. The surveyor said, “Ma’am I am sorry to tell you but my survey indicates that your home is not in Maine but actually just inside the New Hampshire border.” “Praise God,” she responded. “I never could stand those Maine winters.”
In North Carolina, I looked forward to what I expected to be a quiet southern campus. Summertime, the living is easy, and all that. Boy, I was so wrong about the quiet and easy parts.
Remember 2003 and Nat Heatwole? Nat was a Guilford student who was arrested for hiding box cutters and other banned items aboard airplanes to showcase gaps in airline security. Even though Nat sent an email to the Feds confessing to the crime and included his phone number, it was five weeks before the FBI tracked him down like Tony Soprano. To be fair to the FBI, do you know how many Nathaniel Travis Heatwoles there are in Maryland?
The international media blitz that followed demonstrated how an omnivorous 24-hour news cycle can suddenly capture a community. When Agamemnon in the Iliad complained to the seer Calchas, he might well have been talking about CNN or Fox News: “Prophet of evil, never have I had fair play in your forecasts. Calamity is all you care about, or see…” But like the Greek ships off to Troy, the news vans eventually departed and for a while things returned to what passes for normal around here.
Now fast forward to 2007. After a physical and verbal brawl outside Bryan Hall one night in January, Guilford College again became a focus of worldwide attention. Tensions were underscored between athletes and non-athletes, students and administrators, and among the races in what is a demonstrably diverse institution that also aspires to be antiracist. Unacceptable violence and repulsive speech divided our community and, for a time, we lost what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature.”
The past four years—all or most of your college career— have been book-ended by these incidents. I want to take a moment to examine the lessons learned from them.
As both Nat’s story and the story of this year’s Bryan Hall incident played out, many rushed to declare “the truth.” Oscar Wilde was right when he said, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Rumor became fact more often than Britney Spears went into rehab and much faster than Sanjaya Malakar should have been booted off American Idol. Query #17 from Quaker Life and Practice reads: “Think it possible that you may be mistaken.” However, what originally looked like the truth about both incidents was, in the end, very different than what was eventually found. For example, over fifty witness statements about this year’s brawl contained almost as many different versions of the same event.
The second lesson is the importance of due process. I applaud an extraordinary passion for righteousness in a world of inequality and violence, but passion is not justice. Like Barbara Jordan, “My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total.” The Bill of Rights establishes a “due process of law” and guarantees “equal protection of the laws.” A person who wrote me after Nat Heatwole acted, declared, “He broke the law.” When I argued for due process to one off-campus critic of the Bryan Hall incident, he responded, “Who cares? It’s obvious they’re guilty.” Thankfully, Guilford College did not rush to judgment, and our student judicial process, with seven faculty and students spending thirty-seven hours deliberating, fulfilled its promise.
The third lesson is that words matter. With little regard for the law or even the dictionary, words like “terrorist” and “civil disobedience” were tossed around in Nat’s case, and “hate crime” after the Bryan Hall incident. Talking with lawyers and reporters requires Olympic level verbal skills, a lesson many of us learned first hand. One of the few media breaks we got this year was when Dean Aaron Fetrow was scheduled to be interviewed by Geraldo Rivera only to have it cancelled at the last moment because of headline news that Geraldo considered far more important to the future of the planet: the death of Anna Nicole Smith.
Finally, never lose your civility and respect for others. Name-calling can aggravate rather than resolve a dispute. Personal attacks once uttered may be as impossible to call back as the chimes of a clock tower. One of the few times that Richard Nixon and I ever agreed was when he said, “We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another—until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.” Guilford College was different. We did learn from one another as students and faculty determined through teach-ins, talks, and meetings for worship to come together in reconciliation and community to deal with our problems. I am proud of the College and I am proud of you.
Seek the truth, protect due process, words matter, and safeguard civility. Just add these four virtues to a portfolio of knowledge and skills, friendships and memories, and concerns for justice and excellence that Guilford College made available but you pursued and now you have so triumphantly earned.
Once more, let me turn to Oscar Wilde who said, “I am not young enough to know everything.” Today, as Guilford College graduates, there is no longer one student among you who is still young enough to know everything. And that is a wonderful thing.
Congratulations. I will not say good-bye to the Class of 2007 but rather see you around. Come back often. We’ll leave the light on.
May 5, 2007