2012 Homecoming Convocation
October 20, 2012
I would like to extend my gratitude to Trustee Dan Rendler, President of the Alumni Association, on behalf of our alumni; to Jacque Balderas, ASUR President, on behalf of our students, without whom I would have no purpose; and to our new Bulldog Social Orchestra, the “BSO.” This is just their second outing and they just keep getting better and better. I will pay homage to the faculty later in my remarks.
Just after the passing of the baton from Jim Appleton, it was two months ago in this very room I welcomed the Class of 2016. I have no doubt some of you have relatives in that class. And perhaps even you are the son or daughter of a U of R graduate. For years the University has averaged around 14% legacy admits – not because we tip the scale to relatives but because successful alums tell their families and friends about the impact the University of Redlands has made on their lives. That is a testament to how you and your fellow alumnae and alumni value the Redlands experience. Now, you are in this Chapel today, and you continue to encourage family and friends to come here, because you remember. I’ll give you fair warning – at the end of my remarks I’m turning the microphone over to you, so begin to collect your remembrances about what Redlands means to you.
I too began at a small Southern California liberal arts institution, one thing that President Obama and I have in common. And I’m sure that’s about where the comparison ends. I then chose to pursue a medical degree, but what Occidental ingrained in me has served me well these past many years.
My medical training and 20 years of teaching and research at Johns Hopkins was incredibly rewarding, but my liberal arts undergraduate education had prepared me to always consider new opportunities and challenges. Bryn Mawr College enabled me to both teach and serve as provost at a small liberal arts institution. After five years of leadership there, a new career path came open in the form of Provost and Executive Vice-President at the University of Rochester, a major research institution. The University of Redlands now brings me full cycle, both back to Southern California and back to an institution whose primary responsibility is education in the broadest sense of the word.
Sometimes that breadth calls for justification, especially in the 21st Century. One question increasingly asked is, how relevant anyway is a liberal arts education in this technologically driven society? I will not list the obvious clichés, but rather turn to the remarks of Dr. Jeffrey Trammell, Chairman of the Board of Visitors at the College of William and Mary, when he offered this historical perspective:
“Just as Thomas Jefferson’s own liberal arts education (at the College of William & Mary) prepared him to help revolutionize the world, become an inventor, and succeed at most challenges he undertook in life, the diffusion of knowledge he sought for all citizens remains today an essential part of the American mind. Chinese and other foreign economies suffer from the lack of a workforce that has the creative, critical thinking that comes from a strong liberal arts education and, for that reason, they are sending their youth to study in America in record numbers. To be an American is to think outside the box, to seek the frontier, to rethink and invent. And a liberal arts education has frequently proven to be essential to that success, just as it was with Jefferson.”
Perhaps the most creative mind of our time further illustrates the point.
“Steve Jobs famously had a street sign on stage as he gave one of his presentations at Apple. One street was named TECHNOLOGY and the other cross street was named LIBERAL ARTS. Jobs said, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough – it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing, and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.” We all recall how Jobs even credited a course in calligraphy that he audited at Reed College as the source of his vision for the design of Apple products.
The way in which Apple has revolutionized how we communicate and interact has spurred significant advances, for it has always been true, “how we teach is what we teach.” Virtually every classroom on our campus is now a “smart classroom, filled with Internet access, electronic personal response devices, and availability of teaching tools such as geographic information systems software and databases, digital visualization technology, or the art database package from Luna Imaging called Insight, which is a collection of art museum resources from the AMICA [art museum images from cartography associates] museum consortium. Faculty are also increasingly integrating common ways to communicate that include snappy blog entries, diagrams, and infographics. The University has a new major in Visual & Media Studies. Lewis Hall, which is the home for our Environmental Studies major, houses remarkably advanced mapping technologies. And the world-leading ARC-GIS software from our own Esri here in Redlands has been introduced by the Department of History through the Fellowships in Learning Spatially that we call LENS, where they use it for mapping African migration and the study of the cultural changes within California missions. Some have written that this revitalization of liberal arts can be achieved “by asking students to acquire and demonstrate 21st –century skills as the activities and assessments within the liberal arts curriculum.” Perhaps it is a lasting legacy to geniuses like Steve Jobs, but the “marriage of technology and liberal arts” is thriving, especially in the domain of digital humanities. So when today’s cover of Time Magazine is “Reinventing College,” I argue that we are doing just that at Redlands.
If Thomas Jefferson were here at Redlands now – and he is perhaps the most quoted and wise person on the necessity of having an educated citizenry – he would be teaching us not only the classic liberal arts of mathematics, astronomy, music, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, but also the modern “liberating” domains of philosophy, history, literature, languages, natural and physical sciences, and psychology. But I’m absolutely certain that Jefferson, a creative architect, would be teaching far more. He would be extolling what Michael Staton of the Facebook spinoff Inigral has called the “New Liberal Arts” of our time: graphic design, animation, photography, video production, comprehensive rhetorical communication skills, and modern data literacy – especially statistical inference, data storage and management, algorithms, and information design.
However, achieving such a breadth of knowledge can be costly, and that is invariably the second question I am asked, given rising costs and a deflated job market, why not an online degree? The last 10 years has seen a massive proliferation of online courses and for profit colleges such as Phoenix. Such degree mills are less expensive, but clearly not Jeffersonian in fact or spirit. Larry Summers, the former President of Harvard explains the key differences:
“Higher education is in transition . . . but (online degrees) severely underestimate the value of the total university experience. The gap between what college graduates and high school graduates earn is only widening, which speaks to the continuing value of a college degree – no matter what it costs. If you think higher education is expensive, try ignorance. There is a reason that people pay a lot of money to go to an event like the Super Bowl when it is free on TV. They get more out of it by being present. Something similar is true of an on-campus education, where you may attend extra-curricular events and engage more fully with faculty and other students.”
Your years here at Redlands provided the intellectual foundation for you to make key and often difficult choices. In a rigorous university that prides itself on intimate settings and custom-fit education, mentor-to-student and peer-to-peer relationships are the great inspirations. But in a particular moment, we are never sure when we may be truly inspired. I know from my own liberal arts education at Occidental it was the relationship I developed with a couple of professors that significantly influenced the person I am today. David Cole was the first: As a young professor, he invented the time-honored projective test in child psychology therapeutics – the simple question to ask a child, “What animal would you be if you were an animal?” In mid-career, he was on stage at the annual American Psychological Association meeting, perhaps the biggest professional society we have, to receive its Distinguished Teaching Award, and shortly afterward became known around the country as the “father figure of American collegiate psychology.” He was the person everyone came back to campus to see. He was my research mentor in college, and at age 90 now is still my mentor today. His picture is at the top of my teachers on my “wall of fame” in my office, and he will be here February 20th at my Redlands inauguration.
I have no doubt many of you can recall a similar relationship. Right now, each of you is thinking of a particular course, or envisioning in your mind’s eye a particular professor who did it for you. You can’t begin to guess all of mine: Statistics! Can you believe that? Well, it’s true. After all, to a critical thinker, what constitutes validity and reliability of information? And what constitutes proper inference? An educated citizen needs to know that. We love to hate stats, but I learned to think critically in that course. Then there was social psychology. David Cole taught that, and it formed the foundation of my current thinking on tolerance, inclusivity, and building community.
I have to wonder looking out at all of you which persons undoubtedly made your four years here such a meaningful part of your life? There are 14 members of this faculty who have been here for 30 years or more, and it is quite likely that you had an opportunity to work with one or more of the following four who were given the master teacher designation of Mortar Board Professor of the Year.
Olga Gonzalez, professor of Spanish–Professor Gonzalez is most notable for her extensive research on Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the 1982 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Bill Huntley, professor of Religious Studies–his First Year Seminars are legendary, as are his regular May Term trips to Japan. He is, perhaps, most notable for officiating at more than 100 weddings, perhaps some of yours. Judy Tschann, professor of English–After a rich career of research in medieval literature, her new endeavor is to become a published fiction writer.
Or Art Svenson, professor of Government–Like Bill Huntley, Art’s First Year Seminars are legendary, only rivaled by the popularity of his Con Law classes. His keen understanding of Constitutional Law has reportedly led to his ability to successfully predict the outcomes of Supreme Court case decisions.
It can, of course, be a certain out-of-class activity that can ignite the passion of the mind and heart. It was that way for me, when I met my second key figure in college, Prof. Howard Swan. The story begins . . . well, imagine me as a little six-year-old. In those days, we all began the day in class by pledging allegiance and singing the Star Spangled Banner or My Country ‘Tis of Thee. Unfortunately, my 6-year-old voice was much like my adult voice, so I did what only a 6-year-old could do: I sang everything lower than everyone else. My first grade teacher, bless her, walked by me and in a bothered tone said, “Ralph, just don’t sing.” So I clammed up and didn’t sing until I was 19. But my college roommate coerced me into auditioning for Professor Swan for the College Chorus. Now, you have to know that Howard Swan was a dynamic tenor as a young man, who was certainly thought to be destined for the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. But as a young man, before his voice could peak at the mid 20s when it does for most tenors, he was struck by a disease of the larynx that left him with a tiny, almost inaudible, squeaky-high, mouse-like voice. He overcame that disability by becoming the most sought-after choral conductor-teacher in America, the likes of Robert Shaw, his contemporary. Howard single-handedly created an entire generation of American collegiate choral musicians. After audition, Swan said with all the charisma he could muster, “Ralph, where have you been? You need to sing.” And so I did, for the next 45 years. It changed my love for music and created a pathway for me in the arts that was transformative.
Enough about me. I told the faculty a month ago that I wanted to meet each of them over the coming months, that I had a lot to learn about Redlands and, after all, what better teachers could I have? So far, I’ve met with well over a hundred of them. I feel the same way about you . . . today . . . here. Alumni have unique stories that not only tell who they are, but often are quite revealing about the institution itself.
- What was your most memorable experience at Redlands?
- Why do you return?
- Why do the memories linger?
Please, feel free to approach microphone and tell us the experience that helped inspire you.