Nayef H. Samhat addressed the Class of 2022 at the Opening Convocation on Aug. 26.
Thank you, President Roush, and everyone at Centre. I cannot describe to you how honored Prema and I are to be here with you this evening, how much this means to us personally, for Centre College is dear to us. It is great to be back.
Like all of you in the class of 2022, I began a journey right here at Centre College, in this hall, in 1996. After several years in a small family business and as the father of two young daughters, I returned to graduate school to study for my Ph.D. Our third daughter, a 2016 Centre graduate, came along during that time.
We moved to Danville in 1996 when it was a much quieter town, and for me — someone who was accustomed to big cities in the Midwest — I admit that I never imagined living in Kentucky. Of course, I never imagined living in South Carolina either! But how fortunate we were.
The point, of course, is that our lives are filled with twists and turns, and people, who shape our paths, point us to opportunity, and it is up to you to take some charge of your life and the opportunities it presents.
So it is with Centre. When Prema and I moved here with our three daughters, Alia, Jehani and Leila, we did so with excitement and anticipation. I was joining a Government program with colleagues who are lifelong and dear friends — Dan Stroup, Bill Garriott, the late Larry Matheny. Lori Hartmann joined the program and too became a dear and lifelong friend. We met so many others throughout the college and the Danville community who became lifelong and dear friends.
There were other treasured friends and mentors — Mike Adams, who was president when I came, and John Ward who was Dean of the College. President Roush came to Centre and afterwards Stephanie Fabritius arrived as Dean once John Ward retired. To you students these are perhaps unfamiliar names — or most of them are — but to me and my family, these colleagues, friends and mentors — everyone and more — touched us in profound ways. This is the unexpected nature of our path and the beauty and the wonder of this college. Because of the inspiration and encouragement provided by these friends and mentors, their unfailing support, their guidance and advice, I began to think about opportunities in my career that were exciting and novel. These people and this college transformed our life. And this college will transform your life, too.
Now I don’t know if you’ll become a college president, but you’ll probably do something different than you may have imagined when you arrived.
And when you do, you need to take along with you something about Centre that is distinctive. For when I arrived I entered a community of educators, of friends and colleagues, that was defined by something special, that other places struggled to achieve. It was a shared respect and civility amongst the faculty and administrative colleagues. The academy has a reputation as a political environment, but Centre was different. Faculty meetings were not great battles over small stakes, as the saying goes. There were no battles really. Centre was different. And the students followed this endearing and, I suspect, enduring culture of Centre College. It was a wonderful community that knew how to discuss difficult issues, that at the end of the day adhered to principles of comity and respect, where civility amongst and between peers whether faculty, staff and coaches, and students defined what being a part of Centre College was all about.
So why is civility important? Why is thinking about civility in relation to our journey important as we begin the academic year? I believe that civility and the capacity to build community are the most important things you will take with you on your life’s journey.
You know this, but I will state it: We live in turbulent times; some say dangerous times. Attending college is a gift, a privilege. And while I wish describing these times as turbulent were fake news, it’s not. The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported back-to-back record-breaking years for hate crimes and extremist activity, even on college campuses. International students are afraid to go home because they may not be able to return to college. We are arguing over statues, voting rights, guns and guns in schools, education, immigration and border walls — you name it. We are even debating truth: alternative facts, or is it truth isn’t truth?
Standing against the forces that threaten our educational opportunities, our freedoms and human rights is a risk, and the fallout can get messy. Here is personal experience: In early 2017, we joined other colleges and universities across the county supporting the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ request that the Trump “administration’s new order barring the entry or return of individuals from certain countries end as quickly as possible.” We, as an academic community, urged the United States government to welcome the most talented individuals from all countries to study, teach and carry out research and scholarship at our colleges and universities. This order, of course, reflected a sustained criticism of some immigrants from some countries, which continues to this day.
The college’s letter of support for the AACU — signed by me on behalf of the Wofford College community — led to correspondence from friends of the college and even a group of students who started a petition criticizing our stance. Some of those letters were frankly disrespectful and uncivil, so much so that they did their argument much more harm than good. But even though some of the negative responses were less than gracious in their tone, what stood out was a sense of fear — perhaps a fear of difference or a fear of change. Fear seemed to permeate many responses; and while it must be terribly hard to live in such fear, we cannot and will not be bullied by the people who turn that fear into prejudice and hate, immigration bans and border walls.
The good news is that over a couple of weeks far more of the letters and emails the college received were positive, praising Wofford for making such a bold statement, and another group of students started a counter-petition supporting the college administration and the statement asking the Trump administration to resend its draconian order. Over the course of those correspondence-filled days, the counter-petition far surpassed the other in signatures, and the conversation on campus that took place was shaped by a culture of inclusiveness, respect and civility.
Liberal arts colleges like ours have shared good times and challenging times with their surrounding cities, states and nation. In May, your own campus community made some headlines and found ways to consider important questions of diversity, equity and inclusion. In doing so through protest, you demonstrated what it means to live and learn on the campus of a liberal arts college, where we seek to mirror society and to promote the change we desire in our campus community and in our world. And here is an important lesson: To make a call for civility is not to replace or displace action. Action and civility are not mutually exclusive, and we mustn’t rely on calls for civility to substitute for those times and those issues when real action is required, knowing full well that action takes a variety of forms: engagement in normal channels of governance and decision making, but also in marches, panel discussions, candlelight vigils, and articles in the campus newspaper; these are all ways for you to take a stance on issues and decide what you believe, to bring a vision for your community in concert with others in alignment with the world around you.
Naturally there will be tension when difficult questions are posed, questions that confront us all with inflection points of social, cultural or community change. But that is not a reason to avoid that dialogue or to avoid engagement just as it is not a reason to depart from principled norms of civility. Rather, it is when those most difficult questions are addressed that a reliance on relations of civility is most necessary because our resolutions do not erase our memories. The journey is every bit as important as the outcome, one that we hope has advanced our community, and reconciliation is made all the stronger and more enduring if founded principles of mutual civility.
Hence, college campuses are not impenetrable bubbles, but they do remain spaces where academic freedom still protects free speech and critical thinking and experimentation, places where individual students are valued for exploring, dreaming and discussing the big questions. I would go as far as to say that on liberal arts campuses like ours you are encouraged to challenge the status quo, question received wisdom and imagine solutions to the many problems facing our world. The ethos of civility that our liberal arts campuses offer allow for this type of open dialogue and engagement, and so make no mistake about it, you are privileged to be a student where this can happen. Do it with respect, with civility, and carry this ethos of civil engagement with you when you leave here because, as our contemporary circumstances suggest, it is in short supply out there and the fabric of our democracy depends on it.
Now it is a pretty sweeping claim to assert that our democracy depends on it. And I realize that is a pretty heavy burden I’m putting on you. Yet I believe higher education and the experience you are about to embark upon is about more than getting a job. I really and truly believe it is about cultivating a broad notion of citizenship and civility that strengthens all of us.
Take, for example, a 2017 Washington Post op-ed by Bill Bishop, co-author of “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.” Bishop writes that everything about modern life works against community and trust, generating a polarized society. He references Gallup polls of U.S. adults over the past 40 years to demonstrate the erosion of confidence that Americans now have in major institutions, including the public-school system (down 28% since the 1970s), banks (down 33%), religious organizations (down 24%) and media (down 31%). There is a lack of faith in our electoral system and, troubling for the likes of us, an erosion of trust and confidence in higher education. If this is what the clustering of like-minded America is doing, then I completely agree with Mr. Bishop; it is tearing us apart.
It should come as no surprise then that the 8th Civility in America study found that 93 percent of the public agrees that the nation has a major civility problem. According to the survey, nearly three quarters of the public — from both major political parties — agree that the problem has gotten worse in recent years. Most importantly, the public is almost unanimous in citing the importance of civility to democracy.
Why is this important as you begin your college career?
It is important because as a community of learners, of citizens, it is not only necessary to embrace the diversity of the world around us — whether we speak of faith, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, geography, socio-economic status — society is an ever more complex quilt, and you do a disservice to yourself if you do not pursue the opportunity to learn from the diverse experiences of others. But it is also important how you embrace this world. You must model civility while fostering connections between what is learned in the classroom and the application of knowledge in complex and challenging circumstances, and you must develop in yourself a deep consciousness of our globality — our place in a complex network of economic, political, social and cultural cross-currents, where, for example, service and learning in Danville, KY, or somewhere in South Asia, is recognized as not only an enhancement to our community, but as part of a larger logic of humanity, shared with others at multiple points, places, and experiences around the globe.
Here I am struck by an argument offered by Evgeny Morozov, in a New York Times op-ed essay, “The Perils of Perfection.” It is an argument about the solutions we seek and our increasing faith in technology. As he argues, “Sunny, smooth, clean: with Silicon Valley at the helm, our life will become one long California highway.” We will have available a world of apps to outsource our decisions; apps to spot inconsistencies in our behavior and notify us — to correct us; we snap images and take videos, so we never have to worry about forgetting; we are on the verge of creating a consistency in our lives and our experiences — a kind of perfection of lived lives, a “digital humanitarianism” where techno-solutions bring an ease to our existence erasing the need for the reflective balancing of alternatives, the engagement with others, and the search for ethical principles on which to ground outcomes.
More to the point, of course, is that the problems we face are not all solvable by social media, techno-surveys of friends and families, networks of advice givers. In fact, many if not most of our challenges require concerted effort, concentration, hard work, cooperation with others, human ingenuity unmediated by technologies.
No, the challenges are greater and more complex, and the opportunities before you as profound as any moment in history. I want you to think about this for a moment. I want you to come to understand the world in which you live: It is one defined by diversity and the blending of peoples of varying races, faiths, ethnicities and sexual orientations. It is defined by the intensity and density of cultural, economic, and social networks spanning the globe. The pace of interactions, knowledge and flows are unknown in human history, and therefore creating the conditions of change that challenge the presumptions and settled circumstances of eras gone by. Whether in Lexington, Paris, Beijing or Spartanburg, the world you live today is vastly different from the world of mere decades ago, and it will be even more so mere decades from now.
And while we will continue to rely on our technologies for conveniences, we must step away from the illusion that those very technologies are solutions. You need to avoid being lulled into to a false sense of understanding your world through flat screens, text messages, twitter, and Facebook and apps.
So, I am issuing to you students a charge, your responsibility at Centre and beyond:
First, you must pursue excellence in all that you do — in the classroom and out, on the stages and studios of performance and the fields and courts of play — you must never settle for less. You will not always succeed or be the best, but you will have no regrets.
Second, you must engage your world — challenge your senses, your emotions, your physical and intellectual limits. You must “do” and experience, find ways to help others, to become aware, and do so with the respect that reinforces and advances your community.
The rebuilding of trust, the renewal of our institutions in our communities and our society, is not a virtual exercise; it is a human exercise. It requires dialogue and engagement. And by your own self-transformation over the next four years, you will have the capacity to re-imagine and contribute to our collective transformation. That is your responsibility.
In so doing, you will come to realize the promise of our humanity, founded on that extraordinary and infinite source of human ingenuity, compassion, aspiration and civility that resides in us all, and binds us to each other wherever we may be.
Now take your new-found freedom and change our world!