Delivered in Wait Chapel on Feb. 17, 2022. Remarks as prepared.
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Welcome to our 2022 Founders’ Day Convocation.

This is my first Founders’ Day on campus, as it may be for many of you, and I’m delighted we can meet together in person.

Like many of our newest students, I’m still learning about Wake Forest — learning what makes this place so special and how we can contribute in our own way to the University’s distinctive story.

Today is a celebration but also a convocation — a calling together. That is, we are gathered to solemnly reflect upon our past and how it relates to our current moment, and to our future.

Part of any honest reflection on the past requires honoring the parts that fill us with pride and critically analyzing where we have fallen short.

We do this not to sully the good but to empower ourselves to continually strive forward.

As a scientist, I’m accustomed to asking lots of questions, but my own way of thinking about Founder’s Day centers on one question in particular: What does it mean to be a founder?

For obvious reasons, we think of the year 1834 when we think of the founding of Wake Forest.

It was 187 years ago this month that the Wake Forest Manual Labor Institute was founded about 100 miles east of here.

And while we clearly would not be here today if not for our opening in 1834, we cannot deny that our history – like that of our state and indeed our nation – is tied up with slavery, segregation, and America’s other injustices.

We shouldn’t shy away from these aspects of our past. Instead, we should confront them.
And, most importantly — as an educational institution with knowledge creation at our core — we must learn from them.

That’s why I’m proud of the important work being done by Wake Forest’s Slavery, Race, and Memory Project and particularly proud of our membership in the Universities Studying Slavery consortium. Along with 87 other universities, we are working together to share best practices and guiding principles about truth-telling projects that address injustice in our histories.

This is part of how we recognize that traditions — like people — need to grow, evolve, and expand to welcome more people into our unfolding story.

We also need to recognize that not everything about Wake Forest was founded in the antebellum period. For example, in 1894, our law school was founded. In 1902, our medical school. In 1923, the Demon Deacons burst onto the scene. In 1942, women were finally admitted to the College. And then in 1956, we relocated to this beautiful campus here in Winston-Salem.

My point is that Wake Forest is a place where many things have begun, where the act of founding is continuous. “Found” is a verb, an action, not a single, set moment in some distant past. Wake Forest University does not rest on a rigid slab foundation but on a growing number of piers and beams that together hold us up and expand our footprint.

We are here today and we are who we are today because of many foundings and many founders. Together, they – and we – help define Wake Forest’s story.

Consider the year 1962 – sixty years ago.

This was the year that the Board of Trustees finally voted to admit African American students.
It was the year that Ed Reynolds became the first full-time black student to enroll at Wake Forest. And it was the year that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke in this very chapel.

Something incredibly important happened that year, 1962. Something new and beautiful was founded here.

But it wasn’t easy. Student and faculty activism played a vital role in desegregation initiatives.

Many on campus simply wanted to get on with their work and studies. They didn’t want the necessity of distraction and controversy that often accompanies the march of justice.

But ultimately, this community worked together to create the foundation from which a more diverse, equitable and inclusive Wake Forest could be built — one we continually strive to build today.

There are other examples of more inclusive foundings that form all the parts of the Wake Forest story.

In 2000, Susan Parker and Wendy Scott were married here in Wait Chapel. This was after a three-year battle, where Wake Forest students played a leading role in efforts to overturn the ban on same-sex marriage ceremonies on campus.

Furthermore, this year we celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the founding of the LGBTQ+ Center on campus.

These milestones are points of pride, but also events that we should think about deeply as we consider our own contributions to Wake Forest today.

What is it that we will found?

What is it that we will found?

Being a founder means being a fearless advocate. It means pushing for positive change, not settling for simply getting on with our work and studies. It means engaging in radical collaboration with others.

It means cultivating a respectful and open dialogue with those with whom we may disagree. It means persistently and peacefully striving on.

And it means embodying our motto, Pro Humanitate.

These traits are critical if we are to be great founders. And we are a university that is –
and strives to be – great in all we do.

So today, I want to call us to all be founders for the future and to engage in the hard work needed to accomplish great things. We were founded in 1834 as a manual labor college — and there is much work for all of us to do.

In a moment, Professor Erica Still is going to speak to us about one of our most renowned and beloved Wake Foresters — Maya Angelou. Dr. Angelou founded so much good on our campus. She is rightly part of our celebration today.

She is also being honored nationally this year, having been chosen to grace a new edition of the U.S. quarter. This is a proud moment for the campus she called home for over 30 years.

In 2011, she said “I have great respect for the past. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going. But I’m a person of the moment.”

Two years later in 2013, not long before she died, she said, “Heritage is so complex … we have to be simple, consider ourselves global. This takes a lot of courage, but humans are more alike than we are unalike.”

So today, I leave you with those wise words.

Here at Wake Forest, we know our heritage is complex, and we have great respect for the complexity of our past. After all, without it, we would not be where we are today.

But we are also an institution constantly looking for ways to expand the narrative. Which is why we must also be globally minded people of the moment.

Moving forward, I very much look forward to what we can found together.

Thank you.

Categories: Speeches