2007 Convocation: Chancellor's Address

Delivered on September 26, 2007

Regent Odessa Johnson's introduction

I know that Chancellor Vanderhoef — during his long and very productive tenure at UC Davis — has had a lot to do with building this very special academic community. 

From the beginning, he has been dedicated to this university’s land grant mission of public service, encouraging all of you to work together — and in partnership with others — to find solutions to some of the biggest challenges the world faces today.

Chancellor Vanderhoef has also shown exceptional commitment to providing the best in education to UC Davis students.

He has worked hard to foster a diverse and collaborative academic community that provides students with a safe, supportive learning environment and, at the same time, one that encourages an international perspective and prepares students to be thoughtful leaders and global citizens.

Please join me in welcoming Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef, who will share his thoughts with you today about finding — and being — the inspiration!

By Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef

It’s no accident that we happen to have arrived here today, the 26th of September, in the year 2007, as members of this campus family. But why this family and not another? What paths did you take? What options did you pass by? What was it that resulted in your being here today on the 26th of September, the year 2007?

I suspect we all have stories about nudges now and again and here and there that have helped us find our paths….stories about others who have inspired us, consciously or not, to see possibilities that we never would have imagined for ourselves.

I never could have foreseen the path that would lead eventually to my becoming the chancellor of a major research university.

My mother quit school after the eighth grade, my father after the ninth. I lived in a poor neighborhood where no one went to college and where boys were expected to go directly from high school to a nearby foundry that was the major employer in the Midwestern company town in which I grew up.

And that would have been my future but for two people who early on helped me see other possibilities.

One was a truck farmer I worked for during summers, who actually, it seemed to me, was really a biologist. He knew everything there was to know about plants and about the insects that bothered them.

He lit a small fire inside me, a curiosity about the biological world. He read everything he could to understand that world better, and soon so did I. That was the field I ended up studying.

The other person was a high school English teacher who, just passing me in the hallway one day, casually remarked, “That was a pretty good paper you wrote.”

That was probably the first time in high school that I’d gotten such encouragement — and probably for good reason. I wasn’t at all interested in being a good student.

But, after this brief encounter, likely utterly forgettable by the teacher, I began to think differently about myself. Maybe I could do better.

So instead of the foundry, I headed to the nearby commuter college.

There were still several bumps along the new road I’d chosen, but, particularly with the help of a laboratory instructor and an encouraging professor, I was on my way.

I was taking my first steps on a path that would lead from Purdue University to the University of Wisconsin, to the University of Illinois, to the University of Maryland, and ultimately to a great university in the always interesting city of Davis, California.

We all have interesting stories….

I suspect that new paths were also sketched nine years ago in a fourth-grade classroom at Father Keith B. Kenny School in the Oak Park area of Sacramento.

It was there, and then, that we launched our Reservation for College program to encourage these elementary school children in this hardscrabble neighborhood to see a different future for themselves.

I promised those 9-year-olds that, if they stayed on track with their courses, studied hard and were eligible for admission, we would provide funding equivalent to the cost of their tuition for attending UC Davis.

Well, those nine years passed in a hurry and those fourth-graders, surely with lots of help from their parents and teachers, are now ready for college — and five are enrolled here at UC Davis this fall.

They will be majoring in genetics, economics, environmental management, biochemistry and psychology. They are, all of them, on their way to careers that will make a difference in this world.

They recently returned to Father Keith B. Kenny School, along with their former principal, Mertie Shelby, who is one of our featured speakers this morning.

Their accomplishments were celebrated that day but, more importantly, they encouraged the current elementary school students to see new possibilities — to find the inspiration and then to act on it, just as they had done.

One of the five told these youngsters, “Stay focused and don’t give up, because your future is really worth fighting for.”

Prompted by their principal, these 9-year-olds responded in unison, “I WILL go to college. I WILL earn a degree. I WILL be a university graduate.”

Quite a powerful example of finding — and being — the inspiration, don’t you think?

So let me ask today, where have you found inspiration — and who are you inspiring? I suspect you are more likely to know the answer to the first question than to the second.

After all, we generally don’t wake up in the morning saying, “Today I’m going to be inspirational!” But every one of us, every single one of us, has the capacity to be inspiring.

Actor Denzel Washington has gathered together personal stories of inspiration in his book titled A Hand to Guide Me. Several well-known people contributed essays for this book about the people who helped to shape their lives.

Former President Bill Clinton credits his Uncle Buddy, whose dinner-table stories about everyday people taught the future president that, and I quote, “everyone has a story and the more of others you understand, the better your grasp of human nature.” End quote.

Clinton says that he really believes one of the principal reasons he became president was this great gift he received from Uncle Buddy — the lesson to “keep eyes and ears open, to soak everything in before judging a person, a situation, or a complex issue.”

I’ve had the opportunity to meet Clinton a couple of times now and it’s clear Uncle Buddy made an impact. Bill Clinton has a phenomenal ability to remember names and faces — and the personal stories attached to those names and faces, mine included.

He was back in our area just last month to speak at the annual Lake Tahoe Forum. He and former Vice President Al Gore helped launch this effort to preserve the lake a decade ago. In fact, Clinton and Gore were briefed then on the more than 40 years of UC Davis studies of the lake and its ecosystem.

Those studies show that the lake faces the same environmental challenges that are plaguing the rest of the planet — climate change and resource depletion.

And the only way that those challenges can be met, Clinton said last month, is through a committed coalition of public and private agencies and individuals. The emphasis is on “coalition.”

Perhaps it is Clinton’s former vice president, Al Gore, who is most responsible for focusing the world’s attention on global warming and the urgency to address this climate crisis.

His documentary <em>An Inconvenient Truth</em> won an Academy Award this past year. This summer, his Live Earth benefit concert was staged around the world and broadcast to an estimated two billion people through the Internet, television and radio.

There’s no doubt that Gore inspires others, but who has inspired Gore? One person, for sure, was his former college professor, Roger Revelle.

Do you recognize that name? He was one of the earliest predictors of global warming, and he was also the father of the UC San Diego campus.

I believe that both Revelle and Gore would applaud the tough sustainability goals recently approved by the University of California Regents. They would urge us to stay personally focused and dedicated.

For example, we at UC Davis are committed to becoming a zero-waste campus by the year 2020.

We’re committed to purchasing 20 percent of our electricity from renewable resources by 2010. And we’re committed to sharply reducing the campus’s carbon emissions as quickly as we can.

If any campus can do it, we can. We have a long tradition of environmental research and leadership and sustainable practices. But it won’t be easy. We certainly can’t succeed unless we do it together.

I hope that you will join me at our Campus Sustainability Day on Oct. 24th and in a nationwide event called “Focus the Nation” on Jan. 31st.

More information will be forthcoming, but both events will help to focus our attention—both as individuals and as departments and offices—on the urgency of reducing our negative environmental impact. It’s hard to imagine a global challenge in greater need of collective inspirational leadership.

And so, again I ask, where have you found inspiration—and who are you inspiring?

Those sources of inspiration are really all around us.

Colin Powell, our former secretary of state, says that “you never know who’s going to touch your life or how…Don’t just sit around waiting for someone unique or special to come touch you. There are mentors and positive influences in every direction you look.” End quote.

The point is that inspiration is always there. It’s just waiting to be found.

But let’s not forget chapter two.

We’re all meant to pass some of that blessing on—to not just find the inspiration for ourselves but to BE the inspiration for others.

You may not even realize how or when you’re touching another, or how important your example can be.

Remember that encouraging comment that I got from one of my high school teachers? Long before me, historian Henry Adams said, “A teacher affects eternity; one can never tell where the influence ends.”

To inspire and to be inspired—it’s what life is really all about.