Good evening, Jayhawks!
It is my pleasure to welcome you to Opening Convocation. I recognize many of you from Traditions Night last night, and from the discussions on the Common Book this afternoon.
This is the one hundred and forty eighth time the University of Kansas has come together to mark the start of the academic year.
It is also one of our first opportunities to welcome the newest members of our community of scholars: our freshmen, transfer students and new graduate students, as well as new faculty and staff.
We’re joined here tonight by your fellow Jayhawks; by faculty, staff and alumni; and by friends of KU. They join me in welcoming you, and share my desire to ensure all of you have a successful beginning to your academic careers, as well as a successful—and on-time—conclusion to those careers when you walk down the Hill at Commencement.
Between tonight and that day—which right now seems far away, but I assure you will be here before you know it—you will be challenged. You will have to study more, read more, write more and take part in more classroom discussions than you have before. You’ll be encouraged to study abroad. To conduct undergraduate research. To take part in service learning. And that’s all just through your curriculum. I haven’t even mentioned clubs and sports and late night discussions on the meaning of life.
You will be challenged. But that’s what it means to be a Jayhawk and to attend a flagship research university. And you wouldn’t be here if we—and you—didn’t think you were ready to meet that challenge.
I mentioned a moment ago the Common Book, which this year is Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time. The stories he tells—of families’ struggles to eke out a life in a world where clouds of dust made the sun go dark at midday—are heartbreaking. But the broader themes offer a roadmap to what our undergraduate students should expect to learn during their studies as part of the new KU Core Curriculum.
This curriculum, which for the first time will be taken by all KU undergraduates, is intended to give you a foundation for your fields of study, whatever those might be.
For example, one of our very first goals is to enhance your critical thinking skills. With the benefit of hindsight, we can look back on the claims of the salesmen and speculators who sold marginal lands to unwitting families and see how those claims were shaded, biased and sometimes just false. But in the moment it is invaluable to have the ability to critically examine an argument, taking the motivations of the person making that argument into account. It’s also vital to have the ability to question your own assumptions as you interact with the world.
Another goal is for you to have a background across a wide range of fields, such as knowledge of history. Such knowledge would have helped the settlers of No Man’s Land. There had been droughts on the plains before, and many of the Native Americans and cowboys who lived and worked the grasslands knew it was folly to try to grow crops in a place that received so little rain. But few heeded those warnings, to their cost.
That same knowledge of history also teaches us how powerful climate, weather and geography are in shaping civilization. Changes in climate affect the weather, making once fertile lands turn to dust, while at the same time greening others. That causes some societies to prosper, others to innovate and still others to disappear.
We also want you to recognize the interconnectedness of our world. We talk about a global economy now, but even a century ago a war in Europe increased demand for wheat from America, creating a vicious cycle that almost destroyed the plains. Our modern world is even more connected, and perhaps even more fragile.
It is also helpful to be able to recognize the value in things. Many saw the prairie as “just prairie grass,” but that prairie grass was the only thing keeping the Great Plains from becoming the Great American Desert.
Ultimately, our goal is for you to bring all these strands together, and use all that you have learned to find flexible solutions to the challenges you face, and to those we face together. And, as Jayhawks, we will expect you to solve those challenges in an ethical and socially responsible way, recognizing that each of us—no matter our background, beliefs or station in life—is a valued member of this community.
The education you will receive at this research university is unlike anything you have experienced thus far. But that is what makes it so valuable. It isn’t about remembering dates in history, or memorizing the periodic table. It isn’t even about checking off the boxes on the list of classes you need to graduate.
It is about preparing you to be active, engaged citizens—citizens who will make full use of your rights and fulfill each of your responsibilities to your communities, no matter where on Earth those communities are located. It is about preparing you to use the talents you’ve been given, the skills you’ve honed and the education you’ve pursued to create a better world for yourselves and your neighbors.
The mission of the University of Kansas is to lift students and society by educating leaders, building healthy communities and making discoveries that change the world. You are those leaders. With your help, we will make our communities healthier and more vibrant. And together, we will change the world.
Welcome, Jayhawks! We’re glad you are here. And I hope you’re ready to get started.