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Remarks by President James Wright at Convocation, Sept. 23, 2008

Posted 09/23/08

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President James Wright

Greetings! It has been my practice on this happy occasion to remind the community that even at an institution that operates around the year and around the world, there needs be a time and a place for us to gather, symbolically, to mark a new beginning. Today we assemble here in the annual ceremony of renewal and reunion that celebrates the beginning of another academic year and that formally welcomes into this community our newest members.

I am pleased this morning to greet my colleagues from the faculty and administration, to greet the upper-class students, the new and returning graduate students, and other members of this community. I am delighted that Doctor Tommy Clark is sharing this day with us.  Tommy Clark is a leader in an important cause and a person who represents his College and indeed humanity so well.  And I warmly salute Molly Bode, the President of the Student Body, as well as applaud her commitment to this community and her leadership within it.

Class of 2012: Welcome!  Even as you have been impatient for this day to arrive, so have we.  We share in a sense of how quickly it has come upon us.  We join you in focusing on your plans for next week, for next summer-and even for some of you your post-graduation expectations. But I also reflect enthusiastically now on the positive contributions that you have the potential to make.  You will be representing this College and leading this world at the midpoint of the 21st century.  If that seems now to be a long way off, I here attest to how quickly and surreptitiously calendars turn and the years pass.

Today I want to talk about leadership -not only about the qualities of leadership needed in this, your century, but about your responsibilities to exercise leadership in a world that desperately needs it and also about why leadership is rooted in a liberal arts education.  Over the next six weeks the presidential election campaign will generate significant argument and commentary that will focus on "leadership." 

Most of us hope for an improvement in the tone and content of this campaign, so that there is more in the debate that is intellectually revealing, more that argues the specifics of given positions, more that truly allows us to assess the candidates in terms of the qualities of wisdom and of character required for leadership in this era of history. We yearn for an acknowledgment that difficult situations often require difficult solutions.  Our democratic process would be enriched if candidates would restrict their statements and their spots to explanations of their own positions and would declare a moratorium on describing their opponent's records and views!

Your generation can indeed play an important role in challenging those who would aspire to be our leaders. Challenge them to exercise appropriate qualities of leadership, including a commitment to civility and integrity in their own campaigns and by their surrogates.  And you can challenge one another and your fellow citizens to distinguish between true leadership and manipulation and pandering.   Indeed, the skills and perspective and knowledge that will enable you to do this effectively are precisely those with which we are concerned in your education here at Dartmouth.

"Your generation can indeed play an important role in challenging those who would aspire to be our leaders. Challenge them to exercise appropriate qualities of leadership, including a commitment to civility and integrity in their own campaigns and by their surrogates."

- President James Wright

How does a liberal arts education relate to leadership in the 21st century?  And what specifically are the goals of leadership that we hold for the members of the Class of 2012?  Let me assure you that I do not seek to channel you into careers or ambitions where you will be a political candidate or otherwise serve as the head of some activity or some enterprise.  Many of you will do those things, as Dartmouth graduates have a remarkable record of doing.  My hope for you and expectation is quite simple: that whatever you do, by virtue of your capacity, your character, and your vision, you will earn the respect, support, and cooperation of your peers in making a significant and positive difference in the world.  If this sounds audacious, it is.  But Dartmouth tries to do no less, and we expect no less of you.  As Emily Dickinson hoped, you "dwell in possibility."

This College's mission is to recruit the best students and to provide them with a learning environment that will encourage in them the confidence, the capacity, and the character to assume responsible leadership for their generation.  This community of learning is prepared to help you achieve not only that responsibility but also to assist you in reaching your own dreams.   You will encounter here a remarkable faculty, who are leaders engaged in defining the boundaries of their own scholarly fields.  They are eager to challenge you, to enable you, and to join with you in the process of discovery.  The staff here are deeply committed to you and your experience.  And alumni/ae, community members, and other students are all prepared to assist you.  Our aspiration for you is that whatever your life choices may be, you will lead in a world that cries out for positive change. 

I hope you will take full advantage of this community and of all that a liberal arts education can offer you. I have no hesitation in asserting that the liberal arts offer the best possible preparation for leadership today. In this era, although we surely need expertise and specialization, no one who aspires to leadership can afford to focus too narrowly, at the expense of attaining a broad perspective. Those who would lead must draw from a wide and fluid understanding of context.  Your understanding of the world and of yourself will be enriched by encountering people whose tastes, experiences, and views of the world are different from those with which you are accustomed and most comfortable.  The liberal arts challenge custom and comfort, even as they introduce us to the great wisdom of history and of our time.  Moreover, what you will learn here is that learning never ends.

There is a conventional understanding of leadership as a synonym for authority-for command and control, for a rigid hierarchy.  This is not how we understand leadership at Dartmouth; it is not consistent with the values of the academy-and I assure you it will not be a model that will work during this, your century.

The Reverend Desmond Tutu refers often to the South African concept of "ubuntu." He says this word indicates the understanding and acceptance that we become a person through other persons. Reverend Tutu says "We can be free only together. We can be human only together. We can be prosperous only together. We can be safe and secure only together."

Such understanding of shared engagement in common causes lies at the root of the leadership needed today, for it brings with it humility, a fundamental respect for others, and a deep sense of responsibility that motivates action. This does not suggest a rudderless organization or movement directed vaguely by the lowest common denominator of its membership. The Boston Celtics, 2008 NBA champions, used the motto ubuntu to affirm their common purpose and shared leadership.  Indeed, modern United States military officer training emphasizes leadership and initiative at the tactical level, rather than hierarchies of authority constricting spontaneity and creativity.  It is from this sense of shared responsibility that leaders emerge.

You each have the capacity for responsible leadership in voluntary organizations and in a democratic society.  Dartmouth seeks to advance and enrich leadership skills that are based on an ability to work as part of a group and built upon personal qualities such as a lifetime capacity to learn - and its companion, even more elusive, the capacity to relearn and even to unlearn.  Here we encourage leadership that is based on curiosity, the willingness to adapt, and, most critically, leadership fortified by qualities of character that are defined by clear values and principles. John Sloan Dickey, who served as Dartmouth president from 1945 to 1970, often referred to Dartmouth's purpose as the education of students whose lives would be marked by competence and character.

Fundamental values and principles should not be subject to the whim of expediency, of negotiated compromise, or the lure of personal advantage.

Leaders who do not stand firmly and consistently for anything other than their own advancement will eventually find it difficult to inspire anyone to stand with them.  Knowing what you stand for yourself is the essential first step toward leadership.  But there is a complicating corollary to this:  women and men who truly lead also understand that in a rich and diverse society many personal beliefs and values are indeed finally that. They are personal and they have no more objective claim to priority than others.  Acknowledging and accommodating the beliefs of others is not subordinating one's own. 

In a pluralistic world, not all differences of opinion should be elevated to a test of fundamental values.   Compromise. Compromise on important matters of policy, of priority, and strategy is at the core of democracy and of any effective group. Related to this, leadership will flow to those who can best adapt to change.  Now adapting to change does not mean necessarily liking the change; it means recognizing it, even anticipating it, and accepting the consequences of it.  The narratives of history are littered with failed leaders who insisted they would not adapt to the demands of their changing world.

Leadership is about understanding the distinction between ends and means. However it is about also understanding that the means that we adopt, the processes we follow, reflect even more profoundly than do our goals the values and understandings that define any group for the long term.  Adjusting tactics, adapting to a situation, this is a valued quality.  But it is not a mark of leadership to subordinate the principles that define us in order to produce a short-term accomplishment.

Leaders are marked by an understanding of the richness and the potential of the human condition and a sense of responsibility-if you will lead, you need assume responsibility, first for yourself and those who love and depend upon you; secondly, a sense of responsibility for your group, your organization, or institution; and finally, a sense of responsibility for others.  The latter, I would argue, is an essential quality of leadership.  There surely have been ungenerous leaders-but their leadership has been almost by definition, that of command and control, rather than the respect and the voluntary deference that is extended to individuals of competence and character.

There is no doubt that leadership in your century will be extended to those who are creative, intelligent, disciplined, and focused--to those who can inspire, who articulate and live a set of values.  Leaders will be distinguished by courage and strength. Courage and strength are qualities that are quietly held and they are widely recognized.   Caution may be important; timidity is not.  Leaders do not categorically avoid the dreaded "slippery slopes" of life.  They learn to navigate the slippery slopes of life.

At Dartmouth you will have the opportunity to develop your capacity to lead. A liberal arts education is a wonderful intellectual grounding in the skills that will enable you.  Here we encourage cooperation, teamwork, and collegiality.  These are not barriers to assertive leadership but they are the building blocks of modern leadership.  Being a member of a community where student leadership is encouraged and expected will provide you opportunities to enhance your own abilities.  In the classroom, on the playing fields and in arenas, within student organizations, in our service activities, and in the performing and creative arts, Dartmouth looks to student leadership that values collaboration, creativity, initiative, and responsibility.

This past summer I met with presidents of our coed houses, the fraternities, and the sororities, and we talked about leadership.  I told them that they were receiving a good introduction to the complexity of leading individuals who considered themselves at least their equals and who had no interest in simply being led.  That is a quality of this entire community, indeed of American democracy, not simply of these organizations. But as you learn here how to lead, you must also learn how to follow--not as a subordinate, but as a colleague.   If this skill doesn't come easily, that is understandable-you are here because of your potential to excel and to lead.

But if you will only lead--if joining a group and following leadership is something that you are incapable of doing-then, I would suggest there is little likelihood that you will receive true leadership opportunities yourself. Aristotle argued that if you cannot learn to obey you will never have the opportunity to command.   You might create, organize, and run your own company or group, but even then, promoting the individual strengths and independence of members of your organization is essential.  Moving beyond control to instilling a shared purpose is what distinguishes a leader; it is what can elevate a pickup game in a park to a focused, disciplined, championship team.

I count on you and I believe in you.  In fact, this summer I stepped into a national debate because of my belief that students, 18 to 20 year-old young men and women, should be considered adults.  My test for adulthood has to do with maturity, with perspective, with responsibility.  Individuals may fail to meet these expectations regardless of their chronological age.  You are the 40th class that I have welcomed to Dartmouth as teacher and administrator. Yours is a mature and responsible generation.  I am more than willing to place my bet on you.

So, members of the Class of 2012, today you have become a part of Dartmouth, and Dartmouth forevermore will be a part of you. You will never be the same. But you should know that by your very presence here, Dartmouth itself will be changed, too. Take on this responsibility with confidence and with joy. But also embrace with me a profound sense of gratitude for the privilege we share as members of this special community of learning.

It has been my yearly custom to close this ceremony by reminding the incoming class and all those present, including myself, that now we must turn enthusiastically to our tasks at hand. We have work to do, you and I, and we must begin it.  Now it turns out you have more time to take on your assignment than I have for completing mine, so forgive my impatience.  But also recognize my pride in being in your good company in the good work of this good place.

Welcome to Dartmouth! We're pleased to have you here.

Return to Convocation 2008

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