Building Up Each Other

Welcome Back Message emailed to students, faculty and staff on August 22, 2017

Dear students, faculty and staff,

As I begin this letter of welcome, I want to reiterate the statement I made early last week about the hateful and violent incidents led by white supremacists recently in Charlottesville:

“There is no place for the bigotry, racism and violence we witnessed in Charlottesville. Wake Forest University extends our condolences to the families and friends grieving the senseless harm and loss of life, as well as all who are devastated by the expressions of hatred. This is a time to stand in support of our colleagues at the University of Virginia and underscore our own continuing commitment to a diverse and inclusive campus community where everyone is treated with dignity and respect.”

Later this week, Provost Rogan Kersh will send a message inviting the campus community to a number of teaching, learning and healing events. For now, I wish to share some of my own reflections as we begin the academic year in tragic and troubled times.

A few weeks ago, I received a letter that reminded me of the poet John Masefield’s observation that “there are few earthly things more splendid than a university.” The new alumnus wrote to thank Julie and me for the friendship and mentoring he had received at Wake Forest. He took note of four professors who were “incredible mentors and lampposts” in his intellectual development. He thanked me and others for books and lectures that had been suggested to him. “You have shown me how I can continue my education past four years at Wake Forest.”

He was grateful for all the help he had received in his job search – successfully concluded with a data analytics position with a major international firm in Atlanta. He noted the “foundational role” that Campus Ministry had played in his spiritual and moral development. And he thanked many at Wake Forest for being so kind to his parents when they came to celebrate graduation weekend in May.

Witnessing this kind of personal transformation and gratitude makes our academic callings rich and inviting. We know how uplifting it is to experience settings the likes of which Masefield describes: “where seekers and learners alike, banded together in the search for knowledge, will honor thought in all its finer ways.” We see examples of that great gift “to the young in their impressionable years, the bond of a lofty purpose shared.” Every day we see friendships forged – “that close companionship for which youth longs.” And in classrooms, communal spaces and residence halls, we observe “that chance of the endless discussion of the themes which are endless, without which youth would seem a waste to time.”

This is not to say that all is well within colleges or that Americans have great hope that colleges and universities can answer our society’s most glaring problems. We live in confusing times indeed, compounded recently by the horrific disregard for human life and dignity we experienced in Charlottesville last week. To be clear, we cannot tolerate racism, hate and violence on our campus or in our society. On this campus, we have a higher calling, to respect every individual and to build a community of hospitality and open conversation. Make no mistake, the times we live in now require us to rededicate ourselves to the values that have held our alma mater in good stead for nearly 185 years.

In 1946, Masefield also confronted a dispiriting landscape. He penned his ode to the beauty of a university against the backdrop of World War II’s desolation and of political and social disarray. His was a day “when every future looks somewhat grim and the dams are down and the floods are making misery, when every ancient foothold had become something of a quagmire.” With that scene in mind, he lifted up the life-giving potential of a collegiate community.

What does it mean for us to fulfill the university’s promise in 2017 – a time when there is great doubt about our fragmenting culture, about resurgent hate and intolerance, about the quality of civic leadership and about the proper role of universities?

As we begin another academic year, let me offer some personal reflections on how we can, together, strengthen Wake Forest. In doing so, let me encourage everyone – students and faculty, staff and administrators, coaches and mentors – to redouble our efforts to seize every opportunity to make this community better.

I offer three simple ideas.

Dream Big.

“Life loves to be taken by the lapel and told: ‘I’m with you kid. Let’s go.”
– Maya Angelou

A great danger, for individuals and for the institution, is that we make only small plans. It is easy to coast along, going through the motions: pass one more course, prepare one more lecture, publish one more paper, perform one more play, play one more game. An academic environment provides tremendous freedom for faculty and students alike. Most of us set our own goals and expectations.

At the outset of a new term, let me encourage everyone to think expansively and purposely about your opportunities. Read carefully, write thoughtfully, explore inquisitively. This campus is honeycombed with opportunity and eager conversation partners. Whatever you are doing, make it the best ever: the next debate, the next concert or recital, the next athletic contest, the next assignment for a club or organization.

Make personal and academic goals for the year. At least weekly, go out of your way to engage someone whose background or perspective is different than your own. Converse with, learn from and seek to understand other people. Take time to invest in friends. This semester, take on at least one book with “deep reading,” a focus and concentration that many such as Sven Birkerts (The Gutenberg Elegies) suggests we are losing. Take an hour every week to compare your personal goals with how you are spending your time, how your life is actually being lived. In short, take charge of your own development rather than being swept along by the prevailing current. Live in an active rather than passive mode.

Everyone Counts.

“There are no ordinary people.” – C. S. Lewis

The magic of a place like Wake Forest is the people and the enormous potential they have to build up each other. On this campus, every student, faculty and staff member counts. The sheer fact of being a person and a part of this community outweighs everything else – whether you are particularly successful or struggling, whether happy or sad, whether well-known or humble, whether bold or shy. Every day each of us encounters people whom we can build up or tear down. Or we take the easier but ultimately more dangerous path – simply to ignore or snub them.

This fall we welcome new students, new faculty and new staff members. I trust we will go out of our way to embrace them as part of this community. Remember the students brave enough to come to the United States from other countries. Remember the first-generation students whose introduction to Wake Forest may be somewhat disorienting. Remember all those who, for whatever reason, don’t feel included in the day-to-day life of our University.

The events in Charlottesville and the expressions of hatred have left many devastated, fearful and confused. However, in this time, we can choose to support and uphold one another. Elie Wiesel, a writer and Holocaust survivor, once said, “We have to go into the despair and go beyond it, by working and doing for somebody else, by using it for something else.” Let us not shirk from the unrest we feel, but use it to inspire and strengthen this community for the better.

Increasingly our society tells us that one goes to a college or university primarily to fulfill personal dreams. I trust that at Wake Forest we can weave a more durable social fabric – a community whose members understand that they are part of one another. Wake Forest at its best, living our motto of Pro Humanitate, will help individuals thrive but in the context of deep connection and responsibility for each other.

Think with Humility.

“No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint.” – Reinhold Niebuhr

We live in an age of bravado and attack, adding up to a cultural decline of civility. In this climate, it is essential that university citizens cultivate the gift of intellectual humility. In common parlance, such humility resembles open-mindedness. Intellectually humble people can have strong beliefs, but recognize their fallibility and are willing to be proven wrong on matters large and small. They are open to learning from those with whom they disagree.

We all have a tendency to overestimate how much we know and the rightness of our opinions. And those of us in universities, where thinking is the coin of the realm, also have a tendency to hold positions firmly because it is our business to think long and hard about them.

This kind of intellectual confidence can have downsides: we may too easily forget the limitations of our knowledge and we, ourselves, may become less curious and inquisitive. Laszlo Bock, the former Chief Human Resources Officer at Google, says the problem he found with many graduates of elite institutions is that they have so much confidence in their own points of view, brilliantly defended, that they are not open to ideas of others. The most successful new employees, Bock says, are those who may hold a fierce position, but will, with intellectual humility, give way to a better idea. “You need a big ego and small ego in the same person at the same time.”

At Wake Forest, our principal task is not to win arguments – as important as any one of them may be – but to develop wiser and better people. We need to weigh ideas, to listen to others and their arguments, particularly those with whom we disagree. Recent studies show that intellectually humble people, whether progressive or conservative, actually do a better job in carefully weighing evidence. Their ego does not cloud their judgment.

If Wake Forest is to grow as a vibrant crossroads of healthy discussion and debate, we must take each other seriously and admit what we don’t know. In a day when higher education is critiqued for being far too monolithic in its convictions, we must ensure that we are a diverse and inclusive place that seeks out and values a wide range of opinions.

A university is a place where academic freedom and freedom of expression are fundamental – a place that resists outside control and encourages community members to give voice to their beliefs, whether progressive or conservative, radical or traditional.

At Wake Forest, we need to welcome genuine diversity of thought – even embracing those whose opinions we do not understand or appreciate. We can give our students the ability to disagree with courtesy and friendship. That is a relief that our nation, so fractured and polarized, desperately needs.

I have often said that Wake Forest seeks to occupy a special middle ground, a place where people are welcomed into a community of conversation from backgrounds rich and poor, left and right, religious and secular, straight and gay. We must learn to build up each other – to dream together, to take each person seriously, and to think, converse and debate together. That is when we are at our very best.

Best wishes to you as you start a new semester.

Sincerely,

Nathan O. Hatch
President