Convocation Address to Freshmen and Parents August 24, 2000

Convocation Address to Freshmen and Parents
August 24, 2000
Thomas K. Hearn, Jr.
Wake Forest University

Several years ago I received a letter that caused me to regard this moment as not just another occasion for me to speak and you to listen politely and forget promptly. The letter was from Dr. Robert Fales, class of 1930, of Wilmington, North Carolina. Those of you from “Down East” may know of his long medical career or his publications on the history of Wilmington and New Hanover County. Dr. Fales, who died a few years ago, also recorded his memories of Wake Forest. He had vivid recollections of chapel talks given by President Poteat to the entering freshmen at Wake Forest. Here is a section from his letter:

The President of the College was William Louis Poteat, a friendly man who was then and is still considered one of the great North Carolinians of this century. One day Doctor Billy-as he was always referred to-read to us a letter that he had recently received from a mother of a Wake Forest College student in which she asked Dr. Poteat why Wake Forest College had made a fool out of her son? He read a reply to her in the form of a letter in which he stated that W.F.C. does not and has not made a fool out of any boy, but that W.F.C. only brings out what is in the boy.

I will not venture to say whether this is the sort of reply you parents can expect should you write a complaining letter to the President. In reading Dr. Fales’ recollections, I wondered why those words should be so well and fondly remembered after so many years.

The reason is because this is a pivotal day, a turning point, in the human careers of all of us here. It should be memorable. For those of you who are members of the Class of 2004, this is the beginning of your lives as adults. Graduation from high school marks the end of your youth. While you may retain certain friends and associates from those years, your life now will make a new beginning from which your adult years will be marked. The friends, ambitions, the values and decisions you make at Wake Forest will shape your lives henceforth. For the rest of your lives, Wake Forest University, Class of 2004 will be a leading fact of your biography.

Your lives as members of your families change today as well. There is a deep significance in the phrase “alma mater.” You are entering a new life, adult life in which Wake Forest exerts profound influence. It is a day to keep and hold. What we say on this day is important, and I hope you will remember it. This is a milestone-the first day of adulthood.

IIt is my pleasure to welcome all of you, students and families, to the Wake Forest community. We are a community, and the concept of community directs our activities. We were born in a village in the forest of Wake County where we lived for about a century and a quarter. We try to preserve the congeniality and concern for each other born of our small town origins.

You have heard stories of opening convocations where the president warned the freshmen how many would be gone by the end of the first year, and how many before graduation. I offer no warning for you but a welcome. Because we are a community and because you have been chosen from many applicants, our aim is to see that you are successful and that your career at Wake Forest fulfills your highest ambitions for your years here and for the future that awaits you beyond these halls.

We want you to prosper intellectually and personally. You are here because we have chosen you and you have chosen Wake Forest. This is a place of opportunity. You are here because you can and should succeed. We greet you-parents and students-in that spirit.

As we welcome our first-year students, we welcome also new faculty members whose presence will enrich our community. The single most important factor in education is the degree and quality of interaction between students and faculty. At Wake Forest you will have, in class and out, access to committed teachers.

My best advice to you at this day of beginning is to foster active learning relationships with your professors. Go by during office hours. Tell them what interests or perplexes you. Always ask for help and advice. It is never a mistake to say that you do not understand. The faculty-student relationship is one of the most satisfying and important of human ties. Create and sustain these relationships here, and the world of learning will be opened for you and with your mentors. Almost all academic problems can be solved by early faculty intervention. Students who deny, delay or defer academic problems preclude timely and effective solutions.

This will be an exciting period at Wake Forest. Although our campus life is always in flux, the essential purposes of this academic community remain constant. These purposes have been outlined in a Relationship Covenant sent to you recently. I trust that students and parents have thoughtfully considered it. It addresses all of you. The covenant states those principles guiding our common life here, outlining what Wake Forest hopes for you and what you can expect of Wake Forest. Please hear and heed its message in order to receive the full benefit of the challenge and opportunity before you.

You and Wake Forest share four primary concerns over your undergraduate years. I want to discuss these in priority order, and I urge you-as Robert Fales did-to listen and remember.

IIFirst, we are concerned for your health and security, your physical and emotional well-being. Choosing a college is among the first acts of your adult life. That means that you have assumed increased responsibilities for yourself. That responsibility, however, is exercised in the context of this community. Wake Forest seeks to provide an environment in which your capacity to manage your affairs can be developed.

We have an educational responsibility to see that you have reliable measures of security and safety. In recent years, this campus has experienced-for the first time ever-occasional criminal events. This campus is not a safe haven from the crime that afflicts society. But Wake Forest cannot protect you from harm. You will need to be careful about where you go and when, lock your doors, and keep in mind the oldest rule of security-there is safety in numbers. The campus may look and feel like a sanctuary. It is not.

The primary threat to your well being in the college arises not from the hostile acts of others but from the abuse of alcohol, a national scourge now receiving the attention it warrants. Getting wasted or binge drinking is fraught with so many dangers that it amounts to a literal game of Russian roulette. It kills some but harms everyone. In this matter of abusive drinking, there is a gulf between the youth culture of our nation and the expectations of this academic environment. In this matter, the gap between Wake Forest’s expectations and the preferences of some students is enormous. So let me be clear about what Wake Forest will expect and require.

We will maintain a social environment in which the law of the land and university policies regarding alcohol are respected. These policies include parental notification when an incident of abusive drinking occurs. Wake Forest pioneered parental notification several years ago, but this practice has become a norm across the nation, even made law in some states. There are occasional problems in parental attitudes about alcohol and even illegal drugs. After all, some parents reason, I experimented in college and we serve alcohol at home.

But binge drinking-getting wasted-has become dangerously common among students starting in high school. Of students who drink, one-third will drink to get drunk. Alcohol is involved in 95% of violent crimes on campus, and half of the academic problems are alcohol related. Alcohol is the largest contributing factor to the leading cause of teenage death-traffic accidents.

Thus, we urge you as parents to join with us to support our efforts to reduce this threat to your children. Amazingly, some otherwise intelligent students do not regard passing out as dangerous-even though it is the body shutting down, the first phase of dying. We have had students here who had they not been discovered and revived in the Emergency Room might have died. If as a parent you have given your child mixed messages about alcohol-or if you have modeled this dangerous behavior-you need to impress upon your child before you leave a simple lesson: drunkenness is always wrong.

This campus was shaken several years ago by the senseless deaths of two wonderful young women at the hands of a drunken driver with a terrible driving history. There were two empty chairs-and two wounds in our hearts-at commencement last year. The lessons of that tragedy were painful and permanent. The fundamental question of that awful tragedy is not our anger that others were irresponsible. The question is the personal responsibility of each of us in the use of alcohol. Many of us have known occasions when we might have been an impaired driver ourselves or passengers in a car driven by an impaired driver. Barbara Hansen, whose daughter Julie was one of those killed, wrote me last year: “It’s incredible the level of acceptance alcohol enjoys considering the misery it inflicts on humanity.” One in three college freshmen last year reported that they had driven under the influence. Tell your children and show your children-drunkenness is always wrong.

You think I am passionate about this? I am. You see, I grew up in the home with a father who became an alcoholic. My father lost to alcohol his health, his profession, and most tragically, the respect of his children. I know the risk and I know the awful pain of alcohol abuse. I will do anything the university can to call us to a higher standard of conduct in everything associated with alcohol. Wake Forest knows-intimately and painfully-that the abuse of this drug brings tragedy, unspeakable tragedy, and we have every reason to expect new responsibility within this entire community. This is not, dear parents, a matter to be excused as youthful and harmless experimentation-lest in some horrific moment I come to grieve with you. The principle, which is the basis of this responsibility, I will repeat: drunkenness is always wrong. Help us support that principle.

We do not tolerate other illicit drugs. If you use these drugs, even occasionally, you would be well advised to return home with your parents now. I read with alarm that marijuana use among teenagers is dramatically increasing. Simply stated, we do not intend to have those substances at Wake Forest. A chemically altered mind cannot be educated at Wake Forest. The marijuana that you parents may have experimented with in your student days has been genetically enhanced, and is at least four times more powerful. It is now a dangerous intoxicant with significant long-term effects. If you parents think that marijuana is harmless, you are mistaken and the mistake could be ruinous for your children. We suspended fourteen students last year for marijuana. I hope that you understand this policy and its rationale. If you do not accept our zero tolerance policy, I advise you not to enroll.

We have increased our safety and fire prevention measures, and all campus residence halls have sprinklers. Fire drills are not popular, and students are prone to disarm fire alarms. Security and safety are never convenient, but we must work to create an environment in which these concerns are as ultimate to our students as they are to the university and to your parents.

That is our first and overriding commitment to you as a community-your safety, health and well-being. To be educated, you must be at your full physical and emotional capability. But you are no longer a child. You are responsible for your own conduct, and we will hold you responsible for your actions.

IIIOur second concern is essentially related to the first. We are committed to your development of character, integrity, and a set of values for the direction of your life and commitments. Education concerns both the person and what the person learns, the knower and what is known. In education, as in life, character is destiny.

At Wake Forest, our primary concern is the person and the character that directs choice. Knowledge is valuable only if directed toward socially constructive ends. Our purpose is to see that you regard the education you are given as a trust to be used for public advancement as well as private welfare. You are to be given a marvelous education. Those to whom much is given, of them much is required. We seek your resolution to make the world better by your commitments. Intelligence must be united with goodness if education is to serve its noble purposes.

Wake Forest has a religious heritage we honor and respect. Those good Baptists who founded this school and fought to keep it open through poverty, tribulation and war believed that Wake Forest was here for the social and moral development of young lives and, through you, the improvement of the world. We welcome students of all faiths, believing that we are all richer as we learn from one another the various paths we walk in quest of transcendence.

The Jew from Nazareth taught that we must love our neighbors as ourselves. In answer to the question, “Who is your neighbor?” he recounted the parable of the Good Samaritan about overcoming every prejudice and distinction that divides the human family. In that spirit of universality and inclusion, the Wake Forest motto is Pro Humanitate. That motto enjoins us to act in goodwill toward all members of this human family-regardless of race, religion, nationality, or sexual difference. No one is excluded from the requirement that we love each and all of our neighbors. This is not some diversity slogan for the politically correct. This is a religious and moral requirement grounded in our religious heritage and affirmed by our motto. Yet, the Wake Forest motto is no longer a human ideal. It is a mandate-a practical imperative-for living in a world now comprised of a single human community on an ever smaller planet. All the members of this family are our brothers and sisters, and we are keepers and protectors each of the other.

In keeping with these ideals, our students volunteer in large numbers-from Project Pumpkin, a campus Halloween party for underprivileged children, to the local community where we collaborate with the YMCA to enrich after school programs for at?risk students, to Calcutta where a group of students work over Christmas in the City of Joy. In the Wake Forest education, reason must be enriched and guided by imagination, faith and moral passion if you are to live Pro Humanitate.

There is another expectation that arises from your choice of Wake Forest and our selection of you. Your presence here today involves a social contract committing you to our code of honor. When you applied for admission here, you agreed to support and sustain our honor code. Honor and ethical concerns are the heart of the Wake Forest experience. The pursuit of truth requires discoveries that are honestly made and conveyed, and the relationship of honor among students and with faculty is a basic assumption of all teaching and learning. It is not simply that our honor system is morally correct, such a code is essential to the right conduct of the educational enterprise.

Our campus theme this year is Ethics and Honor. Student leaders advanced this idea, and there will be many opportunities for you to explore these basic values. A democratic community of purpose rests on trust, and such a community prepares you to incorporate life’s fundamental truth: character is destiny.

With Pro Humanitate as our purpose, we remain committed for the future, as we have been for a hundred and sixty-six years, to an ethically informed conception of education and the educated person. What you know intellectually must be measured against what you are morally. Great ideals should animate the dreams and ambitions you form as you walk the pathways and halls of this school in preparation for a life of service.

IVYour academic and intellectual development is our third concern. Wake Forest is committed to providing you with the tools that will enable you to educate yourselves. Socrates said that all learning which matters is from within. It is discovery. Teachers are but midwives in this process of intellectual birth.

We stand firmly within a tradition of liberal education and academic foundationalism. This assumes a structure to the architecture of knowledge, and we aim to provide you an introduction to the structure of human knowing so that you may choose and build the rooms of your mind. You will take courses in a wide range of subjects and be challenged to consider new and unfamiliar ways of understanding human nature, society, and the natural order. Your best moments at study will be discovery-when you see it for yourself for the first time or in a new way.

We have an outstanding faculty committed to you as students and partners in learning. Their doors will be open. Learning that matters, ultimately, is in relationship with faculty mentors. Our curriculum will give you opportunities to explore new areas of interest. Our libraries contain the wisdom of the ages and the best of what the human intelligence has recorded. There are speakers and performers of prominence in every field. This year you will see presidential politics-the apex of our democracy-unfold on our campus.

The new age of information technology is here. The technological revolution is sweeping every profession and vocation. Wake Forest’s aim for you is understanding, not information, but information is the raw material of education and you will be provided with state of the art equipment and training opportunities. Having participated myself in one of the first year seminars, I am convinced that the computing tools you are being given will enhance your experience here and prepare you for the world of work in an information-based economy.

Life here is full. Student organizations reflect a wide variety of interests and activities, and are valuable avenues of service and friendship. The Deacons are competitive in every sport, and intramural programs are thriving. Our environment provides you quiet places for contemplation and reflection. Our campus is a place of special beauty, and the love of beauty in all things should infuse your life here. Religious assemblies are here for your worship, supported by the work of campus ministries. These years will bring rich friendships. Wake Forest people love this school with passion, and that love, I warn you, is contagious. Many parents are embraced by our sense of belonging to a place that is creating the future of our students.

The process of learning here will not be without pain and sacrifice. Unless you are pushed to the limit of your ability, you may never learn what your potential is. All of us know that valuable lessons come with trial and failure followed by renewed effort. Education-like life-is seldom painless. This is often a hard lesson for us as parents. Though we know in our own experiences that the lessons of failure are essential, we are conditioned to protect our children from these lessons, even when such protection works to their ultimate harm.

A Wake Forest education cannot be bought. Education is not a commodity. It is an opportunity to be earned with discipline and work. As in life, the more the investment in energy, determination and dedication, the greater the reward.

VIf these first three responsibilities have been well exercised, the fourth-career and professional planning-will occur as an inevitable outcome. Some of you come with fixed career goals. Most of you do not. Almost all of you will change your minds as you explore your own talents and the match between your interests and the world of work. What is fundamental about education is to learn to love learning. To make of you students forever is our aim. This is your moment to dream a dream for your life and prepare to pursue that dream. Make that dream a grand and fulfilling one.

One thing is certain. There is a growing convergence between the elements of the liberally educated mind and the emerging economies of the 21st century. The abilities of calculation, communication and reflective judgment are basic to the liberally educated mind and fundamental to every vocation and profession. To be worthy of trust is the highest requirement for any purpose or position.

International education has been a traditional emphasis of Wake Forest, and globalism is now a theme of the business and professional world. You should use these years to become conversant with the global outlook that will shape your experience beyond Wake Forest no matter what you do. You should travel, study abroad, and to use the language requirement to achieve fluency in another language. More than half of last year’s graduates earned academic credit abroad. We want your numbers to be higher yet.

You will not be forced to choose between the requirements of your education and the imperative to secure a place of opportunity in the economic order. Six months out of Wake Forest, essentially all our graduates are in graduate/professional school or have that first job. The lesson of the statistic is that if you succeed at Wake Forest in the three other concerns described, your future will be assured.

VIIn my alumni wanderings a few years ago, Kenneth Hite of Greenville gave me his freshman student handbook for the year 1934, sixty-six years ago, produced by the Student Council. I was much taken by this small book and kept it on my desk for many months. It contains a welcome from President Thurman Kitchin, pointing out that 1934 was the college’s centennial year. The handbook contains rules for freshmen, many of the rules bearing on “rat caps,” little beanies the entering students were required to wear.

Freshmen were required to learn the school songs in the first week, not to wear wristwatches or raise mustaches. Learn the songs they did! A ninety-year-old alumnus of the class of 1930-Harold Patterson-led us in a rendition of the fight song at a gathering in San Francisco a few weeks back. Several of you were there. In 1934, freshmen were required to attend all athletic contests, to follow the cheerleaders, but-think of this!-never to cheer when an opponent was penalized. The Honor System was a simple comprehensive code of conduct: students are on their honor to do right at all times and to abstain from the wrong. There was, for cultivation of the spirit, daily chapel.

But if much has changed in six decades, including even the location of the school, much abides. The book is filled with names I know and love. The paintings of J. Allen Easley grace the walls of my office. In 1934, he was pastor of the First Baptist Church in old Wake Forest, but he became Professor of Religion and one of the most revered figures in Wake Forest history. Another student officer in 1934 lived in Birmingham where I was at the time of my Wake Forest appointment. When it appeared in the local paper that I was coming here as president, his was the first phone call I received from an alumnus. His first words were, “I don’t know you, but I love you because I love Wake Forest.” True to his promise, Bert Shore loved me and loved Wake Forest until his death two years ago. For years and years, he drove from Birmingham to Winston-Salem for every home football game.

Old Wake Forest had character. In a word, I have been using, advisedly so, there was love abundant there. The handbook reminds its readers on every page of the college’s religious and moral expectations. It repeats the constant desire of every student and faculty member to be helpful to each other. Wake Forest is a community where caring for each other is the rule, concern extending even to the local proprietors. “Don’t go to Raleigh to the picture show,” the book advises. “The Castle Theater in Wake Forest shows the best of pictures, and Mr. Whitacre will appreciate your patronage.” Such was the place we were. May we forever so remain!

The student editor, Thompson Greenwood, had a final comment to the entering class. His words reminded me of that wonderful phone call I received to welcome me to Wake Forest. He wrote to the freshmen, “I like you because you have come to this great old school. If I can ever be of any assistance to you, call on me. Please remember always to work and do the right thing-and the gods will be kind.”

More than sixty years later, in a new era, as we enter the new millenium, on a new campus, in another city, I can’t improve on that advice: work hard, do the right thing, and God will visit you with His kindness. To the Class of 2004, welcome to Wake Forest.

Categories: For Parents, President, Speakers, Student