President Elizabeth Davis convocation remarks
Furman University President Elizabeth Davis
September 7, 2017
Good morning and welcome to the 2017 Fall Convocation. We are honored to have you with us as we embark on a new academic year at Furman.
We gather this morning to underscore the purpose and expectations of academic life at our university, and to honor those among us—students, faculty, staff, and alumni—whose achievements inspire us.
In so doing, we seek to fulfill the call articulated in the University’s Statement on Character and Values: and I quote:
Furman University “maintains its commitment to freedom of inquiry and excellence in the quest for truth. The university is a community that encourages and nurtures individuals as they search for truth with passion, integrity, and rigorous intellectual discipline. Furthermore, the university understands its mission to be not only the transmission of knowledge, attitudes, and values, but also their examination and correction in the light of continuing discovery and integration of knowledge.”
Each of those whom we honor today reflect that ideal, and we are glad you are here in this community celebration of their accomplishments.
How many of you have heard of The Furman Advantage? You would have to be living under a rock not to have heard it mentioned at least once around here. While it is our serious ambition for an unparalleled education, I have been subject to a bit of teasing by several of you here today, most recently on a MayX in Rome. You know who you are. Honestly, I don’t mind. In fact, it lets me know you are paying attention.
While The Furman Advantage is our most recent articulation of the university’s vision, you should know that we are always assessing the educational environment we create and facilitate to prepare our students, to prepare you, for meaningful lives. You will define meaningful in your own way. We aren’t going to decide that for you. But sometimes we’re persuaded to emphasize certain elements of your education based on what we observe in the world.
Furman started in 1826 as an all-male academy dedicated to preparing teachers and preachers. In 1881, the campus became residential, curriculum expanded, and non-academic activities for students grew. In 1933, Furman merged with Greenville Women’s College. In 1955, we broke ground on this campus site, leaving downtown Greenville. In all of these decisions and many more, those who love the university were committed to finding the best ways to educate our students.
So, what do we observe in the world today? Lots of worry about the economy, North Korea¸ a congress that can’t get anything done. We have even returned to the debate over whether young people brought here through no choice of their own can stay. When did we, as Americans, give up on “Dreamers”? If you read my email to the Furman community about DACA, you know how I feel about the president’s decision and it is not favorable.
Fundamentally, we are “witnessing the fraying of the bonds of empathy, decency, and common purpose.” A 2011 New York Times article entitled “The Fraying of the Nation’s Decency,” suggests that America “is becoming a country in which people more than disagree. They fail to see each other. They think in types about others, and assume the worst of types not their own.”
We see these attitudes in Washington, we see them on TV, and we see them in our own neighborhoods.
So why should that have any bearing on what happens at Furman? Preparing you to live a life of meaning certainly includes helping you identify your blind spots – helping you to really see.
In March, University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan gave an impassioned speech to the American Council on Education. She quoted 19th century English philosopher John Stuart Mill from his essay, “On Liberty”:
“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.”
“Nor,” Mill continued, “is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.” That is most certainly what residential living and learning promote.
I wrote an article earlier this year about reversing the empathy deficit, arguing that colleges and universities have a responsibility in this regard. Residential living and learning is part of the antidote. It will help you build community and learn how to work collaboratively with people who are different from you.
Note that I said, learn how to work collaboratively with people who are different from you. For many of us, that’s not natural. It needs to be learned. Why is that? Turns out, many of the stereotypes we struggle with today are ones we learned in our childhood. So, in the interest of creating an environment where we identify and shatter stereotypes, I want to share one from my childhood.
When I was in high school, I invited two of my friends from band to come over to my house one Saturday afternoon. One of them was African-American. After my friends left that day, my dad was acting a little weird. He told me he had never had a black person in his house who wasn’t being paid to repair something or do some other small task. He had never had an African-American over just to visit.
While I was surprised at the time, I just blew it off. In retrospect, what I’ve concluded is that it’s highly likely that stereotypes were unknowingly being formed in these moments.
Thinking in stereotypes is hard to do when you actually meet and live with people from different backgrounds who shatter those images. I can’t imagine another time in our history, given the recent events in our country, when such experience, awareness and understanding are more deeply needed.
What happened in Charlottesville and at the University of Virginia was awful. The hate shown by neo-Nazis and white supremacists was appalling. The violence was repugnant, and tragic. And let me be unequivocal in asserting that there is no moral equivalency between hate groups and those who fight against hate.
But this hate is faceless. These hate groups don’t even know the people they’re hating.
Whether on campus or in the community, through work with the Heller Service Corps or in community-based research, or just exploring Greenville, you will come to know people who are different from you.
You will become friends with people who are different from you. And knowing people who are different will shatter the stereotypes that may have been built since you were a child.
This experience, this learning by living, is as important in your education as what shows up on your transcript. This is how we live together, in community.
Armed with empathy and the other attributes that accompany a Furman education, you will be able to improve the economic, social, and educational quality of life in the community in which you reside. You WILL lead a life of meaning. This is The Furman Advantage.
Before we conclude, I would like to add one more thought. Hurricane Harvey brought tragedy to Texas and the Gulf Coast. And now, we expect similar devastation in the path of Hurricane Irma. Alongside images of destruction and loss, we see images of hope, care, and compassion. Many Americans have put aside difference and come together as a community to help each other. This affirms my faith in the future.
With that, I would like once more to applaud our Furman Fellows, Nancy Powers and the faculty and staff award winners.
And thank you for joining us this morning. May you leave here encouraged and inspired, committed to the ideals of the Furman community and your own continual transformation.
Director of News and Media Strategy