To President H. Patrick Swygert, Chairperson A. Barry Rand, Board of Trustees, faculty colleagues, staff, alumni, students, and honored guests, I am humbled by this opportunity to speak at this 139 th Opening Convocation.
As I stand before you, I am reminded of the story about a man who survived the Johnstown flood in Pennsylvania. He spent the rest of his life telling his story of surviving that flood. When he died and went to heaven, St. Peter met him at the gate and told him it was the custom for newcomers to give a speech to the heavenly host. The man said, “No problem. I’ll talk about my experience surviving the Johnstown flood.” St. Peter replied, “Do what you like, but remember that Noah will be in the audience.”
As I look out among this audience, I am keenly aware I am in the company of many Noahs. Many of you have been in these waters much longer than I, have sailed much further than I and perhaps are better equipped to navigate us through this high moment. Now that you understand my predicament, I ask for your prayers.
In 1918 a freshman from Notasulga, Alabama, witnessing her first convocation at Howard University became misty-eyed. The music, the distinguished faculty, her classmates standing shoulder to shoulder touched her deeply. She heard and felt something that could only be heard and felt by the way of the heart. And in that moment:
“She whispered to the Spirit of Howard University: You have taken me in. I am a tiny part of your greatness. I swear I shall never make you ashamed of me.”
The freshman’s name was Zora Neal Hurston and she would become the founder of the Hilltop, our student newspaper, and a renowned author.
Zora Neal Hurston experienced what so many before her and after her have experienced at our University. Something within the Howard experience caused her to realize, not only the significance of Howard University, but her own significance as well. She felt a sense of purpose--a feeling of belonging. Something called out to her demanding of her the very best of her gifts, the very best of her talents, and the very best of her mind.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke would say that Zora Neal Hurston received in that moment “the power of the grace of great things.”
To the students who are present, especially the freshmen, I hope you too will see yourself as a part of the greatness of Howard University. I hope you will feel taken in by all of its history and its possibilities. Most of all, I hope you will know that you have been called by and to great things.
At the heart of Howard’s history is the understanding that “great things” have called out to her and she has responded. The calls and Howard’s responses are the seminal aspect of her history. It is why Howard has become a beacon of hope and promise to so many.
James Cheek, the 13 th president of Howard University, said that Howard University was both a symbol and a reality of an oppressed people’s road to true emancipation, liberty, equality, dignity and self-fulfillment.
While other universities struggle to justify their existence in history, Howard University’s place in history is already secured. It is secure because of those who answered the call of great things.
If Howard University had done nothing else than to give a home to Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, Ernest Everett Just, Sterling Brown, Lois Mailou Jones, Charles Drew, Ralph J. Bunche, and E. Franklin Frazier, that would be enough to justify her existence in history.
If Howard University had done nothing more than to provide this nation with doctors, dentists, lawyers, teachers, and nurses at a time when African Americans were excluded from other universities that would be enough to justify her existence in history.
There is a mystique; there is something unique and special about Howard University. And the uniqueness of our legacy has given us a position of influence that should both humble us and challenge us.
Howard Thurman would say that the men and women who gave us this legacy placed a crown over our heads knowing that it would take a lifetime to grow tall enough to wear it. None of us have grown tall enough, but we should continue to strive to wear the crown and walk worthy of our calling. So much so that:
When the student body of this university speaks out, when a member of our faculty presents his or her research findings, when a Dean of a college, the provost or the president of this university address the issues of our day, the nation ought to listen.
In thinking about our legacy we must also remember that the primary motivation for the men and women who gave us our legacy was not to make Howard great. They were scholars responding to the call of a hurting humanity. What Benjamin E. Mays said about individuals is also true about institutions. “We ought not to seek greatness; we ought to seek to serve and when we seek to serve we will bump into greatness along the way.”
It is also imperative that we remember that we cannot manufacture greatness; what we can do, what we must do, is to prepare ourselves for great things to happen.
Preparation is the key. It has become easy to diminish the importance of preparation because in this day and age, we often confuse celebrity with significance/greatness.
Students have said to me, “Dean, I am going to be famous one day.” I tell them in response, “I expect more from you.” I encourage them to stop waiting for the “American Idol” moment and put their destiny into their own hands and with God’s help prepare for their future. I encourage them to prepare to live a life of significance and not settle for celebrity status.
Celebrity status can be achieved by “who you know.” Significance/greatness are achieved by who you are; what kind of person you are because significance/greatness is about character.
Celebrity status can come from happenstance, being at the right place at the right time, but significance/greatness are gained after years of hard work and disciplined study. Those who have become significant understand with Ralph Waldo Emerson, “That if a person can write a better book, preach a better sermon or build a better mousetrap than his or her neighbor; even if one builds his or her house in the woods the world will make a beaten path to their doorstep.”
Celebrity status can bring you countless awards, but when you live a life of significance your most valued rewards will be the lives that you have touched.
The role of the academy is to prepare you to live significant lives by providing intellectual and character building resources that will allow you to respond to the great matters that will call out to you. Those of us who are called to this endeavor have an awesome privilege and a great responsibility. We must not downplay our significance.
We must remember that every time we enter a classroom we are preparing ourselves for great things to happen.
Yes in a classroom!
It was in a classroom that Dr. Martin Luther King learned about the theological concept of personalism. It reinforced his belief that all human personality has dignity and worth. King took what he learned in the classroom and used it to lead the Civil Rights Movement.
In a Howard University classroom Thurgood Marshall learned about the idea of social engineering from his professor Charles Hamilton Houston. He took that understanding from that classroom to the Supreme Court of the United States.
It was in a classroom that our own W. Montague Cobb first learned about the theories of human variation and went on to pioneer research in physical anthropology and anatomy that counteracted the myths which asserted the biological inferiority of black people.
It was in a Howard University classroom where Ossie Davis said his professor, friend and mentor, Sterling Brown, lit the first fire of artistic consciousness in his mind and opened a door that was not to be closed.
And let me not forget to mention the other classroom: a classroom that has no walls; where all of us are teachers; where the hidden curriculum is about us; how we treat one another; how we respect each other. Students are watching and learning in this classroom also.
In all of our classrooms we are preparing ourselves to deal with matters of life and death.
Why in these classrooms are we dealing with matters of life and death?
Because we live in a time where there are wars and rumors of more wars; where people are ignorant and disrespectful of the religious and cultural beliefs of others; where children, primarily African American children, are being left behind in education; where it is more likely for an African American male to go to prison than to college; where the spread of AIDS is at epidemic proportion; where starvation and genocide are all too prevalent across the continent of Africa; where material prosperity is becoming the aim of religion.
These life and death matters are the great things that are calling us. And they should guide our direction and assist us in establishing our priorities as individuals and as a university. Our survival depends on our response to the calls of humanity, for Howard University is not irreplaceable. My colleagues in the School of Divinity would remind us that God can call one institution to do what another institution refuses to do.
So when a university that began out of a prayer meeting ceases to look beyond her own existence and no longer concerns herself with what extends beyond her geographical boundaries, she will lose the very thing that gives her life. What gives Howard University life, what gives any university life, is its connectedness, relatedness to the world outside of her gates.
When we no longer hear the call of great things; when we no longer understand that we are dealing with matters of life and death; when we fail to realize that there are people who are looking to us to make our nation and the world a better place, then all that we do here will be in vain.
It is possible for a university to gain the world and lose its soul.
When a university loses it soul, students will walk these grounds not to gain knowledge, not for truth and service, but simply to receive credentials to make money.
When a university loses its soul, the support staff will inappropriately share their own frustrations with students, but not their hope and dreams for their students.
When a university loses its soul her faculty will see themselves and allow others to treat them simply as employees, rather than who they really are--the life and blood of the institution.
When a university loses its soul, administrators will make decisions based solely upon their own particular likes and dislikes with no regard to the mission and purpose of the institution.
When a university loses it soul, truth, service and academic excellence will be in our brochures but not a lived experience by those who walk these hallowed grounds.
The good news is-- Howard University has not and will not lose her soul.
There are too many people who love this university and who are still hearing the call of great things. Even those who know of the weaknesses of this university and have been wounded by them are still responding to the call of great things.
My mention of weaknesses should not surprise anyone. Any individual, any institution that seeks to be significant has weaknesses. But it is our willingness to confront these weaknesses that will determine the length and breadth of our significance.
There is a Biblical admonition that says, “Do not grow weary in well doing.”
It is possible to become weary. The demands placed upon all who labor at this university are so great. We can sometimes lose our way and stray from our calling.
There are times when we need to renew our contract. Not the contract we made with Howard University but the contract we made with ourselves and with our Creator.
This contract is largely unwritten, but we can find traces of that contract if we recall what we wrote in our autobiographical statements to get into Howard; there we shared what we would bring to the Howard experience.
Some of us will have to remember what we said we would do when we earned our graduate degrees. We spoke of our commitment to a life-time of learning, we wrote about our commitment to teaching and research. We talked about the kind of impact we wanted to have on the students we would teach. We talked about not just teaching but mentoring. We spoke of making a difference not only in the classroom but in our communities.
When we renew our contracts, we will reignite the passion, the commitment, the hope and promise that we brought to this University.
It is equally important to remember that Howard is a university, it is not the universe.
We must continue to open ourselves to sources of creativity, insights and experiences that are beyond that which this university or any university can provide.
When we allow ourselves to move out of our comfort zones, whether they are geographical or intellectual comfort zones, we will discover new ways to answer the call of great things. It will also give us a deeper understanding of the significance of the work that we have been called to do at Howard University.
I saw it so clearly in New Orleans when Howard University students assisted in relief efforts during our Alternative Spring Break. I shed many tears there. The devastation was unlike anything that I have ever experienced. But all my tears were not the result of seeing or hearing of the devastation up close.
I cried because in New Orleans I experienced what Zora Neal Hurston experienced at her first Convocation. I felt the significance and greatness of Howard University. I wept because I was given the opportunity to see the wealth of compassion, strength and courage hidden in the souls of our students; I saw that treasure become unlocked when they responded to the call of great things.
We watched as the tremendousneeds of a people called out to them and they responded. I watched them enter homes not knowing what they would discover.
The possibility of finding dead bodies did not stop them; the stench and debris that engulfed them did not deter them; they kept on working.
They tutored children, they played with children; they held and comforted the elderly. And then when the works that they had done with their hands were completed; they reflected intellectually on their experiences, struggling to find reasons for and solutions to the problem at hand.
The Washington Post reported that members of Congress, after watching the response to Hurricane Katrina, introduced legislation to create a national Public Service University in Washington, DC at the “cost of $205 million annually to educate and to provide an all expense paid education to 5000 undergraduates emphasizing leadership development, analytical thinking and service to others.”
May I be so bold to recommend, Mr. President, that you tell them that such a university already exists. It is named Howard University, and we have been doing this work since 1867. Tell them to send those scholarships for those 5000 students to Howard University.
Throughout this community, administrators, faculty, staff and students are responding to the call of great things. Sometimes it is being done without fanfare; sometimes it is being done in secret; those who are responding are not seeking recognition, but they are answering the call to serve.
On Sunday mornings during “Calls to Chapel” and on Fridays during calls to prayer you can hear students filled with compassion answering the call of great things. On weekends they feed the poor; they are tutoring children; they are creating programs targeting black males; they are informing the nation about what is happening in Darfur. They are concerned about the AIDS epidemic.
Right now in our midst, students are preparing to respond to the call of great things.
There is a student, someone whofrequents the Ralph Bunche Center, theInternational Affairs Office, and the Religious Fellowship Council who will one day teach America how to respect the religion and culture of others and show us how to be citizens of the world.
There is someone in the School of Business who will one day sit on a corporate board and will not allow the life savings of their workers to be taken because of greed and corruption.
There is someone in the School of Social Work who will one day create a disaster relief plan and that plan will ensure that the elderly and the poor will not be forgotten.
There is someone in the School of Engineering and someone in Architecture who will one day be a member of a corps of engineers or a team of architects and will refuse to allow levies and structures to be erected that cannot do what they were designed to do.
There is someone in the College of Arts and Sciences and in the School of Communications whose creative and artistic consciousness is being unlocked and one day will give to the world, poetry, literature, films or music that will lift the hearts and souls of a people.
There is someone in the School of Education who will find a way to really ensure that no child will be left behind. There is a teacher being prepared at Howard who will one day walk in a classroom and give hope to children who have no hope.
There is someone in every school and college preparing to answer the call of great things.
Let me end with a word, first to my faculty colleagues and then to our students.
To my faculty colleagues:
In 1962 Alexander Tvardovsky, editor-in-chief of a Russian literary magazine, took some manuscripts home to read in bed. He thumbed through them at a high rate of speed, making snap judgments and tossing most of them in a mounting pile of rejections. He came to a manuscript by an author unknown to him, with the simple title “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” The editor read ten lines of the manuscript. And then as he later told a friend, “Suddenly I felt that I couldn’t read it like this. I had to do something appropriate to the occasion. So I got up, I put on my best black suit, a
white starched collar, a tie and my good shoes. Then I sat at my desk and read a new classic.”
No one expects us to put on a change of clothes every time we witness or see something unique and exceptional that comes to us in our role as professors. But I believe that you and I ought to have an appreciation and an awareness of the remarkable happenings that often come our way. We need to mark those occasions and remind ourselves of the significance of what we do. And who knows it is not unimaginable that your passion will be heard and felt by your students and one of them might leave your classroom go home and at their time of prayer, get down on their knees and thank God that God made you a professor.
To our students I leave you with the words of Olive Schreiner:
Oh may you seek after truth. If anything I teach you be false, may you throw it from you, and pass on to higher and deeper knowledge than I ever had. If you are an artist, may no love of wealth or fame or admiration and no fear of blame or misunderstanding make you ever paint, with pen or brush, an ideal or a picture of external life otherwise as you see it; if you become a politician, may no success for your party or yourself or the seeming good of even your nation ever lead you to tamper with reality and play a diplomatic part.
In all the difficulties which will arise in life, fling yourself down on the truth and cling to that as a drowning man in a stormy sea flings himself on to a plank and clings to it, knowing that, whether he sink or swim with it, it is the best he has. If you become a man of thought and learning, oh, never with your left hand be afraid to pull down what your right has painfully built up through the years of thought, brooding and study, if you see it at last not be to founded on that which is; die poor, unloved, unknown, a failure perhaps in the eyes of the world—but do not shut your eyes to the truth as you keep it alive in your own soul.
With this hope, let us leave this 139 th Convocation saying to the Spirit of Howard University with Zora Neal Hurston, “You have taken us in; we are a tiny part of your greatness, we pray that we will never make you ashamed of us. “
Valerie Boyd, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston ( New York: A Lisa Drew Book/Scribner, 2003), p. 80.
Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Stephen Mitchell, Letters to a Young Poet (New York: Vintage Books, 1984), pp. 9-10, 75.
James Cheek, the 13 th President of Howard University, on the occasion of the funeral of Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, (Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel, Howard University, Washington, DC), September, 1976.
Quote attributed to Benjamin E. Mays.
Quote attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson by Sarah S.B. Yule and Mary S. Keene in 1889.
“Personalism.” From Wikipedia, retrieved on September 20, 2006. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personalism).
Lesley M. Rankin-Hill and Michael L. Blakey, “W. Montague Cobb (1904-1990): Physical Anthropologist, Anatomist, and Activist.” American Anthropologist, 96:74-96, 1994.
Ossie Davis, Life Lit by Some Large Vision ( New York: Atria Books, 2006), pp. 66-67.
“ Public Service Academy,” Washington Post, 25 September 2006, sec. A, p. 19. (Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/24/AR2006092400737.html?referrer=emailarticle on 9/25/06).
Philip Yancey, More than Words, ed. Philip Yancey ( Grand Rapids, MI: Bakers Pub. Group, 2002).
Olive Schreiner, From Man to Man (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1927) with paraphrasing.