About Morehouse

A More Excellent Way

Dr. Walter E. Massey
President, Morehouse College
Opening Convocation
September 18, 2003

Good morning, everyone.

As always, I am pleased to welcome our returning students, faculty and staff back to another school year. And, I am equally pleased to welcome all our new students, faculty and staff to their first year at the College. I trust you will soon find yourselves right at home here at Morehouse.

New school years, new beginnings of any kind, are uniquely exciting. Indeed, there is nothing quite like the thrill of starting a journey toward one’s goals. As we journey together this year, I look forward to our sharing a most productive time of growth and development, and to our accomplishing the things to which we all aspire.

This is an especially auspicious new school year for me, as it commences my ninth year as the ninth president of Morehouse College – a very good sign, I hope!

Eight years ago, I stood in this place, at this podium, on this occasion to deliver my first Opening Convocation speech as the then-recently appointed president of Morehouse. I can still recall the excitement and somewhat nervousness I felt that day, which marked a new beginning for me and my wife, who had just moved here from California. Among other emotions, I felt the joy of being back at my beloved alma mater after so many years, and the eager anticipation of working to make a significant contribution to this institution that had done so much for me.

In that speech, I shared some thoughts about my vision for Morehouse and its role in 21st century education. I discussed my view that, particularly during times of unprecedented change, a liberal education, in general, and a Morehouse education, in particular, should instill in its students a sense of purpose, an inquiring and open mind, a commitment to personal integrity, and an attitude of caring and sharing. I described what I believe are Morehouse’s assets in addressing these demands of a 21st century education:

  • our outstanding faculty – who are the dispensers of knowledge and wisdom, the transmitters of traditions, and the primary role models for our students;
  • our determined and gifted students, who are among the best and brightest young men in he United States and the world;
  • our committed staff, who provide the systems and services to support our faculty and students;
  • our curriculum and academic programs, which offer students intellectual stimulation in a range of disciplines; and
  • our worldwide reputation for academic excellence that has produced some of the nation’s greatest leaders.

I also spoke about some of the priorities and goals I envisioned for Morehouse as we prepared to move into the next millennium, especially the overall enhancement of our educational environment – the buildings and technology infrastructure, as well as the spirit of the institution – our civility, customer service and sense of collegiality. I called on members of this community to join me in achieving these goals by renewing our commitment to a culture of excellence on this campus and in all our institutional endeavors.

One of the concepts I discussed during that speech was my idea of the academic village. I said then that I believed “a college, and Morehouse College, specifically, should be an academic village where the physical environment is a reflection of the spirit and intelligence of its inhabitants.” And that “the environment in which we live, study and work is a reflection of – and is integrally related to – the intellectual, emotional, and moral tone that the College intends to convey and inculcate.”

Over these past eight years, we have made a great deal of progress in enhancing the physical environment of the College. Those of you who are new students, or even some seniors, will not recognize the changes that have been made:

  • Archer Hall was renovated to provide student recreational space, which had not been available before;
  • Chivers Dining Hall was remodeled;
  • Merrill Hall was renovated and the Technology Tower and the Parking Deck were constructed;
  • Davidson House was built so that the president of Morehouse would live on campus and be visible and accessible to students – for the first time in 35 years.
  • More recently, Morehouse Suites, a 337-bed student housing complex, has been completed;
  • the Leadership Center, on which construction is scheduled to begin this month, is targeted for completion by Fall 2004.
  • We also significantly enhanced the College’s technological infrastructure – completely wiring the campus and providing wireless capability at several campus locations.
  • Last, but not least, increased attention has been paid to landscaping, and our campus literally blooms with beautiful flowers and trees. Interestingly enough, this fact usually brings a comment from visitors who seem a bit surprised that a campus populated overwhelmingly by men can also be aesthetically pleasing.

All these improvements in the physical environment have brought us closer to the goal of living in an academic village. However, over these past eight years since that first Opening Convocation address, my view of the academic village, what it is and what it can be and should be, has evolved to include not just the physical environment, but also the intellectual, social and cultural environment – in other words, the sum total of the institution.

The challenge before us now is to realize an enlarged vision of the academic village, to embrace our past accomplishments as we continue to move in the direction we have set for ourselves. I call this direction “a more excellent way,” a way that though sometimes difficult and often elusive, is the best way for us to realize our highest aspirations for Morehouse.

What do we mean by “a more excellent way?” Can one become more excellent?

Excellent means superior, eminently good, first class. Something that is excellent is not perfect – we are not talking about utopia. But, when we use the term excellent, we are talking about something that has been judged to be outstanding in comparison with others in its class. Even in excellent institutions, there is always room for improvement. Indeed, excellent people and excellent organizations, almost by definition, are always seeking to improve, to grow, to learn, to do and be even better – more excellent.

Our chairman of the Morehouse College Board of Trustees, the Reverend Dr. Otis Moss Jr., describes Morehouse as an “unfinished cathedral of excellence.” As you may know from reading history, the world’s great cathedrals required hundreds of years to build, and some are still not finished. They require constant work, undergirding and enhancement. Yet, even so, they are always in use while being completed, integral to the development of those who carry on the construction and who strive to embrace a more excellent way.

But excellence is also a choice, not a requirement. So, when I refer to a more excellent way at Morehouse, I am talking about our choice, our conscious decision to do better, to be better than is necessary or than is even often expected of us.

Like most enterprises, colleges and universities operate on a fairly basic formula that is designed to yield certain outcomes. At its most fundamental, to be an institution of higher education requires that one has students who are prepared and want to learn, faculty who are prepared and want to teach, and facilities where that teaching and learning can take place.

At Morehouse, we have chosen to go beyond that basic formula, to embrace a more excellent way that demands that we recruit and admit not just students, but the best students, and not just faculty, but the best faculty, and that we continuously strive to provide the best possible living and learning environments for our students and faculty. At Morehouse, we have chosen a more excellent way by asserting a vision that challenges us to aspire to be more than we currently are. Those of you students, faculty and staff who are not new have heard me say on a number of occasions that:

“My vision for Morehouse College is that it will be among the very finest liberal arts colleges in the nation – period.” And that “the universe of institutions against which we measure our progress and standards must encompass all of the finest colleges and universities, not just those with origins similar to our own. All the while, we will continue to be an institution that focuses on the development of leaders, and the college of choice for African American men.” That is my vision that is now our shared vision.

Thanks to the hard work and commitment of the members of this community, who not only share this vision, but who are also working with me to fulfill it, Morehouse has made considerable progress toward our becoming one of the nation’s and, indeed, the world’s finest liberal arts colleges. So, where do we go from here? How do we continue to actualize the vision? More to the point, how do we begin living that vision today – not sometime in the distant future? How do we realize the academic village?

My focus this year will be to do just that – realize the academic village. And, toward that end, throughout this semester and the next, we will be pursuing a number of projects and initiatives that will touch every unit of the College. You will be hearing more about these later and about how you can participate in these activities.

This morning, I want to describe just two of our most important initiatives for this academic year and, appropriately, I begin with the one that relates to the essence of who we are as an academic institution, an academic village. Under the leadership of Dr. Willis Sheftall, our senior vice president for academic affairs, the College has undertaken a clean-slate review of Morehouse’s core curriculum, which is the general education program that is required for all students.

Periodically, the content of student learning, and the particular way in which a faculty configures learning experiences to deliver that content, must be reviewed in light of the changing expectations about what college graduates need to know and be able to do in our evolving and unpredictable world. It has been more than 25 years since such a comprehensive review of Morehouse’s core curriculum was undertaken. So, in pursuit of our more excellent way, we formally began a review process last year.

The objectives of this review, which is being carried out by a committee of faculty and students, are to more precisely articulate the educational goals and desired student learning outcomes associated with the core curriculum, but also to implement a process that ensures the educational goals are more closely linked to the student learning outcomes. During this year, you will hear more about this important initiative from Dr. Sheftall. And, before the Core Curriculum Task Force completes its work, students, faculty, staff and alumni will all have an opportunity to comment on its proposed changes – changes that will have a profound and positive impact on teaching and learning at Morehouse.

The second major initiative for the year is the continuation of our Institutional Values Project. Some of you will recall that we launched IVP two years ago. A number of students, faculty and staff have been involved in this initiative, which has resulted in our adoption of nine core values you who participated agreed are most important to us as an institution. These values are civility, spirituality, community, trust, compassion, respect, accountability, honesty, and integrity, are depicted on posters that are displayed around the campus.

In year one, the IVP theme was “The Year of Dialogue,” in which we focused on engaging in conversations about personal values and about Morehouse values. In year two, last year, the theme was “The Year of Reflection,” in which we focused on self-reflection about how those personal and institutional values relate to our various roles as members of this community. For this year, the 2003-2004 academic year, the theme for IVP is “The Year of Responsibility.” Having discussed and having reflected on our values, this year IVP will focus on helping us to take personal and institutional responsibility for the actions that result from the values we hold.

Among the specific initiatives that will be part of IVP are the development of a new human resources philosophy and policy, a report on our faculty and student academic integrity survey, and the implementation of the recommendations of the Task Force on Tolerance and Diversity. This last initiative is particularly important.

You new students may not be aware that last November, following a violent, student-on-student assault on our campus that was alleged to have been motivated by homophobia, I appointed a Task Force on Tolerance and Diversity to assess instances of homophobia, intolerance and violence at Morehouse, to identify best practices for addressing these issues, and to make recommendations for creating a safe academic environment for everyone.

The Task Force, which included national experts in ethics, religion, violence prevention, and diversity management, as well as Morehouse students, faculty, staff and alumni with interests and skills in diversity programming, has completed its assessment and forwarded me its recommendations. Although the work of the Task Force was neither exhaustive nor strictly scientific, the data it collected from surveys and focus groups strongly suggest that there is a climate at the College, particularly among students, that is not welcoming and tolerant of individuals who are gay.

While I am disappointed about this finding, I am not discouraged. I have the utmost confidence in the ability of the members of this community – especially you, our students – to address and overcome any issue that would impede our progress toward the more excellent way to which we are committed.

We have some work to do in this regard, and we will do it:

  • First, our sexual harassment policies and reporting procedures will be reviewed and strengthened;
  • Starting this year, our freshman orientation program will include open and frank discussions and practical training about dealing with differences, including sexual orientation;
  • We will engage the appropriate consultants to help us address policy and staffing issues related to tolerance and diversity; and
  • We will sponsor violence prevention programs that support and reinforce Morehouse’s zero-tolerance policy on all acts of aggression or violence directed at any member of this community for any reason.

Again, during the year, you will hear more about these IVP initiatives as we teach and learn from each other to take responsibility for our values and for our actions.

To achieve the goal of realizing a more excellent way of living and learning in the Morehouse academic village will require that we work together toward that realization – all of us, students, faculty, staff and alumni. First, each of us, every member of this academic village, must understand that our most important enterprise here is student development, primarily through teaching and learning. Everything else comes second and must support that primary raison d ‘etre.

Second, each of us must understand that we have an individual role to play in ensuring that teaching and learning takes place, both inside and outside the classroom. Teaching is not solely the responsibility of faculty and learning is not solely the burden of students. In a very real sense, we all are teachers and we all are learners who can and should benefit from our association with each other.

Finally, we each must act in a way that is consistent with our personal and with Morehouse’s institutional values. Because, in the final analysis, realizing the academic village begins as soon as we make a positive commitment to be a contributing member of this exciting, dynamic living and learning community.

We realize the Morehouse academic village through our choices and, most importantly, through our actions. We make the academic village a reality when we chose the more excellent way. I have no doubt you will make the right choice and that your actions will be consistent with that choice.

Again, I welcome you to and back to “the House,” our home, our village, and to a new academic year. I look forward to working with you. I look forward to our working together.

Best wishes in all your endeavors this year.