Finding Success

May 20, 2018

Given by Lynn Pasquerella, president, Association of American Colleges and Universities

May 20, 2018

President Fox, Trustee Lott, faculty and staff of Mary Baldwin, family, friends and loved ones of the graduates, and most of all the class of 2018, it is an extraordinary honor and privilege to be here with you today. As the president of AAC&U, an organization dedicated to advancing liberal education, equity and excellence in undergraduate education in service to democracy, it is especially meaningful for me to be at a university grounded in providing a liberal education in empowering the next generation of leaders to pursue lives of purpose. In addition, at a time when the most serious challenge facing higher education is growing economic segregation, Mary Baldwin’s commitment to equity is palpable, from the University’s presence as an anchor institution in the Shenandoah Valley to this year’s theme of the Spencer Center and the board’s decision to freeze undergraduate tuition for the upcoming academic year. The University enacts its mission daily.

Graduates, each and every one of you being celebrated today occupies a critical moment of your present. You are literally hovering between the contingencies of the past and all the possibilities of the future. Like home and family, your time at Mary Baldwin and your shared traditions have created memories that will last you a lifetime. Over the next few years, you may find yourself shouting across a parking lot at an apple orchard on a fall day when you see someone wearing scarlet and gold, or start defending squirrels as trustworthy and industrious, rather than the vile pests your neighbors make them out to be. You might begin singing the MBU hymn in the shower and unexpectedly take to texting “Thanks” to professors when an experience prompts you to finally realize the significance of what they were trying to teach you in those intro courses. You may even stop by a grave site to leave ivy, and as a result, will need to reassure friends who have not had the privilege of attending Mary Baldwin University, and who wonder what bizarre cult you have fallen into, that you really are okay.

Yet, Mary Baldwin has not only provided you with a sense of commitment to community, but also a road map for a lifetime, setting you on the path of becoming innovators in your own lives. And the mental life of right now is where you get to negotiate your freedom, not to trundle along the hamster track of who you have always been and where you assume you are going, but to acknowledge the past for what it is— many things you did not choose and a few things you did, each of which exerts some influence— without letting those past patterns determine in robot-like fashion just who you will be.

Despite the current challenges of an unpredictable job market and the complexities of living in an ostensibly post-truth era, when I look out at you today, I see nothing but infinite possibility, nothing but promise.  That’s because I know that the liberal education you have received at this institution has equipped you with the skills necessary to confront the unscripted problems of the future and prepared you for jobs that have not yet been invented. Mary Baldwin stands at the forefront of best practices in liberal education, creating an environment in which engaged learning is integrated throughout the curriculum and co-curriculum.

“When I look out at you today, I see nothing but infinite possibility, nothing but promise.”

The dominant narrative that one’s undergraduate major is all that matters and that only some majors will prepare students for success in the workplace obscures the reality. In fact, we know from AAC&U’s own research that a student’s undergraduate experience and how well that experience advances specific learning outcomes is what really matters. The capacities engendered in you to think critically, to communicate clearly, to work in diverse teams on global issues, to make ethical judgments, to be adaptable and flexible in the face of rapid change, to apply your knowledge in real-world settings, and to engage in sympathetic imagination —imaging what it is like to be in the shoes of another different from oneself — will enable you to thrive in work, citizenship and life. These are the skills that employers value the most, and are essential not only to our nation’s economy, but more importantly to our democracy.

In May of 1863, a few months before Mary Baldwin took up her post as principal of this remarkable institution, and in a nation enmeshed in the Civil War, Emily Dickinson wrote a letter to two of her cousins, confessing “I must keep ‘gas’ burning to light the danger up, so I could distinguish it.” The poet’s words reflect her unflinching pursuit of the truth, and the need she felt to move beyond her own narrow viewing point. Dickinson wanted to “light the danger up”— not turn away from it. She sought to look at what others either could not or did not want to see. In the midst of national dissension and uncertainty, she strove to use every ounce of her being in the process of discovery — perhaps understanding that deliberative democracy, especially in times of crisis, relies on the creation of a critical public culture that foments reasoned debate and independent thought.

One hundred years later, during the 1963 March on Washington, in a nation still divided, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” King was advocating for what he referred to as “dangerous altruism,” contending that the “real question of life is whether an individual is able to say I do this not because of what it means to me, but because of what it will mean to my brother (or sister) if I fail to do it.”

Today, in a country in which partisan divides are greater than they have been in more than half a century, and in a world in which the oceans are rising and civility is plummeting, paying attention to the object lessons of both Dickinson and King are more crucial now than ever. We need to light up the danger and reassert the power of a liberal education in discerning the truth. At the same time, we need to face the fierce urgency of now and engage in dangerous altruism, recognizing that higher education and its graduates must play a leadership role in jettisoning a belief in the hierarchy of human value.

In taking up the charge to be boldly Baldwin, to be leaders and change makers in a society still plagued by persistent inequalities, keep in mind the words of writer and activist Thomas Merton, who encouraged us to redefine our concept of success by focusing on neither the results nor recognition of our work.

Merton reminds us,

You may have to face the fact that your work
Will be apparently worthless and even achieve
No results at all, if not perhaps results opposite
to what you expect. As you get used to this idea,
you start more and more to concentrate not on the
results, but on the value, the rightness,
the truth of the work itself…
gradually you struggle less and less
for an idea and more and more for specific people…
In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships
that saves everything.

The personal relationships that you have forged on this stunningly beautiful campus — the world-class faculty, the amazingly dedicated staff, the peers who have offered you inspiration and friendship, and, now, a vast alumni network — will be there to cheer you on every step of the way. So will I. In that, there is success, no matter what the ultimate outcome of your efforts. Congratulations and best of luck!

“The personal relationships that you have forged on this stunningly beautiful campus — the world-class faculty, the amazingly dedicated staff, the peers who have offered you inspiration and friendship, and, now, a vast alumni network — will be there to cheer you on every step of the way. ”