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2012 President's Convocation

President Ralph W. Kuncl at Convocation

President Ralph W. Kuncl addresses the largest class in history at the University of Redlands Convocation.

August 29, 2012

It is a picture-perfect day today. So, why are we here right now? Why do we hold “convocation?” This opening event is one example of the heritage of this institution and higher education around the world. It probably started at the University of Bologna in 1088, and, for most universities, the historic significance of introducing the incoming class in a similar way in which they will depart is a valued tradition. It solemnly conveys that the next four years of your life will be incredibly enriching . . . if you embrace what this institution has to offer. However, you cannot truly excel if you don’t first expect it of yourself. That is our goal – to raise your expectations and ensure you meet them!

There can only be one “first” for anything. For most of you, this is the first day of arriving here at Redlands as a “Bulldog for Life.” For many of you, this might be your first time at any college; for many parents, it may be the first time “letting go,” or the first time with an empty house back home. For almost all of you, it is move-in day. Well, you’re not alone. It’s been move-in time for me and my wife Nancy, because we’re brand new here, too, and we just moved in two weeks ago from New York. As a matter of fact, some of you may have already seen us at Target or Bed, Bath & Beyond. The first trip to Target is sort of exciting, isn’t it? But after a few more trips, not so much, right? Being new together – you and I – means we will enjoy a very special bond, and that’s my hope. If you try to get to know me, perhaps you will cheer me on loudly during my inauguration this coming winter, just the same way I will cheer you on at your commencement, when we celebrate our four years together.

You chose to spend the next four years of your life (parents, I promise it can easily be only four years) at this liberal arts university for the same reason I wanted to be its President. Nancy and I come to a community where the collective goal of the faculty, administration, and staff is to ensure that you get the best possible education. Our faculty’s overwhelming responsibility is to . . . teach. You will have no graduate assistants. You will have meaningful access to each of your professors. Every one of you will have the opportunity for a significant one-on-one creative mentored research project with a professor. And, you will be able to get to know all the students in each of your classes – things I could not say for any of the previous institutions with which I have been associated. Don’t get me wrong; the University of Rochester, The Johns Hopkins University and Bryn Mawr College are all great institutions of higher learning, but they have multiple priorities. The only real question for you is, are you prepared to take advantage of these opportunities? Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust put it best in her 2012 baccalaureate service remarks:

“No matter how hard we have worked, or how many obstacles we have overcome, we are all here in some measure through no cause of our own. It started for most of us by being born into . . . the small fraction of the Earth’s population that receives the benefits of fossil fuels. After we passed through that lucky portal there were others. Our parents, our schools, our friends, our health, financial aid, a Maurice Sendak book. Predecessors who fought for access to education. Someone who plucked us up out of nowhere and guided us, or a random event that turned our head, or moved our hearts.”

Why did I choose the University of Redlands? And what makes me proud to be here? This University is 105 years old, so we must be doing something right! Actually, we are doing a great many things right. For example, over the last five years alone, this University has had twelve Fulbright Scholars. This is unheard of among our peers. During those same five years, Redlands has received the distinction each year of the Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll from the President of the United States. We take this as a point of pride in the correlation between service and academic distinction. Twenty to thirty percent of you will be involved in intercollegiate varsity athletics and many more in intramural athletics. You will be “scholar-athletes,” simultaneously living both roles. Last year, four teams won SCIAC Conference championships (men’s soccer, track & field, women’s lacrosse, and softball). Fourteen other teams finished in the top four schools in the conference. Our football team has the highest winning percentage over the past 25 years among every other four-year college or university in the State of California, including the powerhouses USC, UCLA, and Stanford. Such competitive excellence did not, however, come at the expense of learning as it does at so many other places. Despite the hours athletes must devote to training and practice, the average GPA of our athletes is higher than both the overall student average and the non-athlete average. Football players, who don’t have a stellar reputation for scholarship nationally, here at Redlands graduate 100% of the time if they play all four years. It is possible, in fact desirable, to be active outside of the classroom; added responsibilities – whether theatre, music, artistic, or social justice endeavors – inevitably train one to manage time and prioritize responsibilities better.

It is not only our students who are piling up honors. The faculty continue to add to an impressive history of contributions in various fields: Astronomy Prof. Tyler Nordgren’s artistic sundial is responsible for illuminating the bright true colors of Mars in the pictures you are seeing from the rover in the “Curiosity” exploration. Prof. Fran Grace, in Religious Studies, is spreading the value of what is called Contemplative Learning in the classroom through her recent book and research. Prof. Gene Jimenez’s new mixed-media project of 24 PEACES is an artist’s journey to invite people to ask the question, “What is peace?” It will be showcased as a traveling documentary film. That is what we do professionally as well as educationally; we ask questions; we do not have all the answers, so we constantly learn. Each December, the Feast of Lights, held in this Chapel, draws ever more praise for our historic Music Department. Someone dear to my own passions is the man responsible for the beautiful music we are hearing today. Fred Swann is one of the world’s most distinguished and respected organists.

Fortunately, many Redlands graduates value the years they spent here and return to contribute in many different ways. Brad Adams, whom you just heard from, is class of ‘93, and joined the Board of Trustees last year. He asked to be with you today, and I am so pleased personally that he came. Brad is the recipient of the 1993 Douglas Moore Award and served on the Young Alumni Committee from 1993 to 2004. He is the Managing Director of Acquisitions for Kennedy Wilson, an international real estate and investments firm. Also joining us today is the newest member of the Board of Trustees, Sherri Medina, who graduated from Redlands in 1982 and 1984. Sherri has retired as a partner and CEO of CareMeridian where she oversaw the operation of six facilities serving the long-term care and rehabilitation needs of catastrophically brain-injured patients. Sherri joins us today not only as a member of the Board of Trustees and an alumna, but also as a fellow parent who is helping her daughter move-in.

Such accomplishments and individuals are just part of the story, but they illustrate what is possible in a learning environment. The human brain does not fully develop until about 25 years of age, and certainly the “common sense” parts of the brain don’t fully develop until middle life. (You parents are thinking, “Well that explains a lot.”) But before you older ones get carried away, just remember, aging of your brain has been occurring since your second decade! Now, I promise that is the extent of my medical lecture for today. It does, however, give greater significance to the next four years of our lives here together.

The word in our language that depresses me the most is regret. We do not want you in four, or twenty, years to say, “If only I had . . .!” You undoubtedly have been told over these past few months that college should be fun and not all work. There is some truth to that. You should have fun in college, but you should also realize that real intellectual work can itself also be enjoyable and extremely satisfying.

The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found that high-school seniors are spending less and less time studying. In fact, 70% spend less than six hours a week – an all time low. And, we all know what UCLA suggests is the cause. The personal computer, while an invaluable tool, can also be a time sink and can be used for ill. Unfortunately, college life will probably afford you more apparent free time than you’ve ever had . . . at least it will seem that way! Some studies suggest that students access their Facebook pages 20 to 25 times a day. I can’t think of anything I do 20 to 25 times a day. So, I challenge you: give your brain something substantive to shape its development. Don’t limit yourself to staying in a comfort zone. Be prepared for change – some good, and some risky. Your pre-conceived goals, perhaps determined by family conversations, may fall away as your own experiences take hold. Here’s where I tell you parents to cover your ears: Students, ignore everything your parents told you if they said something like, “buckle down and just get all the requirements out of the way first.” Instead, be willing to experiment intellectually. It may be the only time in your life you can. Who knows? A particular class or professor may stimulate both your mind and heart, and trigger passions you never imagined.

That is what this institution is here for; not to train you for a profession, but to prepare you to make important choices in life, or to change directions. I enjoyed a long career as a medical scientist, discovering how Lou Gehrig’s disease works, how muscle diseases originate, and how to cure them. But I made an intriguing career change in mid-life towards leadership in higher education. Similarly, my wife Nancy (I’ve mentioned her three times now, so you know she’s important as my partner in this venture at U of R) made a mid-life career change from business entrepreneur to professional hospice nurse. Had we not gone to liberal arts colleges, it is unlikely we would be standing here today, having embarked on this interesting journey in life. What I learned in various disciplines took me from medicine to teaching to administration. I have always felt comfortable with those choices, because I had already learned to trust my instincts and my breadth. My education has not cornered me. Quite the contrary; it bred in me an intellectual freedom I will always use. You must develop your own passions and follow them. Don’t just rely on what you think you already know. Be worthy of your advantages here at U of R. And, one other piece of advice: read . . . read all the time . . . read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. A healthy level of intelligent self-respect will naturally fuel a strong sense of responsibility.

You enter this institution in an interesting epoch of time. The 30th Olympics just ended. And in November, we will have the 57th quadrennial Presidential Election. Thousands of athletes are beginning now to prepare for the Rio de Janeiro Games in four years, and probably just as many politicians have started raising money for their assault on the Presidency next time around. And the cycle won’t happen again until after you graduate. I will not embarrass you by asking for a show of hands for all who are newly registered voters; studies indicate that only 42% of 18-19 year olds are registered and only half of that number actually voted in 2010, and that’s an increase! Thomas Jefferson put it best, as he often did about higher education: “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. . . .They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” In Jeffersonian terms, if you do not exercise your right to vote, you relinquish your right to complain about policies that ultimately will affect you. These next four years are a unique time in your life – the only real opportunity you will have to immerse yourself in academic pursuits and intellectual growth. Please don’t be one who regrets not having taken up the challenge, and don’t avoid civic responsibilities. Today, right now, I can relate to both the student and the parent. As an 18 year-old, I once sat in a similar auditorium some four decades ago listening – at least I think I was listening – to the academic challenges I would face. I can also speak to the parents. Fourteen years ago I took my son to college. And he wouldn’t mind my telling his story. He had chosen the only one perfect place that matched all the interests he thought defined him then – marine biology, northeast colonial heritage, moderate-sized university, NCAA Division I track, fly fishing, snowboarding, and competitive beach volleyball. Yes, there is only one such place in the world and it’s a university in Rhode Island. He did not experiment with his intellectual skills, but stayed his expected course, hated marine biology, failed calculus, despised intro chemistry, played some volleyball, and dropped out freshman year.

Were we both disappointed? Of course. Was it a little embarrassing? Of course. However, I like to think that we all learned from the experience. He asked what I thought about shifting from his left brain to his right brain, and studying art and design at a small liberal arts university. He did just that. A broad education turned him around; he eventually earned a master’s degree in fine arts in media design from a top-three design school; and today he is not a marine biologist but a highly successful futurist, who designs the next-gen successors to smart phones, and apps, and iPads, for an era you and I cannot imagine. You can usually learn more from your setbacks than your successes. That is, if you are willing to admit your failure and learn.

What I discovered then, and what has inspired my involvement in education, has been that you must never stop learning. That goes for all of us. Your professors will flip their classrooms and learn from you, just as you learn from them and your fellow students. It is an endless process that must be embraced with an open mind and, hopefully, a curious mind! Perhaps one of our most missed presidents, John F. Kennedy, said he thought his most important quality was his curiosity. Hopefully, each of you wants the next four years to be memorable; but more than that, those years are only the foundation. And you will build the rest of your life on it. I promise you. . . . I did.

To the Class of 2016: Go Bulldogs . . . for life!


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