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President’s Address to 158th Graduating Class


It is my honor and pleasure to welcome you to the commencement ceremonies of Gordon College in this our 158th year. We are proud of our long history of excellence and we are happy to celebrate this wonderful occasion, honoring the hard work and dedication of these graduates. Once again, we have a record number of graduates this year, almost 500 since graduation last May, and that tells me this class is dedicated, bright, and motivated to succeed.  But these students did not achieve this on their own.  With this in mind, we want to thank those others who have helped these outstanding students reach this milestone.

First of all, we have here with us on Lambdin Green this beautiful morning, a number of members of the college's foundation, and their spouses and families.  The foundation is a group of individuals who work together to support the college through scholarships and other financial support so that the college can provide you with the very best in higher education.  I'd like to ask the members of the Gordon College Foundation to rise and be recognized.

Public officials are an important cog in the support system for Gordon College and its entire family, from students to faculty and staff to administrators. We are very grateful for the support of our elected representatives and thank them for their on-going support.

All of us here know that these graduates have ended up here because they had people who urged them on, who supported their endeavors, who pushed and pulled and lent a shoulder to and ultimately came here to celebrate this occasion with them.  Those mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, children, brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and friends of these outstanding students are also to be recognized and applauded for their support and encouragement of these graduates.  You believed in these students, sometimes when they weren't sure of themselves, and that has provided the kind of support that makes success possible. Please join me in applauding these great families and friends of our graduates.

Lastly, I would like to recognize our outstanding faculty and staff, who have worked diligently to provide excellence in instruction in beautiful facilities with dedicated support.  Our faculty take great pride in their attention to our hallmark: Outstanding Teaching, and it shows.  Our nursing graduates, year in and year out, have the highest percentage passing the NCLEX than any other college in Georgia while maintaining a very high retention rate in the program. Our graduates who transfer to other four year schools in the university system consistently perform as high as or higher than those students who started at that school.  And our staff also take pride in providing student focused service whenever students need help.  Would the faculty and staff of Gordon College please stand and be recognized?

We invite the foundation, the graduates and their families, and the faculty and staff to a celebratory reception in the atrium of the cafeteria immediately following the commencement exercise.

One more thing.

You who are about to graduate are about to join a wonderful but exclusive organization – you are about to become members of the Gordon College Alumni Association, an organization that we hope will be a long-term connection for you to the close friends you have made both with fellow students and with members of the college faculty and staff.  That alumni group that you are joining is quite distinguished and includes senators, ambassadors, doctors, lawyers, nurses, business leaders, artists, teachers, and a host of some of the most respected professionals across Georgia and the entire world. Each year, groups of alumni return to Gordon to reminisce and to venerate the excellent start they received from the college.  We hope you too will always hold Gordon dear in your memories. Remember, you may travel far from here, but you will always be Gordon College Highlanders. And some day, we hope you too will come back to see us.

Since this is my last graduation at Gordon College that I will preside over as president, I am pleased to be your commencement speaker today.  As you may know, I am retiring from the presidency and going back into the classroom here at Gordon to teach philosophy, a discipline I have taught since the 70s (I really am getting up there, huh?).  From the first, when I taught, I enjoyed bringing in popular culture to the classroom to give the lesson immediacy.  Very often, that popular culture was music.  Now the artists I used back those early days are in many instances folks you will not have heard of.  But some of them have demonstrated considerable staying power.

Today, I want to use one of my favorite philosopher musicians from that long ago era to make a point, a song-writer I used often in those early days of my teaching.  That philosopher is Bob Dylan.  He has a song titled "Ballad in Plain D," in which he has the following verse:

"Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me, How good, how good does it feel to be free?" And I answer them most mysteriously, Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?"

I have always liked that line, because in its seemingly contradictory words is, I think, the possibility for an insight.

If we have freedom, does that bind us?  Does freedom imply responsibility? Freedom is about having choices.  Can a bird truly choose to forego flight?  He could, I suppose, but he would not live very long.  But as Dr. W. E. Deming notes, survival is not mandatory.  It's a choice all creatures must make.

In our everyday usage, we think about freedom as being a lack of constraints, but sometimes the constraints that we have actually make freedom possible.  It has been said, for example, that if there were no form for writing a sonnet, then we would not be free to write a sonnet.

You have arrived here today because you have achieved.  When you first came to Gordon, I spoke to you at the President's Convocation about the challenges awaiting you.  I wonder if you remember that.  You were seated in Alumni Memorial Hall.  The faculty marched in, dressed as they are today, in full academic regalia.  Dr. Wallace played Pomp and Circumstance on the organ.  The dean spoke first, to tell you something about the event we were having.  And then I spoke.  I told you that you had to choose to graduate by making choices to succeed along the way.  Most of you heard one of two talks I gave based upon when you came to Gordon.  One was titled: Have you decided yet?  The other one was: You are not entitled.  In both of those talks, I tried to challenge you to very consciously choose to succeed, to take responsibility for your own learning.  The fact that you are here tells me that you did that.  Now, it would be a conceit on my part for me to suppose it was my speech that made you do that.  In fact, I am pretty confident that it was not, although I do hope I at least reinforced the message.  But I strongly suspect that it was a host of factors that helped you to choose a course of action that led to your success -- your families, your professors, and your own self-discipline.  But I want to say clearly, we are all very proud of you. 

So you have chosen to succeed. What will you do with that choice? How will you invest the consequences of having chosen?  The funny thing is, having chosen, you cannot go back.  In law, there is an analogy that is used that says you cannot un-ring the bell.  We have all seen the courtroom dramas where the judge tells the jury to disregard something that was said, but having heard it, the jury cannot actually erase it from their memories.  You cannot un-ring a bell.  Similarly, you cannot forget the learning you have acquired.  You cannot return to the position you were in before you came to Gordon College.  If freedom is about choice, then there is in this case a kind of loss of freedom.

Ah, but what choices you have gained!  If you cannot return to the more limited possibilities that you had prior to college, you have replaced it with the considerably larger set of choices you have gained as a result of college.  Your horizons have been forever altered. Your potential realities have expanded. And the challenge is that you cannot help but choose.  You must choose, because choosing is what human beings do.

Wayne Dyer says we are the sum total of our choices.  I think that is right.  But the intimidating part is that we are compelled to choose.  Even if we wanted to somehow cheat the odds and just refuse to choose, we would be choosing by that very act.  We cannot escape it.  So the question then is not whether you will choose, but what will you choose?  These many new options that have resulted from your arrival here, moving forward are now your responsibility.  It is a daunting task.  But what should you choose? 

Graduation speakers from the dawn of time I suppose have presumed to inform what you should choose.  I will not. Instead, I would like to offer you a different bit of advice and that is HOW you should choose.  And therein lays, I believe, the greatest benefit of the education you received here.

When we watch you leave today, off to continue your celebration with family and friends, and then to go off to continue your lives in various parts of the state and the country, what is it we want you to take from Gordon College?  Certainly, we want you to leave with confidence that you will succeed, with the intellectual skills you must have to move forward, with the determination to continue.  But there is something else we want you to take away today.  We hope we have helped you develop your ability to imagine, to picture, to dream.  It is not something the faculty teaches you to do so much as something that they nurture in you, for the ability to dream is innate.  But the ability to use this innate skill does need developing.  Now this nurturing that we do is not something we do by accident. 

The faculty here has been teaching you how to use your ability to picture, to imagine, from the first.  When Professor Betkowski gives you a math problem where she asks you to imagine a man having a yard 100 feet by 40 feet, a lawn mower 24 inches wide, an apple tree in the middle of his yard, she's asking you to picture that yard with the tree in it so that you can apply the concepts needed to solve a problem.  When Dr. Whitelock asks you to put yourself in Huck Finn's position when he considers the moral implications of helping free his friend Jim, he is asking you to imagine what it would be like to be in that moral dilemma.  Only by imagining can you understand the importance of the novel.  When Dr. Davies asks you to consider an electron spin, he is asking you to make a picture in your head.  Dr.  Osborne wants you to imagine what will happen when a catalyst is added to the mix.  Professor Wooley wants you to imagine the character's angst when you go on stage.

 In every field, computers, nursing, art, biology, it doesn't matter, ultimately we ask you to anticipate, to picture, to dream of what can happen.  And this is no small achievement.  Albert Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge.  Note that he wasn't saying knowledge is unimportant, only that using that knowledge in imaginative ways is more important.  In perhaps the greatest piece of American oratory in the 20th century, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about using the imagination, about picturing, and how important that was.  He said, "I have a dream."  And we know how important that picture was, and still is. 

So we hope we have helped nurture your natural ability to dream, and that as you leave here, you will use that ability to picture new challenges and opportunities for yourself and to choose that life.  We want you to imagine a better community for your families, for your children, and for you and for you to choose that community.  We want you to dream of a world made better by your passing through it and to choose to make it so.  And we are confident it will be.

You are forced to make the choices -- choose well.  You are not free from the chains of that skyway.

Thank you and again, congratulations.