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Chancellor Gee’s Commencement address

May. 10, 2002, 5:40 PM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — (Editor’s Note: The following is text of Chancellor Gordon Gee’s address, as prepared for delivery at the May 10, 2002, Commencement exercises.)
Ladies and gentlemen, this past year has put those of us making speeches, especially those of us giving charges, in a certain rhetorical bind. For now, each of our moves and flourishes must be flavored with a mindfulness of the misfortunes of this past fall.

This consciousness means that we have to acknowledge things rightfully, but in doing so, not ever to err in the direction of maudlin exploitativeness. I hope that I can navigate that awkward balance today, that I can manage to encourage you to excellence in the midst of this new context.

I must acknowledge that those of us in public positions have perhaps never given those to whom we speak the time of silence which is necessary for change, necessary to absorb shock, necessary for right reverence.

So I do not want this morning to presume to try to define your feelings about the world into which you enter. Graduation is a raw enough time, anyway, and this graduation may seem stranger than most: for instance, I know many more of you are trying your hands at graduate school this year, despite the fact that the popular understanding of the life of a graduate student has hardly ever helped to portray that life as in any way remotely desirable. Yet here you are, so many of you, planning on that life exactly! I wonder what could possibly have happened? And some of you who were planning to be, or were dot-com billionaires in the autumn of 1998, are perhaps currently plotting on whose sofas you will be surfing come this summer, and in what sequence.

And, families: my own daughter Rebekah graduates next week from medical school, so I know what you are feeling, that mingling of celebration and loss: celebration, because those late-night telephone calls will begin to come a little earlier; loss, because your mailbox will seem emptier now that there is no longer a tuition bill awaiting you every quarter! But how much I do understand this moment, and how much my heart will soar when I see Rebekah walk across the stage. So, with the knowledge that you have such matters on your minds, I wish only to offer you some thoughts, upon what has happened to us in this strangest of years, and what, if anything, we might want to do with it.

Those of us who reside in the United States are constantly reminded that something in our lives has to be different, should be different now. Newshounds corner passers-by on the street on the eleventh of every month, and press microphones into their faces, demanding to know what they are doing differently since the eleventh of September. The passer-by might be doing nothing differently. “But has your outlook changed?” asks the interviewer, unsatisfied. Our media, searching for a way to apply theory to confusion, attempted to elicit emotional response before such a response could possibly have formed.

How long does it take for an outlook to change? The interviewers never seem to have uncovered the response that would make them the most happy. What do they want to hear? Sometimes it is best to keep silent when wounded, to let a cry echo, to not cover it up immediately with a point of view.

Times like this one, times like this whole year –or rather, the rifts that occur between times, when we know what happened “before,” but “after” has not yet fully resolved itself — bear a silence, and an opening for choice. This year has been a time of kairos, a time of crisis – crisis not in the sense of “O Lord, my car is on fire!!!” but crisis as a crux, a time of choosing, in which more than one possibility exists. Kairos is a Greek word for holy time, for time out of time, which partakes of the sound of eternity, which has no beginning nor end. In kairos, time stops, we make a decision, and we are set back down upon our path. The time of the path, then, the time of history and of action, is called chronos.

When we drop out of choice, when we resume our course, we exist in chronos, in the time of the world, traveling from Point A to Point B.

In which direction will we be going when we rejoin chronos, when we are set down, when we set ourselves down from our current state of uncertainty and arrest?

In a few short months, the calendar will show another eleventh of September, and we have to ask what will we be doing with ourselves then. Sleeping on other people’s sofas, but what else? What will we be doing when the time comes again for doing?

The mythographer Joseph Campbell wrote: “In myth, only at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The darkest moment is the moment when the real message of transformation comes.” I would submit that we are still awaiting such transformation, and there is a catch in our breath as we wait to see what shape it will take. But perhaps if we become too caught up with waiting, we will forget that we are the ones who will forge that shape.

Balance must be disrupted for change to occur. I can think of few times as off-balance as this past year has been. And herein lies the particular relevance of this day: I know, ladies and gentlemen, that you are the ones who have the power now and the responsibility to turn the world around.

I have been playing with the notion of generations, and what constitutes greatness in one generation over another. Greatness does not mean simply that something has happened to you that is remarkable or interesting, but that you have happened to the world, that your influence has been sensed, that you have effected a shaping. Greatness comes not in what people prefer to consume, but in what they come to produce. If the generation Tom Brokaw has nominated as the “Greatest” had to prevail over the loss at Pearl Harbor, what will be your triumph over despair?

I think that every generation has the chance to fulfill its moment for greatness, can be great within that moment, when it does what has to be done to promote our evolution.

All of you gathered on this lawn – graduates, faculty, families – all of you have it within your ability to change and to shape and to repair, to work for a peace in the world that comes from understanding.

Graduates: the work that you have done at Vanderbilt has granted you the chance to experience the complexities of the world. Our University reaches out and brings back. It is a hub, a nexus, for a great web of education that extends out and wraps itself around the globe. And all that you have learned here is embedded in your hearts and minds.

So it is left to you to decide what you want to do with what this time at Vanderbilt has given you.

I would like to make a suggestion along these lines of thought. When we are dropped out of this present time of crisis, out of its strangeness and disorientation, out of kairos, I would offer that we do not return to normalcy.

If we do that, then our great lifting-out and spinning-about has been for nothing, just a momentary hiccough in the rhythm of the universe. We would not do honor or grace to that which has become a new opening for dialogue and education and peaceful understanding. Humans have this moment in our history to alter the way we see the world, and to change the way we act to match that new way of sight. We should not desire simply to have back our level of comfort. The conflicts that currently strangle our world demonstrate to us that the old ways of treating problems are no longer effective.

There is a concept within Jewish thought called tikkun olam. “Olam” means the world, and “tikkun” is the act of mending, of repair, of transformation and healing. Tikkun olam means to heal, to repair, to restore what has been shattered, to mend what has been torn. It means to work always toward perfecting a world that is imperfect. Tikkun, though, means more than patching. It means work toward what becomes almost an alteration of substance.

This is a new world of change that we are all entering, that you are entering, a world of change to sculpt back out of a heap of ashes.

One of your number, Davis Sezna, was going to walk among you today. He perished in the World Trade Towers on the eleventh of September last year. His family does him honor by attending this ceremony today. I bring him to your attention not to manipulate your sentiments, but to urge you to mend this. There is a tear in the universe where Davis fell through. Your job is to sew up this tear so that no-one else will ever fall.

So, how will you stitch it? Into what? What will this new world look like? Will it be a circle of suspicion, violence, and misunderstanding based on fear? Or can it be a globe of respect for human rights and the preciousness of life, and an acknowledgement that, however different, we are all offspring of the same creation?

Your educated spirits, your open minds and open hearts, are critical to our achieving democratic results in this world. Assembled here today are many who have applied their spirits in service to that notion of repair, and will continue to do so. If I may, I would like to tell you about some of them who are representative.

Lee Ann O’Neal, who graduates with a degree in musical arts from Blair, last summer traveled with her Professor Greg Barz to Kampala, Uganda, where she discovered ways to communicate about medical interventions for AIDS through music and art and dance. Her mind burst into flower when she realized all of the capabilities music has outside of the studio, that it can be a force for education and healing. Lee Ann returned to our campus determined to raise awareness in her colleagues of the global scope of AIDS, and organized a student coalition as well as a citywide event that brought Ugandan AIDS activists to Vanderbilt’s campus.

Bryan Koch bears the banner today for the School of Nursing. Bryan has had diabetes since he was young. He entered the School of Nursing with the intention of helping those with diabetes, and now trains physicians and nurses on the proper use of insulin pumps for their diabetic patients.

Father James Francis Xavier Pratt today receives his Ph.D. in religion – which, I am told, took 15 long years to earn, so do not follow his example in that; do not inflict that on your family! He is chaplain to the Catholic students here at Vanderbilt; he will continue to minister to them in that capacity. Jim co-directs the Diocese of Nashville’s deaconate program, orchestrates the work of Nashville’s Jesuit Volunteer Corps and presides over Nashville’s Dismas House. With all of that responsibility, I can see how a doctorate would take 15 years! Jim, I forgive you – but you will have to take the rest up with your family!

Virginia White Carter graduates from the Owen School of Management, where she did free consulting work for inner city companies as part of Owen’s Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, where she learned about the growth and life of neighborhoods. Virginia is now going on to start up her own business, a registry that tracks the immunization of children.

I could easily boast about all of our graduates, given the chance! So many of our students are creative, thoughtful, questioning beings who find that a life led in engagement with others rewards much more than a life in which the center stops at the self. They have not only used the resources the University made available to them to deepen understanding and community in the world, but also have brought their own resources to the University to make Vanderbilt a more communal place.

I have said often that universities are antidotes to terrorism. Universities are global communities in their own right, that teach critical examination and the ability to view a problem from more than one perspective. Universities disable terrorism. Academics, then, are a form of activism. We know that terrorism is not born of nothing, but arises of causes, and we can use our study to avert those causes.

And I would hope that over your years at Vanderbilt you have learned at the very least how important it is to apply your mind in service to your heart, and to all beings for whom your knowledge is a gift to them and a blessing.

There is a passage I would like to read to you now, very short – it is out of E. L. Konigsburg’s novel From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Two children run away from home and hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In pursuit of an art-related mystery, they eventually find their way to the residence of the elusive reclusive Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, where the following dialogue takes place: “Claudia said, ‘But, Mrs Frankweiler, you should want to learn one new thing every day. We did even at the museum.’” “No,” Mrs Frankweiler answers. “I don’t agree with that. I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never feel anything with them. It’s hollow.”

How can I say anything to you that is more true? Please do not allow yourself to become a rattle-bag filled with information of which you do not know the significance and power. Please convert the knowledge that you have learned so dearly here into wisdom. Use it in service to beings everywhere to mend, to repair, to transform the world. Use it in service to tikkun olam. Let your whole life be an act of fixing what has been shattered, through your best work as teachers, as engineers, as musicians and artists, as activists, as ministers. Let your whole life be a swelling-up and bringing-forth of what you have learned, until you can feel its power to restore, until humans on earth can truly say that they know and understand one another. The gifts that you have been given flow through you to help others.

A University has the moral obligation to use its resources – and those resources include its students and graduates – for healing the world, and for evolving those particular creatures who dominate this earth so thoroughly. Our monumental responsibility involves convincing humans to be ethical citizens of earth, to be thoughtful and to be just. What is the purpose of a University’s great ideas, if they are not used to improve the lives of God’s creatures?

Graduates, to you especially is entrusted our future. Your unique experiences as students of different cultures place you in position to be the next great generation. Your greatness will be determined by how well each of you works to know your neighbor, by how clearly you are able to see other people, by how well you understand each other. Those qualifications, which seem simple enough, prove difficult enough in execution. But they are the demands your own potential for gre

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