Facing the Rising Sun: A New Day Begun
Opening Convocation - September 20, 2007
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Board chairman, Attorney Willie “Flash” Davis, trustees, faculty, staff, alumni, friends and our most cherished resource, the students of Morehouse College. I would like to welcome all of you to this grand convocation of the academic year of 2007-08. I begin also by paying abiding tribute to President Emeritus Walter E. Massey and First Lady Shirley Massey. Their legacy of service, leadership and love for Morehouse is everywhere evident and our great college is so much stronger today.
Many new faculty members joined Morehouse this year; I’d like them to stand and be recognized. We celebrate new faculty and staff especially for the new energy and creativity that they bring. But, we acknowledge and affirm with great appreciation those faculty and staff who have invested many years in the Morehouse mission. Will all our faculty and staff please stand.
Among my fondest memories, indeed, the best memories of any alumnus, are the teachers who made Morehouse special. Indeed, I feel their presence here and now: Brisbane, Watson, Jones, Grant, E.B. Williams, McBay, Mapp, Kelsey, Barbour, Hume, Gloster, Nix, Brazeal, Haynes, E.A. Jones, Whalum, Sam Williams, and so many others. And, I would add, the staff who spent long years serving this College, Agnes Watson, Pop Warner, Hugh Gloster, Leroy Keith and Wiley Purdue.
Most of the teachers and staff were brilliant, some a bit colorful and quirky, but all of them loved Morehouse and they seemed to understand precisely why excellence at Morehouse was so important. They understood that by educating one young man well, they were making a long-term investment in the future of our families, the well being of our village, the vitality of our sanctuaries, the wealth of nations, and the betterment of humanity. Today, on behalf of the great faculty and staff of yesterday and of those who gather today, I ask and expect all employees to rededicate themselves to the core mission of Morehouse: the education of tomorrow’s leaders.
This is Convocation. At the root of the verb ‘convoke’ in Latin is the word ‘vocare,’ which means ‘to call’ as in vocation or calling. Note the related terms, ‘invoke’ or ‘invocation’ means to “call in” as with a prayer. “Evoke” means to “call out”. And, “revoke” means to “call back,” (something we never want to have to do with your degree). Today, we convoke, “call together.”
And what is the purpose of calling together at this time? At the beginning of an academic year, it is our good habit to re-affirm our institutional mission of liberal arts education, and, this year, to engage the vision of a new president.
But, before sharing vision language, I dare not go any further without a special word of appreciation for you, the men of Morehouse. I’d like the men of the senior class to stand and be acknowledged as the next wave of Morehouse Men. In eight or ten short months, these men will go forth to lead, study and serve.
To the entire student body, let me say that you do not know how much I admire you. And, indeed, how much all of us appreciate your presence. As I travel about, I brag about you. And, when things are not right on this campus, my equilibrium is disturbed and my impatience grows over every missed opportunity to achieve excellence. You, my brothers, are what Morehouse is all about. Many of you have come here against great odds, resisting every sort of obstacle and discouragement. You have defied the negative stereotypes and ignored all the odds. Now, we are privileged and obligated to provide a first-class education!
My vision for Morehouse builds upon that of my distinguished predecessor. Indeed, President Massey called us to the sort of excellence that would place us among the finest liberal arts colleges in the nation. Judging from most indicators, we have made significant progress toward that goal. Like every human institution, we have improvements that can be made and we will pull together to accomplish that! Only those who are looking far and looking forward will be in a position to seize tomorrow’s opportunities. So, let us imagine in order that we may plan and execute more than excellence – indeed, realize our greatest “in posse” - our greatest possibilities.
Our historical mission has been to provide an excellent liberal arts education primarily to African American men. I like to talk about this as the Morehouse mission of performing miracles with young men—of achieving Ivy League results with HBCU resources. We do this through four key practices:
- projecting high expectations
- supporting those expectations through group mentoring that includes faculty, staff, alums, chaplains and community leaders
- focusing on the comprehensive development of the student, cognitive, character and physical development, and,
- exposing our students to inspiring role models, most of them our alumni.
That has been “the Morehouse way” and that will certainly remain our core mission and strategy as we continue to build strength in that zone. Morehouse has become a national convener of individuals and institutions concerned with the plight and prospects of black men.
We have an opportunity to become the nation’s leading clearinghouse on research and leadership development aimed at fostering positive outcomes for black boys and men. This opportunity will require careful planning and investment of resources to ensure that we complement rather than compete with our core identity as a liberal arts college.
Our mission is profoundly rooted in our heritage, and my vision builds on that firm foundation to seize new possibilities on a golden horizon.
Consider the context for this vision. A few years ago, there was an Internet thought-exercise titled, “Something to think about.” It asked the reader to shrink the earth’s entire population to 100 people, with all the existing human demographic ratios remaining the same. This is not what we might look like or could look like, but what there actually would be – given the test population size. (Although it is several years old now, and some ratios may have changed, still it makes the point effectively.) The test indicates our breakdown would consist of:
14 from North and South America
and 8 Africans.
52 would be female
48 would be male
70 would be darker skinned people, 30 white people
70 would be from a religious tradition other than Christianity
30 would be Christian
89 would be heterosexual
11 would be homosexual
59% of the entire world's wealth would belong to only 6 people and all 6 would be citizens of the United States,
80 would live in substandard housing
70 would be unable to read
50 would suffer from malnutrition
1 would be near death
1 would be near birth
Only 1 would have a college education,
99 of them would not see this message, because only 1 would have a computer. Then, it concludes:
“When one considers our world from such a compressed perspective, the need for both acceptance and understanding becomes glaringly apparent.”
My vision is that Morehouse will become a global resource for educated and ethical leaders.
In our post 9/11 state of affairs, engaging the world with intelligence and integrity is the ultimate ethical challenge and opportunity. Working to create a just America is important, but it will be for naught if the rest of the world regards us with contempt because we failed to share our material and intellectual prosperity. In short, this nation and Western civilization need ambassadors who possess and promote enlightenment, integrity and peace predicated upon justice.
These are the very things our greatest and most generous alumnus did as he offered his life in service to others. I am convinced that we can and should pursue this course because it is in our institutional DNA. Morehouse leaders have always been far-sighted and focused on the global arena. From the era of President John Hope’s tours abroad to monitor black soldiers in Europe, to Benjamin Mays’s service at the World Council of Churches, to Walter Massey’s advocacy for peaceful applications of science to global problems, Morehouse has been and should be a force for good both here in “zip code 30314” and on the far side of the earth.
Although the field of institutions engaged in Internationalization is crowded, this faculty has begun to catalogue and clarify the Morehouse advantage here. I have learned much from them in reading and listening to discussions about our Quality Enhancement Project for our reaffirmation of accreditation in which the topic of ‘Internationalization’ has emerged as a priority. Moreover, the Morehouse faculty and student body are wonderfully diverse and will continue to include more international voices and perspectives. I celebrate the many students from Asia, Africa, South America, the Caribbean, and Europe who have chosen Morehouse as a college home.
Every college or university has its own unique ecology in which liberal arts education occurs. For Morehouse, we have a solid liberal arts curriculum organized into three divisions, guided by capable and committed teachers, researchers, scholars and public intellectuals. Our solid liberal arts core is complemented and buttressed by a variety of exciting and innovative centers, institutes and programs. I want all of these moving parts to work together like the high performance engine of a Porsche 911 (the finest sports car ever made). Working together requires that we communicate effectively across institutional boundaries. We cannot seize the future working in separate silos with little curiosity or openness to learning from our colleagues or to sharing ideas and information with them.
What is unique about Morehouse in the arena of educating thinkers and leaders for the global reality?
In addition to our institutional DNA, consider the message of our landscape. The Morehouse campus is situated within certain sacred landmarks that define our legacy and our destiny. Everything we do on this campus happens between the pointing finger of Martin Luther King Jr. at one end of campus and the far-looking gaze of Mays at the other end of campus.
Mays’s gaze seems to invite us to focus on the purpose and destiny of Morehouse men. King’s pointing finger seems to direct us toward the front lines of the social crisis where we are most needed. But, look again, Mays appears to be peering out at President John Hope, who stands watch over the old front gate, warning all who enter here to abandon their egos. King stands tall, but he is flanked on one side by theologian and alumnus Howard Thurman who was Dr. King’s chaplain at Boston University, and on the other side by Hugh Gloster, the architect of the modern Morehouse.
A mere walk through the campus is an encounter with greatness. You cannot walk to your classroom or the cafeteria without bumping into a Morehouse monument that evokes your possibility and invokes your responsibility. No other campus in America has these campus monitors and monuments calling us beyond ourselves.
In advancing our historical commitment to embracing a global mandate, there are three readings from the Morehouse College King Papers Collection that I would like every student, faculty member, staff person and trustee to read. First, King’s early sermon, “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” I believe this was a foundational message for him and many sermons emanated from it, including his Nobel Peace lecture.
Second, the justly famous, “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” It illustrates what a Morehouse Man can produce when he is suddenly, rudely locked away from the world without books, and must draw from his own inner resources. What could you produce if you were incarcerated unjustly for a week or two? King’s letter is an extraordinary moral treatise and response to racism and ignorance and would inspire the students who protest today in Jena, La. We pay tribute to them.
And third, the last chapter of his final book titled, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? That short chapter is titled, “The World House.”
That one is my focus here. In it, alumnus King opens with the story of how a novelist died and among his papers were suggestions for future stories. One of the most prominently highlighted suggestions was the following: ‘A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together…,’ King says.
This is the great new problem of humankind. We have inherited a large house, a great world house in which we have to live together__black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu__a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace. (195)
Then, in my favorite quote, he says:
|All people are interdependent…(W)hether we realize it or not, each of us lives eternally “in the red.” We are everlasting debtors to known and unknown men and women. When we arise in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge which is provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap that is created for us by a European. Then at the table we drink coffee which is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs we are already beholden to more than half of the world… All life is interrelated. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. (211)|
This is how Alumnus Dr. King focused on our inescapable global responsibility.
I will forever be grateful to Morehouse for providing me the opportunity in 1973 to spend my junior year at the University of Durham in England. Another classmate, Dr. Asa G. Yancey Jr., received the same English Speaking Union Luard Scholarship for study in Edinburgh, Scotland. That year became the foundation for part of my life’s calling of trying to situate the African American experience and the American story within a larger global narrative. The best of the Morehouse tradition urges all of us to de-parochialize our stories and to interpret our lives within this global frame of interdependence.
If this vision of internationalizing Morehouse works, people will soon say of Morehouse men, that they refuse to limit themselves to domestic concerns, but that they are informed and concerned about global politics, world markets, scientific and technological advancements, cultural trends and ecological issues. I want people to say, ‘You can tell a Morehouse Man, because his bags are packed and he’s headed out to offer hope and intelligent response where despair reigns.’ We will go forth not simply as tourists, students, or employees—but also as ambassadors.
Indeed, I would like to suggest that we need each of you to be post-911 global citizens and ambassadors for civility and social justice.
In order to fulfill this vision, I am calling for the renaissance of Morehouse College. This takes us back to our core mission. As I’ve said before, “Renaissance” means “rebirth.” This is another way of framing a call to excellence and greatness. Renaissance and renewal must occur across the board in order for us to achieve our ultimate mission of having a real impact, through education and service, on the multi-dimensional quality of life issues on the planet.
This is a call (vocare) to renaissance for our board of trustees, a dedicated group of stakeholders whom we will need to re-double their good efforts and to provide ever greater resources and guidance for this audacious journey.
We call for the renaissance of Morehouse alumni. That proud family must now become an even more generous family. Alumni must stretch and give beyond the reachable goals they imagined before.
We call for the renaissance of the Morehouse faculty—smart and devoted teachers. We are strong and we must grow stronger. Allow me to be specific. There are two initiatives that I have begun to negotiate and that are in their early stages. One partnership is with the historic Chautuaqua Institution in western New York. The Institution hosts a nine-week summer program organized around expert lectures on topics of global concern. It also includes an impressive set of programs on interfaith dialogue and recreation. The Chautauqua Institution would like to explore having Morehouse faculty as resources, while offering an opportunity to write and renew.
The other is an initiative with Emory University emanating from its strategic initiative on race and difference with which I was affiliated in my last assignment. Emory’s provost and I would like to bring students and faculty from Morehouse, Spelman and Emory initially to engage two important texts, W.E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk and William Julius Wilson’s The Declining Significance of Race. We envision those dialogues leading to other forms of mutually beneficial and substantial partnership.
Beyond these, I want to see renewed emphasis on first-rate writing skills reinforced throughout the curriculum every year of a student’s development. I want to see all Morehouse men exposed to the art of debate, disciplined argument, rhetoric, so that every Morehouse man becomes a confident public speaker. I celebrate and encourage more faculty to invite students into your own research projects so that they gain experience in exploring the frontiers of intellectual discovery and producing new knowledge. I am especially aware of our need to accelerate development in the Humanities Division. With the vigorous leadership of Dean Terry Mills, we are executing existing plans and will develop new ones.
I am aware of some of our basic infrastructure and aesthetic challenges that simply require the investment of more resources. I will ask the alumni, the board and our external stakeholders around the globe to stand and deliver as we resource the Renaissance.
We call for the renaissance of Morehouse staff, most of whom already labor long and hard to serve our publics. We must support their continued professional development so that each year we can see and measure improvement in student and customer service. Now, I am asking you to give more of your best support and service to our faculty, students, alumni and the public.
I cannot call for a renaissance of Morehouse students without beginning with the administration, faculty and staff. Let this Convocation be a time for all of us to rededicate ourselves to the Renaissance, a new level of excellence and ethics.
And, finally, we call for the renaissance of the men of Morehouse.
Men of Morehouse, you are the reason that we are here. Blood has been shed to bring you to this Convocation. Escaped slaves were tortured in pursuit of the literacy that we take for granted. In our darkest hour, the Negro Baptists of Georgia gave more than we will ever know to keep dear old Morehouse alive. Before the corporations and foundations of the land discovered us, our grandmothers and grandfathers put their dollars and prayers together to build this place. Even now, many of your families are sacrificing for you to be here.
That is why I am energized to call for a renaissance of dignity and decorum on this campus. So many -- have given so much -- for you few -- to learn and to give back in service to a global village in crisis.
Brothers, we must show young boys and men in this community and beyond that we can resolve conflict without resorting to violence. We call for the renaissance of ethics and character, saying ‘yes’ to personal class and community service. And, saying ‘no’ to plagiarism, ‘no’ to petty theft, ‘no’ to profanity in public spaces, ‘no’ to disrespecting and abusing women, and ‘no’ to the kind of personal dress that is inappropriate for an adult learning community.
Yes, this Renaissance will involve some sacrifice. But, it will be a shared sacrifice.
DuBois offers this word on the subject of sacrifice. Addressing the 1939 Howard University commencement, he declared:
And, so as we gather under this Convocation mandate, let us be inspired by the words of our own College motto, “Et Facta Est Lux,” and then, there was light.
In the book of Genesis, we confront a strange portrait of primordial chaos and darkness. The writers seem to imagine that whatever might have preceded the creation, it was formless and void. The Creator is surrounded by a mess, but sees possibility in the mess. The Creator is not discouraged, hopeless or powerless. The Creator begins to work, to make things happen. And, it begins with powerful speech. “Let there be light.”
“Et Facta Est Lux…and light was made!”
Fast forward to the nineteenth century, when our ancestors were standing in the ashes of a war, surrounded by a mess. Something in them said, “Let there be light.” And they made light. They didn’t wait for light to appear. They didn’t hope and pray that someone else would deliver the light. They made it! They made Morehouse.
And together, we will remake Morehouse. We will make renewed light – bright light. While facing that rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on ‘til victory is won.