2013 President's Convocation
President Ralph Kuncl delivers the 2013 Convocation address.
President Ralph Kuncl's Opening Convocation—August 28, 2013
Outside, it’s a picture-perfect day today. So, why are we here inside 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. We even all dressed up for you in full academic drag in these costumes. We hope the tradition of convocation 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. Today, we recall the fact that precisely 50 years ago occurred one of the most singular events in memory—the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington DC. It was the first, largest, and greatest political rally for civil rights in American history. You all know the provocative words of the speech made that day. The emotional memory and impetus of that day are not merely with us . . . they are still palpable. There will be other marches and movements, of course. Today begins the “march” on the rest of your life.
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. Last year I found myself in the same situation. It was move-in time for me. Brand new, having just rolled in from the snow belt of Upstate New York, I left an “empty nest,” and inherited a warm and welcoming family of about 5,000 students, about a thousand faculty and staff, and almost 60,000 living alumni!
It has been an exciting year filled with many satisfying achievements. However, no position of leadership is free from its challenges. My greatest thrill on those days that are the roughest—and we all have them—is found in meeting with individual students and small groups of students. It’s what inspires us all, and it never fails to center me. I shook 1,300 hands at our commencements on April 18th, 19th and 20th. But more importantly, I knew many hundreds of them, and scores personally. They impacted me, and I them. As I said, that’s why I’m here—to make a meaningful difference.
You chose to spend the next four years of your life (parents, I promise it can easily be only four years of tuition!) at this liberal arts university for the same reason I wanted to be its President. I chose to 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. Plus, 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 other priorities.
What makes me proud to be here? This University is 106 years old, so we must be doing something right! Actually, we are doing a great many things right. For example:
- Over the last six years alone, this University has had 15 Fulbright scholars. This is unheard of among our peers. Additionally, Redlands has received the distinction each year of the Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll from the President of the United States. The University is one of only five schools in the country that has received the designation each year since the award’s inception in 2006. We take this as a point of pride in the correlation between service and academic distinction.
- We have five Centers of Distinction that offer unique, focused programs within our schools:
- The Johnston Center for Integrative Studies—born of the turbulent 1960s and driven by a desire to tear down the hierarchical walls of higher education—it persists as a successful experiment in education where others have failed.
- The Truesdail Center for Communicative Disorders, one of the best in the state and the nation, is a unique partnership between our Truesdail Speech Center and the Southern California community, in which graduate student clinicians evaluate and treat clients with swallowing disorders, traumatic brain injury, stuttering, autism, and language and learning disorders.
- The School of Music offers a conservatory approach within the broader liberal arts setting and sponsors more than 200 musical performances on campus each year. Our University Choirs, under the batons of Nicholle Andrews and Joseph Modica, performed at Carnegie Hall in May 2013. 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 artists of the organ.
- The Banta Center for Business, Ethics & Society was endowed by alumni David Banta and Stephanie Beale Banta as a forum to examine ethical issues in corporate and professional life.
- The Center for Educational Justice sponsors symposia on educational equality and underserved populations and encourages academic research with an educational justice emphasis.
- Our Master of Science Program in Geographic Information Systems is acknowledged by leading voices as one of the best in the world.
- The classroom isn’t the only place our students excel:
- 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, with 21 programs to choose from.
- Last year, three teams won SCIAC Conference championships (Men’s basketball, women’s lacrosse, and women’s softball).
- Redlands finished second in the SCIAC All-Sports Trophy race for the fifth consecutive year.
- We took 32nd out of 450 NCAA Division III intercollegiate athletic programs in the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup (that’s ahead of 93% of the rest of the USA).
- Tristan Kirk, men’s basketball standout, and Lauren Zehner, decorated swimmer, were named the Frank Serrao Men’s and Women’s Senior Scholar-Athletes of the Year.
- Our football team has the highest winning percentage over the past 27 years among every other four-year college or university in the State of California, including the powerhouses USC, UCLA, and Stanford.
- Redlands’ student-athletes earned more than 120 All-SCIAC awards.
- Nine Bulldogs earned SCIAC Athlete or Freshman of the Year recognition.
- Four coaches reached career milestones and several others received coach-of-the-year honors.
- 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. This past year, we honored 121 Redlands Scholar-Athletes who maintained a cumulative GPA of 3.5 or above as a member of a varsity team. These are incredible statistics.
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:
- Award-winning author and business professor Jeffery Smith is an advocate for corporate citizenship, communicating nationally the moral case for corporate social responsibility rather than the more common, profit-centered justifications.
- Professors Lisa Olson, Fran Grace, and Celine Ko, in a cross-disciplinary collaboration, are conducting a multi-year grant-funded research project on the effect of mediation in the University of Redlands curriculum.
- A trio of University of Redlands faculty members joined forces this summer with the Los Angeles alternative rock station 98.7 FM for the “R.E.D. Series,” a discussion of three specific topics—“R” for research, “E” for education, and “D” for discovery. Each professor was interviewed by the 98.7 DJ Kennedy on the rooftop of the Hollywood Towers.
- The first event featured Professor Johannes Moenius, the William R. and S. Sue Johnson Endowed Chair of Spatial Economic Analysis and Regional Planning. Kennedy found Moenius remarkably able to foresee trends before they hit and called him “a psychic with data.”
- During the second event, education professor Jose Lalas spoke with Kennedy about the critical social issues facing California’s public schools, and what students, parents, and educators can do together to make things better.
- The final event featured Kennedy discussing science with physics professor Tyler Nordgren, who was part of a team that created a color calibration tool on the Mars rover, Curiosity.
Such accomplishments and individuals are just part of the story, but they illustrate what is possible in a learning environment.
The word in our language that depresses me the most is regret. We do not want you in four, or twenty-four, 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 percent spend less than six hours a week—an all-time low. Unfortunately— or fortunately, depending on how you think of it—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 . . . 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 in the process trigger passions you never imagined.
That is what this institution is here for; not to train you for just a job, 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. Had I not gone to a liberal arts college, it is unlikely I would be here today with you at Redlands, 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 experiment intellectually to find your own passions. Don’t just rely on what you think you already know. Be worthy of your advantages here at U of R. A healthy level of intelligent self-respect will naturally fuel a strong sense of responsibility.
What do we mean by responsibility? 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, you cannot vote responsibly if not educated, and 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. The president seemed boring, but I was pumped up with anticipation. I can also speak to the parents. Sixteen years ago I took my son to college. And he wouldn’t mind my telling his story. He had chosen the only, single, 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 and multi-patented inventor, who designs the next-gen successors to smart phones, apps, and iPads, for an era you and I cannot possibly imagine. You can usually learn more from your setbacks than your successes. That is, if you are willing to admit to 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 2017: Go Bulldogs . . . for life!