Convocation Address by Chancellor Vanderhoef

Photo: Chancellor Vanderhoef on-stage at the lectern

Enrique, thank you very much for that introduction and for being our emcee today.

Kern, thank you as well. Once again, you have given us the uplifting music that you and the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra always provide as we gather to welcome our newest campus community members and to celebrate the beginning of a new year. I know, Kern, that this is your last year as conductor. (I can relate to that.) Frankly, I cannot imagine convocation without Maestro Kern Holoman! I’m sure there are lots of people in the audience who feel the same way.

Welcome to all of you. Thank you for coming.

Every year I fret that I’ll walk out here for this convocation and no one will be here. Kind of like those dreams that I still have about taking tests. Do you ever have these dreams? Anyway, they put me in a panic — and I’m so happy when I wake up.

So … I just woke up. Thank you for being here.

Frankly, I didn’t know exactly how I’d feel coming out here today. It’s my 15th and last year as chancellor — my last convocation. I’m a little sad, but mostly, in fact, I’m happy, not because I’m leaving — but because of you. All of you, in your unique, special way, are the remarkable university that is UC Davis.

This year’s convocation is extra special in that it marks the 100th anniversary of the arrival of our very first class of students. They would have filled just a few chairs more than the first row of this hall — just one row. In fact, the entire population of the city of Davis in 1908 could have been seated right behind them and still not fill the first floor! That first class of students numbered just 18; this year’s Centennial Class is a bit bigger — it numbers close to 5,000. What a difference a hundred years makes!

So today we not only launch a new academic year but our centennial year. We’ll celebrate a century of doing what matters, and dedicate ourselves to a special Centennial Year of Service.

Those of you who know me well know that I’m wary of overstatement and I don’t readily use superlatives. — It must be my Midwestern roots at work. — But, in spite of this hesitation, of this I’m quite certain: Everything that matters to us as human beings, UC Davis touches and transforms. Everything.

Whether it’s health, the economy, what we eat and drink, the way we live and work together, how we find meaning through art, music and literature, how we steward the Earth and think environmentally — everything that matters, UC Davis touches and transforms.

Doing what matters surely was also the intent a century ago when a small number, a handful, of people with unusual vision and tenacity laid the foundation for this university.

Do you know the story of George Pierce, Jr.? We owe him lots. Over a hundred years ago, Pierce persuaded the Davisville Chamber of Commerce to purchase and donate water rights to the land that would become this campus.

All he had to do was deliver the documents to San Francisco. And then along came an earthquake — the Great Earthquake of 1906.

Did that keep him from completing his mission? Not on your life. He climbed debris and zigzagged through the ruptured streets — all to ensure this campus was founded properly. In its way, his story defined our future and set the tone for how we would think for a hundred years.

Imagine if Pierce — and Peter Shields and Jacob LaRue — were here with us today. Imagine their reaction. They taught us to dream big and to work hard and to never give up. But I suspect, I just bet, that even they would be amazed to see the transformation of the 1908 University Farm to what UC Davis is today.

To their 1908 eyes, it would be “rather like Cinderella looking at the pumpkin and hearing it would become a coach. But a child believes in miracles.” Those are the words of Celeste Turner Wright, who was born the year land was set aside for this university and became our first tenured woman faculty member.

She was only 22 when she arrived on this campus to found the English department amid a few stucco buildings, two wooden dormitories and lots of sheds and barns. There’s no doubt that she and many others along the way sprinkled — some fairy dust.

It’s the best explanation I’ve heard. They helped transform a modest farm school into one of the nation’s premier research universities.

Frankly, I’m amazed at how far we’ve come — particularly because it was just 50 years ago, in 1959, that UC Davis became a comprehensive University of California campus. I’ve been here for half those 50 years, and still — I’m amazed.

The special centennial issue of our UC Davis Magazine is just back from the printer. It recounts our dramatic rise and 100 of the many, many ways we’ve transformed the world.

Our presence has expanded from Davis to Sacramento and far beyond that. Our health system serves 6 million residents throughout Northern California.

Our centers stretch from Bodega Bay to Tulare and Tahoe and up and down the coast and on to Washington, D.C. In fact, our reach is global, with nearly half of our faculty involved in international activities. And our alumni, now up to 185,000, further spread UC Davis’ impact to every corner of the globe.

Our positive impact is felt in so many ways. Just listen to a few examples:

  • our physicians and researchers who are developing new and more effective medical treatments and therapies…
  • our food scientists who are developing new varieties of grain to feed the world’s 70 million poor and hungry people…
  • our transportation experts who are helping to develop greener, cleaner fuels and vehicles…
  • our MBA students who are designing innovative low-income housing to help the homeless turn their lives around…
  • our faculty who are helping to prepare a cadre of K-12 teacher-leaders to improve public school instruction…
  • the more than 100 student volunteers who tutor low-income elementary school students through the Davis Bridge program…
  • an alumna who is designing an award-winning line of clothing for women in wheelchairs…
  • the Summer Abroad instructor who is introducing her students to the history and culture of Greece and teaching them to be better citizens of the world in the process…
  • the staff volunteer who, for 25 years, has enriched the lives of the animals at the Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary…
  • and the more than 6,000 students, faculty and staff who annually contribute nearly 700,000 hours of volunteer service.

And these are just a few, just a few, of the many contributions we know about, and we don’t know about everything. I’ve hardly scratched the surface.

A century later, it’s very clear that one thing hasn’t changed — that very special spirit that has always characterized this campus.

Clark Kerr was a revered former president of the University of California and a pre-eminent higher education statesman.

He described that special spirit this way: “The Davis campus had always had more community spirit than any other…. It was, above all other campuses, an integrated human and intellectual community … a friendly, pragmatic place, and very resourceful in working out problems.”

He confessed years later that Davis was his favorite UC campus, and he sent his own children here to be educated.

It is that special, caring spirit that has made us what we are. It has gotten us through the toughest times, and it has made us really shine when the times were good. And it all springs from such a simple premise. We have, for 100 years now, held to a simple principle — we do what matters. It’s our calling and nobody — nobody — does it better.

That was our premise when we were founded, and it’s our promise as we begin our second century.

Keeping that promise in a rapidly-changing and shrinking world means we’ll have to be even more innovative and agile. Just think how much has changed in the past 100 years — in just the last 20!

Beloit College’s “mindset list” for this fall’s entering college class makes this point in a playful but pointed way.

For the Class of 2012, this year’s entering class, born in 1990, IBM has never made typewriters, The Tonight Show has always been hosted by Jay Leno, GPS satellite navigation systems have always been available, and landline telephones are obsolete.

These students’ frame of reference is certainly different from that of my 97-year-old father-in-law, or my 38-year-old daughter or even last spring’s graduates.

There’s no doubt that what matters has changed dramatically and rapidly over the past century, and will continue to do so.

But, just as UC Davis was there 100 years ago anticipating and responding to society’s needs, I know we’ll be there doing the same in our second century. This is not an option for us. It’s in our genes. It’s in our culture.

When the UC Davis family gathers 50 or 100 years from now, you just know they’ll be telling this same story of dedicated service — but with a few more decades of examples. They’ll be celebrating “A Second Century of Doing What Matters” — and they’ll be lauding what you’ve done, on the job, in the classroom or on your own time. They’ll be talking about what you’ve done to make this world a better place. That’s you — that’s UC Davis — at its very best.

Thank you.

Larry Vanderhoef was chancellor at UC Davis for 15 years. He stepped down at the end of the 2008-09 academic year.