Remarks as prepared for delivery.
Good evening, Jayhawks!
I’m so glad that you’re here tonight, and that you’ve chosen KU as your home for the next several years.
This is the 147th time our university has gathered to mark the start of a new academic year, meaning you are part of a long and proud tradition of academic excellence.
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. It’s our expectation that you’ll contribute to every part of that mission during your time on Mount Oread.
We have high expectations for you, starting with the expectation that our undergraduates will graduate in four years and that our graduate students will also graduate on-time.
There are many distractions at a university, some of them even worthwhile. But your primary goal should be to earn your degrees so that you can walk down the Hill as graduates.
We also expect that you’ll be active members of our community. This word—“community” —is important. Our university is a community of scholars. It is a gathering of people who are all here because they want to learn and explore. You share this common bond with each other. But our community is vibrant and diverse because you also bring your own identity and pieces of your own communities to KU.
Earlier today, many of you took part in group discussions about our common book, Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss. I sat in on one of those groups and heard students actively discussing the many thought-provoking topics Biss covers in her essays.
One of her main topics is race and the artificial divisions it still creates in our country. Another is fear, and the isolation that it causes.
But tonight, since we are gathered here as a community, I want to talk briefly about another of the book’s themes: our personal identities and how those are shaped by, and reflective of, our communities.
Each one of us is molded by the communities we’ve been a part of. I wouldn’t be the same person I am today if I hadn’t grown up in the small town of Washington, North Carolina. My experiences there shaped my views of the world and my views of myself. I learned from the people there, and that community continues to be a part of me even today.
But very we often can’t see just how our community has shaped us until we leave home—like you’re doing by coming to KU. Even those of you from Lawrence have moved from one community to another just by coming up the Hill.
When you leave your home and live in a new place your perception of yourself often changes as you see how others perceive you. For example, while Biss thought of herself has having a more complex background, she was simply seen as white in New York and San Diego. And in Mexico, race fell away and she was simply seen as an American.
Living in different communities, learning from the people there and teaching them about herself, caused Biss to reflect upon and explore her own identity. You now have that same opportunity.
Part of the value of a liberal arts education is that it allows you to explore the vast sweep of science, the arts, the humanities, social sciences and more. It gives you the chance to learn more than just how to get a good job. It gives you the chance to gather the skills and experiences you’ll need to lead a fulfilling life.
To be successful, and to solve the immense challenges before us, our society needs engineers who understand how their creations will affect individuals and communities. It needs musicians who are also educators, and doctors who are also advocates. We need leaders who have received the broad-based education that you’ll receive here.
For example, you may study Lucretius, a Roman poet and philosopher who lived and wrote in the first century BC. His name is prominent again, because many of the debates and discoveries we think of as modern, he was actually writing about two thousand years ago.
Lucretius contended that the world is composed of atoms that could not be newly created or destroyed. He also argued against divine creation and enunciated the principles of natural selection and survival of the fittest that would be attributed to Charles Darwin many centuries later.
Stephen Greenblatt, the author of a recent book on Lucretius, will come to campus in November and you’ll have a chance to visit with him. Just as you’ll have the chance to hear and question many other leading scholars and scientists while at KU.
I said a moment ago that your main goal should be to earn your degrees. I use the word “earn” because it will take effort. Things will not be handed to you. But that also means you’ll have the freedom to set your own path.
On the way, you will be challenged. But you wouldn’t be here if we didn’t expect you to rise to those challenges.
You’ll also be called upon to be part of something bigger than yourself, to make a contribution to this community. That can take any number of forms, from intermural sports to student government, from community service to joining a research lab.
And at times you may stand out from the crowd, which I know can be uncomfortable. But it’s also an outstanding way to determine what you truly believe and who you truly are.
This university is special not because of its historic buildings or its beautiful campus. It’s special because it is home to a community of amazingly talented scholars. We have students, faculty and staff here studying essentially every subject you can imagine, from art history to X-ray crystallography.
Anything you want to explore, you can explore here. And you can do so as part of a community of scholars who, despite our different histories, backgrounds and world views, all share a desire to learn, and a desire to use what we learn to make this world a better place.
I know I speak for the deans and for all of our faculty and staff when I tell you how happy we are that you have joined our community. We’re eager to teach – and learn from – you, and can’t wait to see all that you are going to accomplish here, and as KU graduates.
Welcome to your university, Jayhawks.