Convocation Address 2010
President John C. Bravman's 2010 Convocation Address. Watch the full Convocation video here.
Aug. 24, 2010
Chairman Freeman and other Members of the Board of Trustees, my Faculty Colleagues, Members of the Staff, Students, Distinguished Guests, and most especially, Members of the Class of 2014 and our new Transfer Students, welcome. It is a distinct honor and privilege to be with you tonight on this special occasion and on the eve of our new academic year. Tomorrow, when classes begin, the very reason for our being here — indeed, the very reason for Bucknell to exist at all — comes into focus. Our mission, working together, is to once again prove our claim of being a great liberal arts university. I know we will succeed.
My remarks tonight are directed to our first-year students, but I want to extend special thanks to my faculty colleagues for being here. I have much to learn from you over the weeks and months and years ahead and we have much to do together as we build on the traditions and many excellences of Bucknell. This is a special place, and Wendy and I are grateful for the warm welcome that you have extended to us since last April.
Students of the new college class, joining you here in this beautiful arts center this evening are your new classmates and peers. Like you they are interesting people with many talents and aspirations, many hopes and many dreams and perhaps even some of the same fears. They also happen to be superb students just like you. They will inspire and support you, as you will them. Some of you will become close friends along the way, friends that you will have for the rest of your lives. Indeed, in the audience tonight are some who know one of my friends from my freshman year, 35 years ago. It is no cliché to say that the world is small.
Some of these friends will take you under their wings while you are here at Bucknell and they will help you grow and learn. You will share many special experiences together, including some outside the classroom. Those are an important aspect of college life, and so I urge you to find friends who will help you become your best self and who will help you become what you wanted to become when you chose Bucknell.
Which brings me to a question for all the students here this evening. It's the type of question you cannot possibly answer tonight. Nonetheless, Bucknell quietly asks it of you not only now but in the days and months ahead and you will provide an answer one way or another. The question is simple, but the answer may take a lifetime to provide. You've worked very hard to sit with us tonight, surrounded by others who, like you, have already achieved so much in your young lives. You've told us about who you are. That's in part why you were admitted to this great University. But now we ask, more importantly: Who are you becoming?
Who are you becoming? Such is our faith in you that we believe you are ready to answer this question, in word, and in deed — but only over time. Our faith in you involves, at its core, our own belief that you have a fierce determination to challenge yourself in new and deeper ways; to confront life and its possibilities with new perspectives; and to pursue thoughtfully, deeply, and thoroughly, the life of the mind. For that is our purpose here at Bucknell. In a world full of ignorance and complacency, of narrow vision and tall self-interest, we, the faculty, have very high expectations of you, the students. We want you to develop more subtle, more nuanced ways of reasoning. We want you to question yourself, as readily as you question others. We want you to experience things that are wholly new in your life. We want nothing less than for you to fully embrace all the privileges and all the responsibilities of higher learning.
Now, I'd like you to think back several years to when you began your high school journey. Focus for a moment on the person that you were then — and think of yourself now. How much have you changed? Can you conceive of changing that much again? Well you will — and even more — if you allow Bucknell into your mind and your heart and your soul. And along the way, you will begin to answer our question, "Who are you becoming?"
Center of learning experience
Many people here will help you answer this question, but without doubt the most important group comprises those I've already specifically mentioned — the faculty. The faculty at Bucknell are, when all else is said and done, the reason you are here. They are at the very center of the learning experience that we trust is the reason you ultimately chose to attend Bucknell. Our faculty comprise an outstanding group of scholars who have dedicated their professional lives to undergraduates just like you; they are ready to work with you and help you in ways that require their unique insights, experiences, dedication, and high education. At many other universities this is not always the case. But if there is one fact I already know about Bucknell it is that this faculty is dedicated to working closely with you in helping you to succeed and understand who you are and what you want to accomplish and in answering the question: who are you becoming?
This University has invested heavily in its faculty — and it has done so on your behalf. In recent years, it has added scores of new faculty to the tenure-line ranks, at a time when many are predicting the end of the tenured professoriate in America. This means that there are more faculty than ever here to work with you, to teach you, and to advise you. Thanks to the faculty we have a significant undergraduate research program, a new curriculum in the College of Arts and Sciences, a wonderful study abroad program, and a host of interdisciplinary endeavors for you to consider, to name just a few. As president, my highest priorities will be to support the faculty in its work, and to find the resources needed by the University to better serve their needs and yours. I hope that, perhaps even before you graduate, we will have on this campus a significant new academic building, and that we will have made genuine and substantive progress on the University's current strategic plan. I will do everything I possibly can to make this and other things a reality for you. I will ask some of you to join me and some of our faculty in telling Bucknell's story to those that can make these and other developments a reality. You are joining a community, and I want you to be with me as we strive to make it stronger. As you will benefit from those that came before you, so too will you be asked to help with those generations yet to come. In this way, together, we can step squarely into Bucknell's history, and help determine its future.
If you want some idea of how much difference a faculty member can make in your life, let me tell you a story. When I first enrolled as an undergraduate, I knew I planned to major in engineering. But by the middle of my sophomore year I hadn't made a connection with any particular discipline, and, frankly, as a result I started to do poorly in classes.
Part of your future
Fortunately, in the third quarter of my sophomore year, I took an introductory materials science course. The professor in that course helped me understand how exciting engineering could be, and I became absolutely fascinated with the field, especially when I realized that it was a bridge between the worlds of pure science and applied engineering technology. Materials scientists seek to understand why matter behaves the way it does; why, for instance, silicon is the basis for almost all microelectronic devices, why glass shatters but metals bend, and why certain semiconductors can turn light into electricity. That, by the way, is going to be a big part of your future.
My professor, Bob Sinclair, cared deeply about his students and he was observant, uncannily so it seemed to me. He saw how much I connected with the subject matter, and he saw something in me I didn't even see in myself.
Near the end of that class, he pulled me aside and encouraged me to pursue a major in materials science, a discipline I had never even heard of before going to college. I followed his advice and realized that he had found something in me, in my personality, in my abilities, and he had identified a major field of study for which I was a perfect fit. His guidance and encouragement made all the difference.
But before I graduated, it happened again and I experienced in dramatic terms how important a faculty member who gets to know you can be — not just to your studies but perhaps to the arc of your entire life. Near the end of what I assumed would be the end of my four years of college, I saw tremendous career opportunities ahead. It was the late 1970s, and at that time, science and technology were full of exciting opportunities, especially in Silicon Valley. I knew I would graduate, head straight into industry and, frankly, earn some serious money. All those material temptations. I had visions of a nice car, an apartment of my own, dining out whenever I wanted. It was quite exciting to think about this, especially for a first graduation college student, a second generation American from a working-class background in New York.
But that's when my professor had another heart-to-heart conversation with me. This time he encouraged me to pursue my doctorate in engineering. Honestly, I had never thought about that. Me, a Ph.D. in engineering? You must be kidding. I didn't even know frankly what that meant. A master's degree took one more year, so a doctorate took, what, two more? Try five or six or seven or eight.
But once again he saw something in me that I hadn't seen in myself. He conveyed something very important to me, something I know faculty here will convey to you, that they believe in you, that you can do it.
So even though my graduate school stipend was a fraction of the industrial salary I would earn as an engineer, I took his advice. And, boy, I am glad I did. Among other things, I would not be standing here now but for him. He didn't just help me find a profession, he helped me find a career and a vocation and, in many ways, a good part of my life.
I am here to tell you that Bucknell's faculty members can and will do the same for you if you let them. They care about you, and if you give them a chance, they will do more than help you grow as students, as leaders, and as individuals. They will help you discover where your true abilities and passions can take you.
Perhaps you've already gotten to know a professor through orientation or even before when you visited campus or reached out online. Either way, I am pleased to tell you that with classes about to begin, you're about to learn why our faculty members are the definitive reason to come to Bucknell. Seek them out. Ask their advice. Very importantly, ask them questions. They are here for you. In fact, we all are here for you to encourage you to think deeply and critically.
Who are you becoming?
Of course, our faculty, and our superb staff, cannot take on their missions alone — they need you. And so, let me share just one perspective on your role in answering the question, "Who are you becoming?" — a perspective based on decades of work in the academy and in serving the needs of students like you and that is completely independent of your major, your academic and non-academic interests, and professional goals.
Tonight I challenge and urge you to develop what I call "scholarly habits of mind." That is, a set of intellectual proclivities that will help you to approach issues and problems in deep and thoughtful ways, that involve various tools of critical analysis and that embrace rather than reject the complexities of so many situations today. Scholarly habits engage both the left and the right brain, and help address the ambiguities and anomalies that are so often attendant to meaningful inquiry and real-world problem solving. Scholarly habits vary with discipline — a physicist, an historian, and an economist, for instance, all have their own ways of thinking — but any and all these will serve you well throughout your entire lives.
I also challenge to cultivate an enquiring and curious mind. Life is short. Within a few years, believe it or not, you will begin to truly understand that concept. And as your opportunities for formal education come to an end you may find, and I predict you will find, that there is so much more of interest to you than you ever thought possible. By developing a deep sense of curiousity, you will prepare yourself for a lifetime of learning, which in turn will deepen and enrich your lives and the lives of those around you. Think about it — do you enjoy the company of the single-minded or the well-versed? Who do you think is positioned to contribute most to society or secure the best internship or job? Scholarly habits of mind do not allow for an exclusive embrace of the familiar, but rather seek out multiple perspectives.
I am particularly concerned when I see students, or anyone for that matter, exclusively seeking affirmation of their own ideas rather than the challenge of confronting others' ideas. Such an approach will narrow your mind and leave you ill-prepared to defend your ideas against a determined opponent. It will limit you in many endeavors and, all in all, make your life less interesting.
There are many more perspectives that I could share with you about the importance of intentionality, about developing a sense of urgency or even about the deeply enduring value even in the age of Twitter and Facebook and all of that of writing well, but our time tonight is short. Scholarly habits of mind will serve you well. I hope you have read the freshman book, "Five Minds for the Future." It addresses some important and related ideas.
Now, when I was with you last night in Sojka Pavilion learning the alma mater and the Bucknell fight song, I experienced your exuberance and energy in a very real way. The Cameron Crazies have nothing on the Sojka Psychos. I loved being there last night. Tonight I am asking and challenging you to bring the same type of enthusiasm, perhaps more quietly expressed, to your academic pursuits. Remember, that's why you are here. If you can do that, you can have a lot of fun, you will have a tremendous educational experience at Bucknell and you will be prepared for a lifetime of achievement, service, and leadership. And then you will know what it means to be a Bucknellian.
Thank you and good luck.