About Morehouse

Inaugural Speech

February 16, 1996

Note: On June 1, 1995, Dr. Walter E. Massey, class of '58, was named ninth president of Morehouse College. A noted physicist, Dr. Massey has served as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of California, vice president for research at the University of Chicago, director of the Argonne National Laboratory, and director of the National Science Foundation.

I have said it before. But I must say it again: It is good to be back at Morehouse. I am honored to stand here today. Indeed, more than honored, I am humbled. The task of leading this marvelous institution into the 21st century is an enormous responsibility, a challenge I eagerly, but solemnly, embrace.

In meeting the responsibility of leadership entrusted to me, I pledge to draw on my career as an educator, my experience as an administrator, my skills as a scientist -- and my uncompromising commitment, as a Morehouse man, to the highest standards of excellence and integrity, to the standards embraced by all members of the Morehouse family, but best exemplified by our remarkable and beloved Benjamin E. Mays.

This day, this inauguration, truly is an event unsurpassed in my academic life, the most significant since I arrived on the Morehouse campus as a freshman almost 42 years ago. Today also marks an historic occasion for the institution and provides a forum unlike any other. An inauguration speech affords a rare opportunity for a new president to offer advice regarding one's own institution, higher education in general, or a range of world affairs -- to reflect on all manner of vital issues.

And, in these contentious times, there is no shortage of vital issues to examine, ranging from the role of government and the methods we use to address social and economic challenges -- to global warming and the budget deficit -- from grave concerns about the nation's readiness to compete in an increasingly technological, international arena -- to the often emotional issue of affirmative action.


"I pledge to draw on my uncompromising commitment as a Morehouse man to the highest standards of excellence and integrity -- standards best exemplified by Benjamin E. Mays."


We face a disturbing rate of crime, a tragic level of teen pregnancy, poverty more persistent than we could have imagined a few decades ago, a rising intolerance that threatens to polarize us as a society -- and, meanwhile, the plight of black men is painted in grim statistics almost daily on the evening news.

As educators, we are acutely aware that our enterprise is often at the center of the debate, buffeted by controversy over issues ranging from the courses we teach, to radical reductions in student financial aid funding.

There is no dearth of challenging issues on our horizon. Indeed, I am reminded of the old Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times." Well, these are interesting times.

Yet, when I consider this daunting array of issues in the context of the heritage and rich traditions of education at Morehouse, another Chinese saying comes to mind, a proverb familiar to many members of our College family:

It is better to light a candle in the dark than to curse the darkness.

That ancient wisdom, as many of you know, appears on the title page of the book, "A Candle in the Dark" -- a history of Morehouse College, authored by Morehouse alumnus and professor of French, Edward A. Jones.

Both the proverb and the title of Dr. Jones' work capsulize the mission of Morehouse College, which, for 129 years, has served as "a candle in the dark" -- a source of knowledge and inspiration for generations of African American men -- men whose own contributions to society have helped to light the way for countless other Americans of all colors and backgrounds.

The year was 1867, during the confusion and chaos that followed the Civil War, when the candle was lighted -- lighted in the humble basement of Springfield Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia, with the founding of Augusta Institute, the school that would become Morehouse College.

That candle, the vision of three men with a steadfast commitment to serving God and society, helped to light the darkness of ignorance that engulfed millions of newly freed black men, women, and children -- an entire people denied for centuries the most fundamental elements of human dignity.

Through the remainder of the 19th century, the candle burned brightly, preparing young black men to learn and then share their learning with others -- to lead, serve, and sustain their people -- to use education as a foundation stone to build a healthy community life for African Americans.

Through the 20th century, the candle has continued to burn brightly, preparing young men for the growing opportunities of an industrial society at its peak -- for the advent of the information age -- for leadership roles in the civil rights movement that helped to shape the most diverse and inclusive society the world has ever known.

Today, the candle still burns brightly for Morehouse and for colleges and universities nationwide as we consider the mission of higher education in the 21st century and the challenges on our horizon. In fact, that mission, unlike the world in which we live, has remained rather constant since W.E.B. DuBois defined it almost a century ago in "The Souls of Black Folk." I quote:

The function of the university is not simply to teach bread winning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools or to be a center of polite society. It is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.

End quote.

Higher education today remains an "organ of that fine adjustment." On the other hand, "the real life" that Dr. DuBois mentioned is now the global metropolis in which we live, while our "growing knowledge of life" is fueled by the burgeoning modern technology that is shrinking our world.

If, then, the mission of education remains relatively constant, our task is simply to determine how to fulfill that mission as we meet today's challenges. They are many. I will address only three today.

One of the challenges is cultural. We live in a world where technology and global communications are shattering traditional, geographic barriers -- blurring divisions among cultures, religions, and races -- and rendering the term "minority" less and less meaningful.


"In a global context, the term 'minority' is virtually irrelevant."


In some parts of the country already, "minority" is no longer a useful description of any group. California, where I lived before returning to Atlanta, frequently describes itself now as a combination of various minorities. Although that state may offer an extreme example, it is not unique. Many urban areas throughout our nation are experiencing similar trends.

In a global context, the term "minority" is virtually irrelevant. Many anthropologists argue that there are one hundred or more racial groups. Clearly, racial distinctions, which have never enjoyed much biological validity, do not lend themselves readily to simple classifications such as black, white, red, yellow, or brown.

In today's world, who are the real minorities?

Today, a black person, who is called a "minority" in St. Louis, can be in Johannesburg in a few hours and part of the "majority." A Chinese-American, who is considered a "minority" in Atlanta, can be in China within hours and a member of the world's largest ethnic group.

What kind of education is needed in a world where our careers, family structures, and intellectual and social development often require us to work and socialize with individuals from various cultures throughout our international community?

Such questions, which are important to every institution of higher education, are of particular relevance to Morehouse College, where, as an historically and predominantly black, all-male institution, we must ask also: How do we identify and embrace global opportunities and challenges and, at the same time, maintain our traditions?

Another challenge we face, as we adjust to the new realities of the 21st century, is moral and ethical education. Within the international tapestry is a rich diversity of race, religion, culture, and language -- a metropolis of neighborhoods with varied traditions and values. Advances in communications technology, in physical and electronic travel, give us the opportunity and obligation to understand, more than ever before, each other's cultures.

"We must cultivate character built on a moral and spiritual awareness of others -- a capacity for love and respect for all people of all backgrounds."

Indeed, higher education must instill in students a set of values appropriate to our international community. We must cultivate character, character built on a moral and spiritual awareness of, and appreciation for, others -- a capacity for love and respect for all people of all backgrounds.

As Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out: "We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character -- that is the goal of true education." Morehouse has developed intelligence and character in young men for generations -- and with extraordinary results.

There is perhaps no better testimony to our success in that arena than the College's remarkable tradition of service to others, a tradition imbedded in our original mission to educate freedmen and evidenced today in many ways, including our students' outstanding commitment to tutoring children in local elementary schools and a host of other community service activities.


"We make our living by what we get," Benjamin E. Mays often reminded us. "We make our life by what we give."


Still another challenge in the new global society is intellectual, a challenge introduced by the same technological advances that are facilitating our appreciation of other cultures. One aspect of this challenge -- and it bears directly on our competitiveness as a nation in the new global marketplace -- is our need to produce more scientists, especially among African Americans, who are grossly underrepresented in scientific and technical fields in relation to their numbers in the general population.

As educators, we must do a better job of cultivating the interests and aptitudes of our students in mathematics and the sciences earlier in the pipeline, from kindergarten through secondary school, as well as at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Indeed, given the current global environment, every institution of higher education must better prepare its students to face a host of cultural, moral and ethical, intellectual and other challenges as we strive to adapt to the new realities of our world.

Historically, Morehouse has focused its preparation of students primarily on building leaders for community and national roles. But today, we must expand our mission to produce leaders also for the global metropolis that the world will be in the next century.

How do we accomplish this? One of the first things we can do is to appreciate and harness the diversity within our own communities.

The United States is often described as an ethnic microcosm of the world. For that reason, campuses throughout American higher education often reflect a substantial amount of diversity. We must draw on that diversity and reach beyond it to prepare our students for the vastly greater diversity of the global metropolis.

Even at Morehouse, an historically black college, we enjoy considerable diversity. It is true that we share common themes, common aspirations, and common historical, ethical and cultural traditions. Yet, our College family reflects various backgrounds -- socially, economically, and geographically. Our faculty includes scholars from around the world, and our student body represents almost every state in the nation, as well as at least a dozen countries. To be citizens of the world, we will learn first here at home to respect one another's differences -- to value that which makes each of us unique -- and human.

Diversity at Morehouse is not limited to our own campus. We enjoy a special, historic relationship with Spelman College, one of only two predominantly black, all-female institutions in the nation. And, we are one of six members of the Atlanta University Center -- the world's largest consortium of historically black institutions of higher education and a wealth of intellectual and cultural variety.


"A basic prerequisite for appreciating diversity is appreciating one's self."


In addition, our hometown of Atlanta has, for decades, set an international standard for racial harmony. Just as Morehouse played a key role in establishing Atlanta as a beacon of progress in race relations, the College will serve as a catalyst in further establishing the city as one of the world's most vibrant, new international centers.

Of course, a basic prerequisite for appreciating diversity is appreciating one's self. I have found that there are common characteristics of individuals who have satisfying educational experiences that prepare them to live and thrive in an increasingly diverse world.

Among them are: 1) a high level of confidence in their own intellectual competence; and 2) a relaxed, natural sense of self-worth and self-identity as individuals and as members of a particular social or ethnic group. Such individuals are not apprehensive about who they are -- where they come from or their ability to face new and unanticipated challenges.

Creating an educational experience that cultivates these characteristics in our students is something Morehouse has done exceptionally well for more than a century. And we will continue that tradition as a strong, undergraduate, liberal arts institution with a focus on producing outstanding leaders.


"We must expand our mission to ensure our students are prepared to assume leadership roles not only in a more diverse America -- but in the steadily shrinking world we share."


But today, we must expand our mission to ensure that our students are prepared to assume leadership roles not only in a more diverse America -- but in the steadily shrinking world we share. We will prepare our students for the new global metropolis by drawing on the strengths of our past to cultivate within ourselves and our students an intellectual confidence and curiosity that will equip us for lifelong learning and growth.

To do so, we will use -- first and foremost -- our curriculum, the courses we teach, the literature we read, and the range of interactions and experiences we facilitate between students and faculty.

We also will prepare our students for the new global metropolis by enabling them to share knowledge, companionship, support and, yes, friendship -- in the deepest sense of that word -- with individuals of all races, religions, and ethnic backgrounds.

To do so, we will employ extracurricular activities and study abroad experiences for students -- not just in other countries, but also off-campus and in other communities -- and through access to technologies that facilitate communication and distance-learning nationwide and worldwide.

Above all, we will prepare our students by continuing to engage them in an intellectual, moral and ethical dialogue that underscores our recommitment to a culture of excellence, a dialogue that will take place not only in classrooms, but wherever we interact -- in hallways, dormitories and dining rooms, on athletic fields, and in offices and chapels.

Indeed, our goal is nothing less than excellence in every aspect of our College life -- a level of excellence that will establish Morehouse as one of the best undergraduate, liberal arts colleges in the nation -- one of the best institutions of any historical tradition, one of the best, period.

To do so, we dedicate ourselves to "affirming excellence at Morehouse" -- to a recommitment to excellence in scholarship, leadership and service.

I am as supremely confident that Morehouse can meet this challenge as I am keenly aware that leading this remarkable institution in this time of unparalleled opportunity is an enormous challenge for me, the greatest of my career.

It is a challenge to which I rise as an educator, as an alumnus of Morehouse College, and, now, as its president. Yet, obviously, it is a challenge I cannot meet alone.


"We dedicate ourselves to 'affirming excellence at Morehouse' -- excellence in scholarship, leadership and service."


Therefore, let us join together as members of the Morehouse family, as friends and supporters of the College, as representatives of the nation's higher education community -- with the zeal that has sustained this institution in the past -- to embrace the challenge of propelling Morehouse College into the future.

Let us ensure that Morehouse, as well as colleges and universities throughout this great land, always will be, as Dr. DuBois suggested, "the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization" -- indeed, the human civilization for which we seek to light the way as "candles in the dark."

This is our challenge. This is our goal. This is our commitment.