2005 Convocation: Chancellor's Address

Delivered on September 28, 2005

"Stretching the Boundaries of Thought and Experience"

Thank you very much, Rahim, and thanks, as well, to you, Dan, for your remarks.

Kern, these convocations wouldn't be what they are without the uplifting music that you and the Symphony Orchestra provide.

And welcome and thank you to all of you who are here today.  I know you are very busy – particularly now as the new school year gets underway.  But I am grateful that you have given this hour to come together as a UC Davis family:

First, our staff – there's not a more dedicated or hardworking group to be found.   I'm forever grateful for all you do to support the campus….

And our students, who give this campus so much of its vibrancy and inspire us all with their idealism, and their parents, who provide the love and support their students need to excel….

Our faculty, who breathe life into our mission of learning, discovery and engagement and provide the foundation for our aspirations….

And our alumni and friends, whose support and advocacy help transform our aspirations into accomplishments – and special among them this morning is UC Regent Odessa Johnson.

So welcome and thank you all so much for coming today.

You might consider today's convocation a sequel – with perhaps a bit more exposition and character development.  Its theme – “Stretching the Boundaries of Thought and Experience" – builds on last year's convocation theme of turning boundaries into bridges.  And helping me to stretch those boundaries this morning are five folks who'll soon share with us their personal-belief essays.

But first, I'd like to tell you a bit about how I came to settle on this theme and what I wanted to say today to you about it.  It really was a combination of experiences and conversations, leading from Davis to Singapore and dating back to last spring.

First, last May the Mondavi Center presenting program announced its fourth season – in many ways, its best, I think, with more than 122 performances by 71 different visiting artists and speakers.  While you'll find many who are world famous, you'll also find many who are up and coming and who will present experimental and innovative works.  They will, quite literally, stretch the boundaries of our thought and experience.  

While that's exactly the kind of diverse programming I believe a university-based performing arts center should offer, I thought then that some folks may not at first recognize the rewards of experiencing the new and the unfamiliar.  But that there are rewards I am absolutely convinced.  And that we should make them available, I'm also absolutely convinced.  I'm a firm believer in the saying that surprise is the greatest gift that life can grant us.

Second, at about that same time last spring I was chatting with Fred Wood.  He's our interim vice provost for undergraduate studies.  We talked about a trend he has observed over the past few years.  It's called the parents-as-personal-trainers phenomenon.

Have you heard of that?  It's the tendency for parents, with all good intentions, to guide their children into so-called “safe" areas of study that in great measure repeat their students' very successful high school experience.  And their students seem to be internalizing this fear of risking failure in areas that are unfamiliar.

I can't help but think that perhaps both students and their parents would benefit from having Walt Whitman as personal trainer.  In Whitman's words, “From this hour I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines."  It's only when we free ourselves of those self-imposed boundaries – when we listen to our hearts and give wing to our natural curiosity – that we can truly see and tap the breadth of opportunity available to us.

Third, soon after my conversation with Fred, I had lunch with Sacramento Bee publisher Janis Heaphy and several of her colleagues.  Janis raised the issue of what's been called “the journalism of affirmation."  That sounds positive at first, but it's not.  It's the trend for people to turn to sources of information that affirm their convictions rather than to seek new and potentially challenging information. 

New York Times guest columnist Matt Miller asks, not so rhetorically, “Is it possible in America today to convince anyone of anything he [or she] doesn't already believe?  If so, are there enough places where this mingling of minds occurs to sustain a democracy?"

That's troubling, isn't it?  I'd like to be as optimistic as University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato, who believes that people choosing their sources wisely can actually get better news from more perspectives.  He says, “Over time, inevitably, people will branch out more widely, simply because they're going to find they don't fully understand what's happening.  Anyone who's even slightly curious will broaden the scope of their sources."

I hope that he's right, and I think there are things that we, as individuals and as a community, can do to help ensure that the future he sees is the future that awaits us.

Fourth, and finally, I had the opportunity of traveling to Singapore this summer to attend the annual meeting of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities.  There, I had the privilege to hear from several wise leaders of this island republic whose heritage is that of a crossroads of global commerce, ideas and discourse.

Among them was the founding prime minister of Singapore, known as the “minister mentor," and a former United Nations ambassador by the name of Tommy Koh.

Tommy Koh prefaced his remarks with this truism:  “Institutions languish when their lovers are uncritical and their critics are unloving."  He then went on to offer a bit of loving criticism as a friend and an admirer of the United States, saying that he hoped Americans would begin to practice “deep listening," a virtue, in his judgment, that many Americans lack.

As much as I'd like to disagree with him, I'm afraid he's right.  Today it seems that the art of deep listening, of hearing and honoring another person's perspective, is perhaps a fading art.

According to Matt Miller, the New York Times columnist I earlier quoted, “honoring what's right in the other side's argument seems a superfluous thing that can only cause trouble, like an appendix."

And so these cumulative interactions these past few months explain how I got here, how I chose the theme of “Stretching the Boundaries of Thought and Experience."  It's a theme that encourages us to deliberately seek experiences and conversations that extend our understanding, that challenge our firmly held beliefs, that honor the new and the unfamiliar, and that take us a bit out of our comfort zones.

And it is these experiences that bring me to formally launch today a yearlong initiative called My Personal Compass.  It is an initiative that, at its heart, is intended to encourage people of different beliefs to listen to one another.

It does so by inviting members of our campus community to write 350- to 450-word essays about the beliefs that guide their daily lives and to then thoughtfully consider the varied perspectives that are sure to result from this collective effort.

My Personal Compass is modeled after National Public Radio's This I Believe program, which, in turn, reprises the radio essay series hosted in the 1950s by legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow.  Like Murrow a half-century ago, the producers of This I Believe are hoping to encourage Americans to learn how to listen to one another and to choose our words effectively so that others can hear us.

Agreement is not the goal.  Rather, it's respectful hearing of one another's point of view and perhaps finding some common ground.  OurPrinciples of Community give us a strong foundation for that respectful dialogue.  They are available to you at the door this morning.

Really, it's so simple – and yet so elusive.  I'm absolutely convinced that if we could simply sit down together and truly listen – we'd be taking a giant step toward peace in the world.  It's the only way we can achieve the greater understanding necessary to solve our collective challenges as members of this community…but, more importantly, as citizens of this world.

As celebrated poet and author Maya Angelou observes, “All people laugh, eat, worry, and cry.  If we try to understand each other, we may even become friends."

To encourage that greater understanding, five members of our campus community who were “early bird" essay writers have agreed to share their compositions with us this morning.  I will introduce them all at once and then ask them to proceed, one by one, to the podium to read their essays.

Our first essay reader will be Keltie Jones, coordinator of the Student Disability Center.  She will be followed by Arthur Shapiro, professor of evolution and ecology.  Paula Lorenzo, chair of the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians and CEO of Cache Creek Casino and Resort, will speak next.  She, in turn, will be followed by Eric Zamora; he is a senior sociology major from Castro Valley.  Naomi Janowitz, director and professor of religious studies, will be our final speaker.