Good evening, Jayhawks!
Welcome to Convocation, and to the University of Kansas. I’m so glad you’ve chosen KU as your home for the next few years. I use the word “home” because this place will soon feel like home, and the people here will soon become your Jayhawk Family.
Convocation is always special because it is the official kickoff to the academic year. But this year’s Convocation is particularly special because it begins our university’s 150th anniversary, a remarkable milestone we’ll be celebrating throughout the year.
It was 1866 when the first students came to KU. There were 55 of them — 26 women and 29 men — nearly all from Lawrence or Douglas County.
My, how things have changed.
Today, we have a first-year class of 4,000 strong, as well as 1,200 new transfer students, and students from all 105 Kansas counties, all 50 states, and more than 100 countries. What started as a small college on the hill has become a multi-campus, international research university. And now each of you is a part of this university, and a part of KU’s history.
Tonight we welcome back our returning students, faculty and staff. But I especially want to welcome our newest Jayhawks on the eve of your great adventure … an adventure that begins this week, and culminates when you walk down the Hill with your degree at Commencement.
Now, I’m going to give you new students some straight talk: We have high expectations for you. 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. And it’s our expectation that each of you will contribute to this mission.
First, I expect each of you to stay on track to graduate on time — in four years, for most of you.
I also expect you’ll be active members of our community, which includes Lawrence and the KU campus. But it also implies the “academic community” — our community of scholars. For the next few years, you’ll be surrounded by people who choose to be here because, like you, they want to learn, to discover, to make a difference. We expect you to take advantage of this community, by learning from it, and contributing to it with your talents.
As I mentioned, this year is KU’s 150th anniversary — our sesquicentennial. As such, it’s the perfect time to reflect on both our university’s history, and our role in shaping the future.
The University of Kansas was conceived in the 1850s, when Kansas was ground zero for some of our nation’s most violent disputes over slavery and statehood. A decade later, amid the smoldering ashes of the Civil War, the university was born.
In other words, since its beginning, this university has been central to our nation’s story, and to our society’s grandest challenges.
Thankfully, our nation is no longer engulfed in a Civil War. However, we are still grappling with a number of grand challenges, some of which — citizenship , race, states’ rights — aren’t that different from those of 150 years ago.
In fact, the past few years, we have witnessed as much national discussion of difficult societal issues as at any period in recent memory.
Smartphones and social media have shown us the killings of young African American men by officers. At the same time that our nation has witnessed the birth of a new non-violent protest movement, some of our cities have been rocked by violent riots. In June, our nation united in condemning the murder of nine people in a Charleston church by a young man who cloaked himself in the imagery of the Civil War. These events amplify our nation’s long-running conversation about race and equality.
In the past two years, the Supreme Court has issued landmark rulings on, healthcare, voting rights, housing discrimination ... and a ruling of tremendous significance that I did not expect to see during my time at KU — the legalization of gay marriage.
In other words, we have not had a “slow news day” for a long time.
At the same time, the body politic continues to address issues that reflect the many disciplines that you will study at KU: wealth disparity, gun policy, climate change, the need for new sources of energy and water, and even the role of government.
And this is where you come in. ...
My call to you is to use your time at KU to begin addressing these challenges.
It will not be easy. Engaging with these topics will at times make you uncomfortable. It will make the people around you uncomfortable. And that’s good. That’s precisely why you’re here. To be challenged. To experience intellectual discomfort. To have the opportunity to learn and to test new ideas. And we will be here with you — the faculty and staff — to guide and support you as you do this important work as students.
And I hope you will challenge us, as well. Indeed, my experience tells me you will.
And I expect you will continue to address many of these challenges after you graduate.
So Jayhawks: Take advantage of this opportunity to get started.
Study hard. Study abroad. Get involved. Meet new people. Volunteer. Have fun. Do things that make you better. Do things that make your Jayhawk Family better. Do things that make you nervous. Because I promise, if you take advantage of this opportunity and challenge yourself, there’s no limit to what you can do here, and wherever you go from here.
So, you’re about to embark on the great adventure of college. Adventures are exciting. And can be intimidating.
But I want you to know something. ... It’s OK to feel challenged in this place. You are now part of the Jayhawk Family. And families look out for one other.
Welcome to the University of Kansas. I’m glad that each and every one of you is here.