Dr. Titilayo Ufomata
Provost and Dean of Faculty
August 27, 2012
Good evening and welcome to this year's opening convocation. I also want to welcome my colleagues back to campus after the summer break. As I set out to prepare my remarks, several thought went through my mind. It was difficult to focus my remarks around a single theme. I reminded myself of the advice I would give a student in a similar situation - determine your purpose, think about issues that you are passionate about, or something that you know a lot about, or you think your audience would be interested in, and then narrow the focus to a manageable topic. I tried to take the advice, but still could not narrow my focus to only one topic. I therefore took the liberty of musing around a couple of somewhat related themes that have preoccupied me since arriving here in July. They have occupied my consciousness more as a caution to me as I question why I do the things that I do, how I do them, and if they cannot be done better.
Consequently, my goal in the next few minutes is to share some of those thoughts on the notion of freedom and responsibility; and of community and citizenship in an institution like ours. I do this partly in the hopes that I can encourage you, as well as myself, to reflect upon and query our assumptions around these notions. It was Socrates who once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Albert Camus also famously said that, 'An intellectual is a person whose mind watches itself'. I am acutely aware of the presumptuousness implied in counting myself one, but nevertheless decided to go ahead and share the following thoughts.
Freedom is a notion that is much valued in higher education. It is codified into the system through policies that protect employment from the consequences of its exercise. Many of us have devoted our lives to the sector for that very reason and for the fact that we are helping to shape the future by developing leaders who will be capable of independent thinking, and have the skills to make informed choices that hopefully will propel society in the right direction. While teaching can be one of the most altruistic of professions, there are many practical reasons for doing it well, not least among which is the preservation of self, as our future well-being depends on the younger generation. Embedded in the notion of freedom, but not often discussed with the same fervor, is the responsibility to protect the freedom of others. At its very core, freedom is relative. One person's freedom ends where that of another begins. We are either all free or no one is free. As an acquaintance irreverently put it, 'your freedom ends where my nose begins'. This recognition of the limitations of freedom has specific ramifications in an institution of higher learning. It calls for a heightened mindfulness of the rights of others to respect and their freedom. As one goes about one's daily work, it can be tempting to underestimate or even dismiss the importance of what others do. More often than not, this is due to ignorance. This works against the professed common goal of institutions to work together to support students to be successful. A big part of the responsibility that we owe each other is the respect to listen and learn. After all, it is from other people's wisdom that one gains knowledge.
Allied closely to this is the subject of community and citizenship. I often ponder the question of what it means to be a member of my different communities. The answer differs each time, depending on which community I have in mind at a particular point in time. Due to the fact that some are inherited, some are inherent and some are acquired, I think perhaps that a more useful interrogation is one that begins with the meaning of membership in general. F. Scott Fitzgerald, the novelist and short story writer once said, 'What we must decide is perhaps how we are valuable, rather than how valuable we are', a refreshing variation to the famous quotation from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, 'ask what you can do'. As members of the college community, each of us is expected to fulfill the functions of the positions we hold as detailed in our job descriptions. That is the minimum. The more important aspects of our participation are those determined by us as we engage with the community.
I will focus on one job that I know very well, the job of being a professor, and suggest how one might respond to the question, ‘what can I do’. At a very basic level, the expectations are that we teach well, do research and perform some service for our institution and larger communities. We also advise students. Fortunately, several of you sitting in this audience do a whole lot more. You respond daily to that question in a variety of ways. You understand that the goal of advising includes helping students clarify their values and goals; leading students to better understand the nature and purpose of higher education; providing accurate information about educational options, requirements, policies and procedures; planning an educational program consistent with a student’s interests and abilities; assisting students in continual monitoring and evaluation of their educational progress; integrating the many resources of the institution to meet the student’s special educational needs and aspirations; and helping students to build a connection between the major and future employment.
Fortuitously, the same skills required for good advising are also those required for good teaching. They both require appropriate preparation; emphasize rapport building; are interactive processes; require clear communication, emphasize sensitivity to audience; require respect for diverse points of view; create interest through enthusiasm; facilitate integration of learning; enhance critical thinking abilities; involve formative communication as in on-going self-evaluation; have long term impact; and are intrinsically rewarding.
To me, being good citizens of our community demands that we develop good instincts; that we recognize unintended consequences of our actions that we think about others when advocating for ourselves and our units; and that we behave and feel beyond our own circumstances for the good of others. I believe that we have the best job in the world. We enjoy the privilege of seeing young men and women enter the Colleges and leave to lead lives of consequence. They renew us with their energy and give purpose to our daily activities. Alas, I must conclude. As an unknown person once said, ‘A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking’. I know I am there.