President Ladner implores AU to strive for glory
The following is the text of President Ladner's speech at the American University Opening Convocation on Wednesday.
Except for a brief opportunity to speak to you right after my appointment at the end of the Spring Semester when most of you had taken exams and left for the summer, this is my first time to speak to you all together. I think what I most want to say to you - or perhaps, really, to say aloud to myself in front of you, is simply this: welcome home. This is the primary place we will be living our lives, and in my case, for many, many years. The university will become the touchstone for our sense of place, of time, and for being ourselves.
What kind of place is it? You will come to understand that American is a way of life. It is a special place that differs from other universities in important respects. We are not, and do not want to be, like Harvard, the University of Michigan, Amherst, Georgetown or George Washington. We have a unique past with special traditions and, importantly for you, a special future.
Jim Weaver, a recently retired professor of economics, wrote me one of a large number of welcoming letters I received upon assuming office, and stated succinctly some of what is special about our past.
"Dear Dr. Ladner: Congratulations on being chosen President of The American University. We have a glorious tradition. Our law school was founded by women to train women for the law, we never had quotas for Jews; unlike Ivy League schools, we admitted the first black student who applied; back in the 1930s, the School of International Service was started by Bishop Oxnam, Hurst Anderson and Ernest Griffith to educate Americans for service - it is not a school of international studies; we hired several Jewish refugees from Hitler as professors in the 1930s; we never called the police to deal with student protesters in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s - we always negotiated and reasoned together; we started one of the most innovative programs going in the 1970s to get black inner city students from Washington ready for college - AU Pride; we have had a greater number and percentage of women faculty than most universities, and we are the only university in the country in which the average salary of female full professors is higher than male full professors; we have one of the highest percentages of international students of any university in the country; no faculty and administration ever worked harder or with more effect than we did in the 1980s to become an excellent university - the faculty reviewed all the programs in detail, cut out Ph.D., M.A., and B.A. programs and whole departments. So, you are becoming part of a glorious past. Sincerely."
It is the people, simply the people, who make AU so special. It is the exceptional effort of the Physical Plant employees during last winter's snow storms - snow removal teams, boiler plate operators, housekeepers who battled the bitter cold so the campus could resume normal operations as quickly as possible. It is Xialing Xu and Linda Weippert in Financial Aid going the extra mile to process applications, to listen, to devise helpful solutions. It is Roy Smith in the campus post office, who, so far as anyone knows, is incapable of acting and speaking in any other way than with genuine concern for the thousands of students he's dealt with over many years. It is David Taylor and Karen Lebovich faxing documents to me in Seattle, then working late on Saturday night to meet a press deadline. It is Mary Gray teaching mathematics and, as Chair of Amnesty International, leading the fight for human rights throughout the world; and Alan Lichtman testifying in courtrooms across the South to advance social justice. It is Mark Reed and Tom Southall working with computer problems; Richard Feris, who doesn't know the meaning of overtime, David and Andre who put in plants and, as you see, everything they plant is beautiful. It is students like Craig Strondberg who got Alison Majors, Jen Philips, Jen Roberson, Jordan Cooke, and Paul Williams to meet with me to talk about the University and how together we can make it better. And Todd Shaver, who as best I can tell makes trains run on time. It's the R.A.'s, and thousands of others I couldn't begin to name. In other words, it is you - each of you - who make this such a special place.
It is important for you to understand that I am not talking about a collection of individuals. I'm talking about a community. This means we have an identity together that is more than the identity of any one of us. This is not a church; it is not a family, it is not a political party. This is an academic community that prizes discovery, understanding, and teaching. Everything we do is really secondary and supportive to the academic task. But that task is communal.
Specifically, that task this year is to take hold of what Jim Weaver called our "glorious past" and find new ways to translate it into the present. Sitting quietly on an ordinary afternoon back in the residence hall, the office, the library, we may try out the word "glorious" - just whisper it - to see if it could possibly fit the present. Try it.
Then turn and see the now. See it whole - all these resources - these buildings, computers, professors, pieces of art, roommates, and parents with prayer beads and their fingers crossed; these are all yours, they are ours together, to embrace and shape into a glorious year. And when it is completed - this year, your years here - (and it is one thing above all else you must hold me responsible for as your president) - we will be proud!
At the moment, as we sit here, it is only a possibility. You must begin to claim it. There is no formula, no pre-set rules for how to do this. Entertaining for too long the theoretical option of deciding at some later time whether or when this will become home will make you crazy. It is the now you must embrace.
Dennis Hopper, the playwright who wrote "Pennies from Heaven," remarked in an interview recently just before he died of cancer: "We tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense. It is, and it is now only ... But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous ... The fact is that if you see the present tense, boy! Can you see it and, boy! can you celebrate it."
It is this life you are living in this place, not some other. And it is out of the crucible of interaction - your interaction - with other people, with ideas, with public processes and structures, and with the tender spots of your solitary memories, that dreams are born.
And should you dream, sitting here at the edge of possibility, that with a little support from those around you, you could become more than you have been - begin here, now, to enact your dream, because we are here to offer that support.
Should you dream that, after all, what has been given to you is sufficient for daring to risk what had seemed beyond your reach begin here, now, to enact your dream, because you are in a safe community that encourages such risks.
Should you dream that it would be a fine thing to live a life that is fully engaged, a life that demands the investment of all your energies - begin here, now, to open yourself to experience piled on experience, because you are among people whose deepest commitments are to make available to you a grand array of rich experiences worthy of your best energies.
But if, per chance, you are afraid, simply afraid, of acting on thethings that matter most to you, listen to Rilke: "Perhaps," he says, "all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave."
As the poet, Denise Levertov, has written:
'Living a life' - the beauty of deep lines dug in your cheeks. The years father by sevens to fashion you. They are blind, but you are not blind. Their blows resound, they are deaf, those laboring daughters of the Fates, but you are not deaf, you pick out your own song from the uproar line by line, and at last throw back your head and sing it. -
Denise Levertov, "A Man"
The words, the words must be your own. The melody, you will discover, will come to you as the cadence of your life becomes attuned to the rhythm of the world which, even as we sit here in silence, is waiting to join the chorus.
To the class of '98, welcome to your new home. And you upper classmen, welcome back home. Faculty, staff, administrators, trustees - welcome. Welcome home.