University of Kentucky
Commencement Address
May 8, 2004
“What Does It Mean To Be A Graduate
of the University of Kentucky?”

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Good Afternoon and thank you for the complimentary Introduction. First, I want to extend my congratulations to the Graduates. This is your day; this is a very very special day. You and your parents have every right to be both proud and pleased with your accomplishments and with all that today means. You are graduating from an excellent University. Graduating, however, does not mean an end to your relationship with this Institution. From this day forward you become an alumnus of this great University.

As an alum myself, I am deeply honored to be asked by President Lee Todd to speak to you today, and to receive an honorary doctorate degree. There is no greater honor for me than to return to my alma mater with such high recognition. As trite as it may sound, I “love” the University of Kentucky, if it is at all possible to “love” a University. I have had a proud affiliation with the University of Kentucky as a student, as a professor, as an alumnus, and as an advisory board member for the College of Arts and Sciences.

Because of my long association with UK, I had the opportunity and the pleasure to know and become friends with former Presidents Otis Singletary and Charles Wethington, both of whom I admire for their dedication and service to this University.

I also know that UK is comprised of outstanding Professors who are leaders in their fields. We need to appreciate and applaud the work of this world-class faculty. Graduates, there are faculty here at UK who challenged every thought you dared utter out loud or write on paper. By taking advantage of what UK has to offer, as I am certain you graduates have, you are leaving here with not just a degree, but most importantly, an Education that will serve you all of your life and upon which you will build.

My message today is a very simple question to you: “What Does It Mean To Be A Graduate Of The University of Kentucky?” In sharing my thoughts about this question with you, I will highlight a few of the key benefits I see for all of us who have navigated our way through this institution for four or more years.

This is a very exciting time to be graduating from college and launching one’s professional career. I suspect that it is human nature for people to believe that the time in which they live is “special,” “unique,” and very “different” from previous time periods. Pick any person in history, and despite all of the hardships, the natural disasters, the famines and diseases, and wars, that were prevalent during their time, that historical figure believed that the years spanning his or her lifetime were the most unique period in the history of human kind. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., in a speech toward the end of his life, said that if he had been asked by the “Almighty” to decide which time period he could live in, he would do a quick “over view” of the entire known history of human kind, pointing out great achievements along the way that would have been exciting to witness first hand, but he would end up selecting the current time, the 1960s, as the best time ever to have been alive. When considering the many advances in medicine, in communications, in travel, in computers and technology, our lifetime in so many ways is characterized by dynamic change, and that is what makes this a most exciting and interesting time to have been fortunate enough to witness.

“Flexibility” is one important quality I learned here at UK; that is the ability to adapt quickly to changes whether these were technological changes or new ideas. There is no question that we all need a certain amount of flexibility to reach our goals and objectives without undue stress or debilitating trauma. This is especially true in our high speed technologically driven world, where change comes rapidly and where there are great demands for quick adaptation. All of you, of course, are lucky because you grew up at the same time as this “Technological Revolution,” which has made it a little easier for you to adjust and learn new techniques than my generation.

When I was a student, it was quite different. In 1977, after completing my course work and exams, all I had left to finish my Ph.D. degree was to type my dissertation. That sounds easy enough, except it was not. There was an extensive set of rules regarding the formatting of the dissertation. It had to be typed on special Duke University paper and within set margins. If you made a typing error, especially if you left out a word, you had to retype the entire page. The problem, of course, was when retyping the page, you would then make yet another typing error, and had to type the same page over and over until you got it right, with no errors at all! Plus, you had to use carbon paper to make copies, which meant taking the carbons out and reinserting them for each retyping. The process was long, tedious, and most surely frustrating.

Yet, within a few years of completing my Ph.D., technology had advanced dramatically to where in 1984 I had my own personal computer, a “Mac,” for word processing and formatting my papers. And, wow! It seemed unreal, absolutely amazing compared to the past. I no longer had to type the same page over and over, no messy, smudgy carbons to deal with. I quickly discovered how to delete, how to cut and past, and drag and click, and how to print as many original copies as I desired.

Speaking of printers: back then, my first dot matrix was like dealing with a snail … a tranquilized snail at that. I could leave the printer running, go have lunch or run some errands, and sure enough 30 to 45 minutes later, it was still cranking out the pages of my manuscript. By contrast, today, my son, Benjamin, and I are “networked” and no sooner than I hit “print,” and I walk into his room, the printing is done.

And what about cell phones? Major advances have occurred in this area as well. My first mobile phone weighed a ton and was the size of a brick and I was always trying to figure out how to carry it and where to put it. But look at the ones we use now … slick, tiny “cells” that easily fit into our pockets. And we can set them to ring or ding or play a little song, pulse, or just take a voice mail message. It’s really amazing compared to the trouble we used to encounter when trying to make a call away from home.

But technology doesn't solve all problems. I have a friend who was so excited when he got his teenage daughter a cell phone. He told me, “Now I can always know where she is.” I reminded my friend that “yes, he will know that his daughter either called or answered a call on her cell phone, but he surely still won’t know for sure where she is when she answers.” He didn't like that little bit of additional information one bit.

Thanks to the Internet, parents can even keep track of their children’s academic progress in school. For the last three years, my wife, Valerie, and I simply pull up my son’s teachers’ Web sites and get the homework assignments and then go to a certain box and review their comments and then leave comments of our own. I can assure you our son does not consider that a technological “advancement.”

So today, with the advances in technology we can access our accounts and a wide range of data from a terminal in our office or home or anywhere for that matter because mobile phones also have Internet access.

But you graduates already know all of this. You grew up with technology and rapid change and you feel at home with it. And despite all of the impressive advances in technology that have occurred, more will follow because technology continues to evolve and some adjustments and adaptation will be necessary in the future for you to meet these new demands and new challenges. Clearly, the education you received here at UK prepared you to be flexible for this ever-changing world.

The flexibility you learned here at UK is not confined to technology: your college education will also serve you well in dealing with other people and their differences, whether the differences are in religion, race, gender, age, geographic locale, or in the social, cultural, or economic areas.

Religious tolerance is one area where flexibility is crucial. Today more than ever before all of us come into contact, almost daily, with people of different religious backgrounds and beliefs. There is no question that the education I received at UK helped me tremendously with regard to religious tolerance.

The Lexington, Kentucky that I grew up in was a homogenous place in terms of both race and religion. Generally, everyone was either white or black and for the most part, Protestant. Lafayette, my high school, to my knowledge, had very few Jewish people, no Muslims, no Hispanics, and only a sprinkling of Catholics. So, I was limited in exposure to other religions until I entered College. Here at the University of Kentucky, there was a wide range of courses that focused on “The Religions of the World.” It was in those History, Sociology, and Political Science classes that I first reflected seriously about the hatred based on religious differences. From that point to the present, I have attempted to learn as much as possible about various religions and especially about the plight of people who are a religious minority in a certain society.

At UK, I took a number of courses that touched on the Jewish experience, especially during the Second World War. This had such a great impact on me that I felt compelled to travel and see first hand the results of what the Jewish people had endured during the 20th Century. I went to Munich, to both sides of a divided Berlin, and to other major cities in Germany. I visited Poland to see the beautiful city of Cracow where Jews once lived and to see what had been the Warsaw Ghetto and the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. I became interested in Islam, and other religions, especially those found in the Far East, which led me to visit Istanbul, Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and China, Singapore, and Vietnam. My interest in all of these places, their religious beliefs and traditions, originated from my classes here at the University of Kentucky.

Graduates, whether you remain in Kentucky or move around, there is no question that you will encounter people of other religions. It is essential that you move beyond just tolerating other people’s religions to truly trying to understand them and to respecting them and their differences with your religious faith. In my view, respect and understanding are the ways to find common ground between “others” religious beliefs and your own. Respect and understanding pave the way to getting along with “others” in the world, even when “others” hold views different from yours.

Today we often call differences “Diversity.” Diversity is not a new concept. But, because of the breakthroughs in technology that have led to increased mobility and rapid communication, interacting with “other people” is more compelling in our world now than previously.

I have no doubt that at UK you met at least one person who was “different” from you. Perhaps the most striking “difference” in your time here, and perhaps into the future, has been meeting someone of a different race. And, I suspect that while you were here at UK, you heard people proclaim their support “for diversity.” But, the more you talked to them, the more you discovered that they had numerous reservations about diversity.

Graduates, in the world of your immediate future it will be more important than ever to examine and understand—not simply dismiss—these reservations. Indeed, I challenge you as college graduates to continue learning about and embracing “other people. It is important to appreciate the unique contributions made by others to our society and the world. This appreciation creates a bond and a realization that we are in the same “boat together” and that we need to find ways to cooperate for the good of all. We cannot accept atrocities like 9/11 and the subway bombings in Spain as inevitable. We must continue to strive to bring people together.

To me, this is most important because the more you learn about “other people,” the more you realize that “other people” are very much like you. They are not that different at all. There is no question that this view—of the commonality of all people—was one of the things I learned in classes here at UK. As you move to the next phase in your life, I urge you to continue exploring other cultures by reading, by taking the time to attend programs and seminars, and above all, by traveling to countries outside of the United States.

As an aside here, international travel has helped me to understand that the things that seem “odd” to me might be very natural to others, such as driving on the left or “wrong” side of the road. I believe 45% of the people in the world think that we drive on the “wrong side.” I looked up and found the 10 most populous countries in the world and then determined which side of the road their people drive on. The total population of these 10 countries is 3 billion, 750 million. By my count 2 billion, 50 million drive on the “right” side and 1 billion, 700 million drive on the “left” side. I know, someone in the audience is saying, “who cares?”

I am sure that as you navigated your way through the University of Kentucky, you realized that there is such a thing as too much flexibility. Being completely flexible, being willing to change how you do things and your beliefs at the drop of a hat, has its drawbacks. Without our core beliefs we can be left not knowing who we are and we can lose sight of what is important in life. We run the risk of becoming free floating, detached, cynical, and confused. That is why it is so important to have balance, to have some continuity, with the flexibility.

We have continuity when we retain important values from our past. With the rapid changes in technology and ideas today, we must—constantly—reaffirm those values that have stood the test of time and change. Graduates, it is now your responsibility for preserving and passing these values to the next generations. These values include honesty, integrity, and ethical behavior.

Graduates, as you leave UK and move into this ever-changing world, you need to know, to be able to discern, what you must hold onto from the past. If it seems as if things have changed to the point where honesty and ethical behavior are being ignored, then you need to insist that some things must be done the way they were in the “Good Old Days.” This is not always easy. In fact, it can be difficult in an ever changing world where it seems the old rules no longer apply, and where you will be labeled “Old School,” or worst for embracing and promoting traditional values.

Being honest, keeping your word, or being a person of integrity, may sound like “Old School.” But, I have no doubt these very positive attributes are still necessary in the world you will now enter. They are as important as ever for maintaining an orderly society where people know what to expect and how to act based on truth.

Furthermore, these attributes remain the “keys” to a successful and rewarding professional career in any field. I have had the good fortune to meet prominent people who are successful in business, in medicine, law, education, and politics. I have met dozens of men and women who sit on governing boards of Universities, both public and private. All of these people—to a person—work extremely hard, are kind and generous with their praise of others, keep their word, and are honest and forth-right in their dealings with others.

Flexibility coupled with a healthy respect for certain basic values are positive attributes that I learned from my Mother but which were certainly reinforced while I navigated my way through the University of Kentucky. But, there are other things I learned, too; like a commitment to service. It is important that all of us give back to the University and give to others through mentoring and by helping to provide opportunities for them.

UK, literally, made it possible for me to get a college education. No matter the specific costs, attending college, even UK, has always been expensive and required a sacrifice from most of our families. When I started in 1968, my tuition was $140 a semester, even for 18 hours, and the total costs for my books for all of my classes combined was between $50-75 a semester! By comparison, with today’s dollars that might not seem like a lot of money but those dollars were still very difficult to come by. The University made loans and scholarships available to me and others. Therefore, I must give back.

As alums, you must give back. You must help support this University by service and when you become able, by financially supporting this important University. Furthermore, you can add your voice to those who continue to remind those making public policy that providing excellent, affordable education to the people of this state is one of the most important things a government can do.

In addition to providing an outstanding education at a reasonable cost, UK, as a land grant University, provided access, the opportunity to attend this institution. To say that I was a less than diligent high school student is to elevate my poor performance. But, I was admitted into UK and given the assistance I needed to succeed. You, as Graduates and future policymakers must also find innovative ways to provide access for other people to attend this University. When we broaden our avenues for inclusiveness, we will automatically embrace opportunities for “diverse students, especially those who are right here in our back yard. We must open the doors wide to young, Hispanic people. We need to keep the doors of UK open to International students from all over the world. And when we open the doors, we must be sure to mentor those who come, because mentoring is a form of service. In mentoring there is so much that you graduates have to offer, that you can pass on to other young people. You can help them understand the core values of society. You can help them become grounded in the basics of a good education, just as you were, just as I was here at UK.

A key point: I am very clear as to the most important thing that the University of Kentucky does for all who attend and graduate: it gives one the confidence to aspire to new goals; and by the challenges one encounters from faculty and fellow students, it helps develop a “blue print” to reach one’s goals. I recall, very vividly, as a 6th grader in the Spring of 1962, coming to this campus on a field trip to the Funkhouser Biological Building. Just visiting this campus inspired me. That excursion left me with a desire to attend this University. In 1968, when I enrolled as a freshman, I was awe struck by this campus, the people I encountered, and the wide range of activities taking place. And, there were times when I doubted myself. I wondered if I had the “smarts” to obtain a college degree. But, any time I became doubtful, there was always someone around to encourage me. Eventually as I became a more confident student, I dreamed I would some day be a Professor here. And that dream became a reality too. But I must admit that even in my wildest dreams, I could never have imagined this day and the honor the University of Kentucky has given me. But, Graduates this is what the University of Kentucky is all about!

Conclusion

You have learned so much here at UK, perhaps more than you can even appreciate right now. Flexibility and adaptability in meeting the new demands of technology and in interacting with others; holding on to values that will sustain you during difficult times; and confidence in your ability aspire to and to reach lofty goals. These are just a few benefits you have received during your time at UK.

Graduates, you have been blessed to obtain an education and you must do something significant. I don’t believe that I am taking anything away from any of you by saying that you were assisted by “others” in obtaining your degree from UK. This compels you all the more to give something back to society. In the Bible, John, Fourth Chapter, 37th and 38th Verses, The Living Bible, Paraphrased, says, “For it is true that one sows and someone else reaps. I sent you to reap where you didn't sow; others did the work, and you received the harvest.”

I challenge you Graduates to “sow” so that others may reap. Every one of you can do something that will make a difference in the lives of someone else, especially for the elderly, the ill, the young, the underserved, or the neglected of the world. From my study of both World and United States Histories, I have discovered, many seemingly ordinary men and women who felt moved to do something, to take a stand for what they knew was “right.” Their actions turned out to be extraordinary!

So for now, I challenge you to pass on what you have learned here at the University of Kentucky. Stay involved with your University. Stay in touch with your humanity. And, above all, always remember to give back.

Graduates, families, friends, faculty, staff, members of the Board, President Lee Todd, thank you again for having me here on your special day. This is indeed a very special day for me as well.


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