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Fall 2011 Convocation Address, Dr. S. Keith Dunn

August 25, 2011

(Un)Common Sense

2011 Fall Convocation, Dr. Keith DunnLet me start by saying how honored and excited I am to be here today to help us officially launch our Millsaps experience. I'm proud to stand with you as new members of this community. I stand in full recognition of the men and women who have come before us who built and maintained this "Community of Scholars in Pursuit of Excellence". To paraphrase Isaac Newton, if we see further than those who came before us, it is because we are standing on the shoulder of giants. I understand that without the foresight, the vision, the commitment and the generosity of people like our founder, Major Reuben Webster Millsaps, our first President William Belton Murrah and our first Board Chair, Bishop Charles Betts Galloway, our journey would not be possible. The faculty, staff and students who have come before us have left behind a legacy of excellence that is remarkable. I am proud to be a part of that storied tradition. I also want to take a moment to acknowledge the group of individuals who currently hold this amazing place in their trust. President Pearigen has in one short year infused this community with the kind of vision, confidence and hope that is nothing short of inspirational. It's an honor and a privilege to join Millsaps' leadership team at this exciting time in the history of the College. Our Board of Trustees are incredibly dedicated to Millsaps, they are generous and supportive and ready to be visionary. The faculty on this stage represents the heart and soul of the institution. Their extraordinary accomplishments are far too many to list, but I will take this opportunity to proclaim again that you are studying under the guidance of what the Princeton Review ranks as the 8th best faculty in the country. Talk about an immediate impact, I've been here just a little over a month, and I've already taken the faculty to previously unforeseen heights. Yes, OK, I realize that the survey and rankings happened well before I joined the Millsaps team. Alright, I'll say it, I had nothing to do with this bit of success, but I'm still tremendously proud of the accomplishment. Please know that we all take these rankings with a grain of salt. They are often far from scientific in their methodology, and rising to the top of any given list is at least serendipitous. However, I want you to recognize that being in the conversation for so many of these distinctions is no accident or coincidence at all. The reputation of excellence and achievement that is Millsaps' legacy, is what puts us in the running for the various accolades we receive - and we receive a lot! We are proud of our accomplishments.

I'd like to spend just a few minutes today talking about what it is about the Millsaps experience that produces such a legacy of excellence. What do we provide that could possibly be worth the price of a private, liberal arts education in the wake of the current economic climate? If you're hoping for an answer like "professional training or the ability to get a job", I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed with my conclusions. Now wait just minute, before you get disillusioned and call your Mom to say the Dean told you at opening convocation that he didn't care about preparing you for a job, that's not my message here, and it's not true. I want you to know that preparing you for your life's work and gainful employment is an absolutely essential part of our mission at Millsaps, and we do it well. When you leave here after 4 years, you will have the skills and practical knowledge necessary to succeed in a myriad of careers. Even so, I would not go so far as to say that job preparation is our primary mission. We realize that many of the jobs we're preparing you for, don't even exist yet, and those that do will change so much in the next four years that much of what we could teach you now would be out dated before you could even begin your career. How's that for depressing? So what do you need to become the next generation of leaders who will shape our increasingly complex and multicultural society, whose business opportunities will be more constrained by narrow and inflexible thinking than by geographical or international borders, whose markets will evolve so quickly that adaptability and liquidity are likely to be more important assets than traditional, consistent manufacturing methods, whose primary competitive advantage will no longer come from the acquisition of information, but from the ability to process and make sense of the flood of information readily available at everyone's fingertips, leaders whose attention to financial and sustainable practices will outweigh short-term economic benefits? To succeed in the fast-paced, highly technical, increasing global society of tomorrow, what you really need more than any specific job skill is the UnCommon Sense that only comes from a broad, personal, liberal arts education.

Take a good look at the outstanding group of faculty sitting on the stage. Among them you will find the Philosopher who asks you to confront questions that deal with the very essence of being (questions that you probably think right now would be better off left unasked), the physicist who helps you unlock the mysteries of the microscopic world, the Musician or the visual artist who presses you to transcend the ordinary experiences of everyday life and find the unique pleasure and meaning in artist expression and aesthetic beauty. You will also find the Political Scientist who has the audacity to assign hundreds (well, at least dozens) of pages of readings BEFORE the first day of his Constitutional Law class. You will probably find yourself muttering something like "Who does that guy think he is, anyway?" or "I don't care if he is the President of the College ..." You'll also find that these same professors will literally change your life. They will instill in you an UnCommon Sense of Perseverance that comes from being pushed well beyond your comfort zone and the UnCommon Sense of Satisfaction that comes from achieving goals that you thought were out of reach - goals, in fact, that you never would have reached if they had not had those "unrealistic" expectations. They will teach you the invaluable lesson that it's always better to fight your way through a difficult situation than to find a way to escape from it. That, as my father so astutely shared with me, the heat of battle is rarely the right time to make long-range strategic decisions. What's needed in the heat of battle is to fight your way through to survival. Long-term strategies and goal-setting are issues that are best addressed in the contemplative time after the battle has been fought. That lesson has helped me through some of the most difficult situations in every aspect of my life. I can point to several distinct moments in my life that I could have opted for the path of least resistance, instead of systematically working my way through difficult situations to a reasonable conclusion. In almost all of thos cases, I would have been fine by escaping from the hardship and moving on, but I would have robbed myself of attaining my true potential. I would not be the person I am today, enjoying the dream job that has recently presented itself to me. What I can promise you about your professors at Millsaps is that they will challenge you and stretch you beyond your comfort zone, but they will also support you and mentor you in ways that will make it possible for you to attain their lofty goals. And no one will be prouder of you or happier for you when you reach those goals. They will instill in you an UnCommon Sense of Perseverance and Satisfaction that will shape your lives in ways that you cannot yet imagine.

The Millsaps experience will also provide you with an UnCommon Sense of the need to replace our too-often simplistic, black-and-white, good-vs-evil world view with a nuanced understanding of and appreciation for the concepts of "Self" and "Other". An Uncommon Sense that only by understanding our cultural biases and disparate experiences can we really find our commonalities. You'll develop the UnCommon Sense that learning another language is so much more than merely creating the ability to communicate with someone from another culture. Language provides a window into the very soul of a society, an understanding of the culture and history that simply does not translate out of the native tongue. Our languages have evolved differently because of the cultures that have spawned them.

During your time at Millsaps you will develop an UnCommon Sense of Purpose and Direction. You will explore what it means to be human. You will wrestle with how the great fundamental questions of meaning, substance, consciousness and faith inform your life's work, so that the activities that will occupy most of your adult lives will be focused on making a difference for good in the world in addition to sustaining a comfortable lifestyle. You will develop an UnCommon Sense of how the careful and critical analysis of past events and societies can direct us toward a more promising future.

Some of you will find that a greater understanding of the wonderfully intricate universe in which we live brings you into a more intimate and meaningful relationship with the creator. I hope that all of you will struggle earnestly with questions of God and faith. Some of your most basic beliefs will be called into question and explored openly. My hope is that you will all develop an UnCommon Sense of ownership of whatever faith you find, that you will ultimately be secure enough in yourselves that the free and open pursuit of knowledge informs your faith instead of threatening it.

You will develop an UnCommon Sense of Adventure and Confidence that comes from having to solve problems outside your area of expertise and interest. Time and time again, I hear stories from people singing the praises of the liberal arts graduate for being willing to tackle difficult, often interdisciplinary problems that they haven't been trained to address. One of the most marketable and useful skills you will pick up at Millsaps is the confidence to attack unfamiliar problems and the ability to teach yourself how to find solutions. This UnCommon Sense of Adventure and Confidence will enable you to abandon your dreams and aspirations. That's right, you CAN call your Dad and tell him that the Dean encouraged you to abandon your dreams and aspirations. But, let's qualify that statement just a bit as a preemptive strike against the phone calls from concerned parents that I'm likely to field in the coming days. I am NOT telling you that it's OK to give up or accept defeat. I'm calling you to an even greater future than what you could possibly imagine.  Let me explain. In some very real sense, our dreams are almost never big enough; they can't be. Many of the opportunities that will present themselves during your lifetime will be far beyond your ability to imagine right now. While having dreams and setting goals is absolutely essential to your continued success, ultimately, to truly reach your potential you will need to abandon those dreams and your past successes to capture the exciting future that lies ahead.

Finally, I want to say that I hope you will achieve an UnCommon Sense of Humility and Responsibility. You have an unbelievable potential for success. My deepest desire is that you will recognize the awesome privilege and responsibility you have to use your talents to impact your community for good. The entire community at Millsaps believes that THE BEST investment of our resources for the future of our civilization is in YOUR education. If we didn't we wouldn't be here. Let me give you an example of what I mean. Last year, EVERY MEMBER of the buildings, grounds, and custodial crews gave financial gifts back to the College, on top of their hard work and talents they give every day. I want you to take just a moment to ponder the significance of that statistic. These industrious, committed members of our community felt that the absolute best use of their money was to reinvest it into educating you! I guarantee they have bills to pay and responsibilities to meet for their own families. These gifts were not given lightly or out of excess. They were given sacrificially and intentionally for what they believe to be the greater good. I hope that you will take the time to thank these individuals as opportunities present themselves. We all recognize that our world desperately needs thoughtful, liberally educated leaders to solve the overwhelmingly complex problems we will have to deal with in our immediate future. Issues like global environmental change, the development of a truly global economy. The inherent struggles of responsible use of limited resources. Issues involving social justice in the wake of developing markets. The challenges are indeed great, They might even be insurmountable if it were not for the UnCommon Senses you will develop as a result of your Millsaps experience.

We expect great things from you. We promise great things for you. We welcome you to this "Community of Scholars in Pursuit of Excellence".