About Morehouse

Taking Inventory

Opening Convocation
September 15, 2005
Dr. Walter E. Massey
President, Morehouse College

As I stand here today, I am experiencing a range of emotions about this occasion. In and of itself, Opening Convocation is always special because it marks the beginning of another academic year. By taking time to pause and gather together – students, faculty, staff and administrators – we formally recognize our shared commitment to being at Morehouse, to starting fresh in a new year, with a new set of challenges and opportunities.

But this year’s Opening Convocation is particularly special for me because it marks my 10th anniversary as president of Morehouse College. As I said when I gave my first Opening Convocation speech almost 10 yeas ago to the day – September 14, 1995 – I am pleased to be back at Morehouse. A decade later, despite some downs, but because of many, many, many more ups than downs, I still am pleased to be here. And I want to thank all of you who have shared this time at Morehouse with me. I am grateful for your commitment and your support.

In speaking of anniversaries, the late James Cash Penney, founder of the J.C. Penney department stores, once said: “Anniversaries mean more to me than just the actual recurrence of a date. Anniversaries should really be inventory time – when we can strike a balance in our life ledger and appraise ourselves for a new beginning.”

That is what I want to do today – take inventory. I want to reflect briefly on what we have achieved over the past 10 years, but strike a balance by talking a bit about what I think the future holds for us as we continue to pursue our vision. Finally, I want to challenge us to appraise who we are as a community, to assess our strength of purpose, our strength of character, as we prepare to embark on a new beginning – Morehouse’s next 10 years.

Depending upon how old you are, 10 years can seem like a lifetime ago, or like it was only yesterday. Do you remember what was going on in the world back in 1995?

That was the year the war in Bosnia ended. It was also the year of the terrorist bombing that killed 168 people in Oklahoma City. It was the year of the O.J. Simpson trial and his acquittal. And it was the year that Netscape went public, launching the start of the Internet stock market boom. And gentlemen, there was no iPOD. If you are a freshman, 1995 was the year that most of you entered the fourth grade.

In Atlanta, it was the year before the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, and the whole city was consumed with preparations for that event, which would draw tens of thousands of visitors from around the world.

At Morehouse, 1995 was the year that the College began an intensive self-assessment in preparation for our reaffirmation of accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and in preparation for our first five-year strategic plan. And, 1995 was the year the College named its ninth president – a physicist and struggling tennis player from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. That’s me, by the way.

In my Opening Convocation speech that year, I focused on the theme of excellence. In fact, the title of the talk was “Renewing Our Commitment to a Culture of Excellence.” I said that I came to Morehouse with no fixed agenda, that I wanted to get to know the people in this community and to enlist your support in generating a vision and a strategy to carry the College into the 21st century.

I talked about my aspirations for Morehouse and said that those aspirations went far beyond what might have seemed possible at the time. I said I wanted to build on what my predecessors had accomplished, and to continue to advance Chairman Otis Moss’ ideal of Morehouse as an “Unfinished Cathedral of Excellence.”

I shared some of my initial thinking about what should be our priorities:

  • faculty recruitment and development;
  • student recruitment and retention;
  • reexamination of our curriculum and academic programs;
  • improving our technological infrastructure;
  • improving extracurricular programs for our students;
  • increasing faculty and student interaction outside the classroom;
  • constructing a residence that would allow the president to live on campus;
  • improving the quality of our physical environment and;
  • creating a climate of civility among students, faculty and staff.

I also shared that these aspirations, to be achieved, would require the commitment and support of the entire community. Looking back, I hope you are as pleased as I am to see that we have accomplished much of what we set out together to do.

Some of you, long-time members of the faculty and staff, have been here for the entire journey. Some of you, our more recently hired faculty and staff, as well as our sophomore, junior and senior class students, joined us when our journey had already begun. And some of you, our freshmen students and our newest employees of the College, are joining us for the first time this year. Not only are you the beneficiaries of the work that has gone on before, but also will be part of the building of the future of Morehouse for those who will come behind you.

Over the past 10 years, we have created a shared vision, that is, to be one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the nation – period. We have institutionalized our strategic planning, assessment and budgeting processes, and launched the most ambitious fund-raising campaign in the College’s history, which will be completed before the end of this academic year.

We have created and funded three new endowed faculty chairs and hope to announce a fourth later this year, and we completed a comprehensive review of our core curriculum, which is scheduled to be piloted next fall, and have begun a curriculum review of all the academic departments.

We have maintained a stable enrollment of approximately 2,900 students at the same time we have maintained the quality of our student body, as evidenced, in part, by increasing SAT scores and high school GPAs. Since 1995, Morehouse has produced 18 national scholars, including two Rhodes and two Marshall scholars.

We have wired the entire campus, equipped more than a half-dozen computer labs, and provided wireless access at a number of key locations on the campus.

We have remodeled and expanded the Archer Hall student center, built the new Morehouse Suites residence halls, increased our study abroad opportunities for students, and enhanced our extracurricular program offerings.

We have built the Davidson House Executive Center, which houses the president on campus and provides a focal point for campus and community activities.

We have renovated older buildings, built new buildings, planted flowers and trees, and created a much more aesthetically pleasing campus environment.

And we have launched the Institutional Values Project and adopted nine core values that guide our interactions as a College community.

Ladies and gentlemen, as you can see, we have accomplished a great deal. You should be proud, as I am, of all we have done together.

Now, of course – and you already know that I am going to say this – we still have much work to do. In order to fully realize our vision to be one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the nation, we still must tackle and conquer some ongoing challenges:

  • student retention and our graduations rates are not where they should be;
  • a number of our students still struggle to be able to continue to afford their Morehouse education and we want to be able to provide the scholarships to enable them to do so;
  • the level of tolerance and acceptance of diversity in this community still needs attention and;
  • we continue to focus energy on improving the level of our civility and customer service.

As you know, we have plans and strategies in place to address all of these issues. Although they are taking a little longer to resolve, I am no less certain that we soon will be able to celebrate success in those areas, as I am proud to celebrate what we have achieved in other areas so far.

But, as we look ahead, I think it is also important to remember that beyond what Morehouse must do to fulfill on the promises we have made to ourselves, Morehouse also must fulfill on the promise we have made to the world – the promise inherent in our 138-year-old mission to produce great leaders. In my inauguration speech, I talked about the need to prepare our students for leadership, not just for the African American community, not just for this country, but also for the world – for the global metropolis in which we now all live. Fulfilling on the Morehouse promise to develop leaders for the world is more critical now than ever because great leaders are in even greater demand.

Today, the war in Bosnia is over, but the war in Iraq rages on. Today, the Oklahoma City bomber has been brought to justice, but we still suffer the effects of the September 11 attack on our country. Today, Netscape stock still seems like a safe investment, but our hometown Delta Airlines is struggling to reorganize under Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

No doubt, the most recent example of the need for great leadership – and, by extension, the ongoing need for Morehouse to produce great leaders – is the impact of Hurricane Katrina. And let me say, again, how proud I am of the way this community has responded to this crisis. I commend SGA President Dewey Fowler for his leadership of the students, and Provost and Senior Vice President David Taylor for his leadership of the faculty and staff in raising money for the victims of this crisis.

You all have read or heard that Morehouse accepted 30 students from Dillard and Xavier universities, which are closed now because of the impact of Katrina. However, because of the overwhelming demand by students from the affected areas to attend school this semester, I have recently authorized the Office of Admissions to double our commitment to accept 60 students at Morehouse.

I believe that the Katrina tragedy has taught us at least three important lessons – lessons that we can and should use to help us take inventory, to appraise ourselves, our character and our values, as we look to our futures as individuals and as an institution.

The first lesson Katrina has taught us is that divisions of class still exist in this nation and still have devastating impacts on those who are among the “have-nots.” And, as has been so vividly depicted for us by the broadcast media, the “have-nots” continue to be disproportionately people of color, many of whom lack the most basic of things that make life livable. That is a challenge of leadership, public leadership, as Dr. Walter Fluker would say.

The second lesson Katrina has taught us is that life is unpredictable. In fact, we might, in some sense, view the hurricane as a metaphor for life itself. We move along with our everyday lives, thinking everything is fine and suddenly the levees burst and the waves of illness, or job loss, or relationship failure, or other tragedies engulf us. And then what do we do?

Many of us try to be proactive by preparing ourselves for such eventualities. We educate ourselves, and we should. We make contingency plans, and we should. We develop new skills and interests, and we should. But some crises are of a magnitude that even the most well laid-out plans can have little or no impact. At those times, all we are left with is who we are, who we have decided to be.

Which brings me to the third and most important lesson I think Katrina has taught us – that we must decide early in life who we are, what values we hold, and what kind of people we are going to be because when a tragedy strikes, there may not be time to become someone different from who we have been.

They say that tragedy brings out the best in us. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. For some people, the first reaction in the aftermath of Katrina was to figure out how to exploit others, how to take advantage of the situation. And as this tragedy unfolds, we will see more of that. The good news is that for most people – people of all races and ethnicities from around the world – the first reaction to the crisis was to figure out how to help others.

The important thing to realize about these two distinct reactions is that they probably were not new ideas, neither for those who wanted to do evil and exploit, nor for those who wanted to do good and help. It is more likely that both reactions came from years of a habitual way of being in the world.

For example, I cannot imagine that the man who forced his way to the front of the line to get water, took more than his fair share, then turned around and sold water to the people who had been standing in line for hours, had never done anything underhanded in his life before. Nor can I imagine that the Texas farmer who packed up his pick-up truck and drove to New Orleans with supplies for people he did not know had never lent a helping hand to a neighbor before.

And so it is with all of us. What we will do in the time of a crisis has, more than anything, to do with who we are before a crisis. That, too, is a challenge of leadership, personal leadership.

As an institution, Morehouse’s mission is “to develop men with disciplined minds who will lead lives of leadership and service.” Indeed, leadership and service are the essential qualities of a Morehouse man. This is an important consideration as we, at Morehouse, take inventory of where we have come from as a College and where we are heading.

Ten years ago, I quoted the late President Emeritus Hugh Gloster, and I will quote him again today. He said: “Our past, as great as it is, is behind us. Our future, as glorious as it shall be, is before us.”

I believe, even more than I did 10 years ago, that Morehouse’s future is bright, extremely bright. Certainly, our road ahead will have its challenges. There will be times when we may think that we have gone as far as we can be expected to go, under the circumstances, as far as we should go, given where we are relative to others.

But between what is behind us and what is before is today. And today, is our most important day because we can decide who we will become tomorrow, by deciding who we are today.

Our mission and vision for this great institution calls for us to be people of excellence and to complete this “Unfinished Cathedral of Excellence.” We have taken inventory. We have what it takes. Now, we must carry on.

Thank you, again, for journeying this far with me. I look forward to the journey ahead with you.