Speech to Urban League of Lexington-Fayette County
Speech delivered at the Urban League of Lexington-Fayette County's
44th annual empowerment banquet on October 15, 2012
I would like to thank Bill Young for his kind introduction. Mr. Young has been the Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Transylvania University for just over a decade, during which time he has been an extraordinary friend to our college.
I would also like to thank P.G. Peoples for inviting me to speak to the Urban League of Lexington-Fayette County. It is a true honor to speak to your annual conference, though I have to say, when P.G. invited me, his invitation was rather intimidating for its open-ended quality. When I asked P.G. what I should speak about he said, "anything you want," which was a bit daunting.
But when I thought about that, it occurred to me that I couldn’t very well be afraid of the very thing we ask of our students at Transylvania.
The hallmark of our educational approach is to encourage risk-taking, exploration, and creative inquiry on any and all subjects.
We believe that, by asking lots of good questions, our students learn to see the world very differently and to become leaders in their fields.
Let me give you an example of what I mean.
We recently presented a quiz to the seniors on our campus, just for fun, to see how much they learned in their four years with us.
I will read a few of the questions and the best responses we received:
Q. In which battle did Napoleon die? His last battle.
Q. Where was the Declaration of Independence signed? At the bottom of the page.
Q. River Ravi flows in which state? A liquid state.
Q. How can a man go eight days without sleeping? By sleeping at night.
Q. How can you drop a raw egg onto a concrete floor without cracking it? Any way you want, concrete floors are very hard to crack.
The point here is that, by asking lots of questions, and approaching those questions from diverse angles, we believe students can accomplish anything.
As our students get accustomed to asking questions and finding creative responses, they can then begin to make connections amongst disparate topics.
For example, in a recent exam for one of our courses (called Writing and Rhetoric), the professor tried to identify four seemingly unrelated topics. He then gave the students fifteen minutes to write an essay about as many of those subjects as they could.
The topics selected: religion, sex, royalty, and mystery.
The winning essay was amazingly succinct. In fact, I can quote it in its entirety:
"OMG, I am pregnant, said the queen, but I don’t know how."
While I can’t promise that my comments this evening will be as concise as that essay, and while I don’t intend to take on as many interesting subjects, I do want to tell you about Transylvania University and what we are doing to embrace diversity.
Transylvania University is the 16th oldest college in the country, founded in 1780 at the height of the War of American Independence, the first college west of the Allegheny Mountains, hence its name—"Transylvania," which is Latin for "across the woods."
We take a fair amount of grief about our name, owing largely to Bram Stoker, whose novel Dracula came 100 years after our college. Now I am not going to lie to you: we are always looking for new blood. And we are pleased to announce that Transylvania is now 98 percent vampire free.
That we take grief for our name is, however, a testimony to the gap in many people’s knowledge about the significance of Transylvania in American history.
Many of you will know that, before this state was called Kentucky, it was actually called Transylvania. Transylvanians applied for statehood in 1776, but were denied, due to land claims from the Commonwealth of Virginia. As I said, Transylvania University was founded in 1780, 12 years before the Commonwealth of Kentucky was admitted to the United States.
Transylvania is a liberal arts college of 1,100 students. Although there are roughly eighteen million students in colleges and universities throughout the United States, only about one hundred thousand of them attend liberal arts colleges.
We are often asked what we mean by "liberal arts." It is not intended to suggest that we are politically liberal or strictly artistic. Actually, "liberal" refers to liberty or freedom, and "arts" refers to creativity. We provide students the freedom to be creative, in all realms.
Transylvania students are among the top 10 percent of students in the country and our college is ranked among the top 75 liberal arts colleges in America. I am especially proud of our ranking as one of 40 "Great Colleges at Great Value." Transylvania charges less for tuition than almost all colleges of our caliber and we also provide more financial aid than most colleges.
Not only do we provide affordable higher education, we try to mold good citizens by teaching them to think critically, make connections expansively, and arrive at decisions reflectively. Because of this approach, our graduates are leaders in every walk of life.
At Transylvania, we believe W.E.B. DuBois was right, when he wrote, "The true college will ever have one goal—not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes." In other words, Transylvania is concerned with helping students get what they want, of course, but we are as much or more concerned with helping them determine what is worth wanting.
To reach that higher purpose, students need to be surrounded by diverse points of view.
Creativity is not generated in a vacuum. As good as our faculty is, students learn more from each other than anyone else. Thus, the more points of view we gather around the table, the more they all will learn.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, put it this way: "it contributes greatly to a man’s moral and intellectual health, to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must go out of himself to appreciate."
If you will permit me a personal note, let me say that I am very committed to the issues of diversity and social justice.
During my ten years at Yale University, I served as vice president of the New Haven Reparations Coalition. I was something of an oddball in that organization, as you might have guessed, since I was one of only two whites involved.
As part of a research project for the Coalition, investigating what various banks in the region had done to support slavery, I suggested we call on Fleet Bank to address the many pre-Civil War loans they wrote using slaves as collateral. Since I had worked in banks before, the group asked me to make the presentation to the new Fleet Bank president. None of us were aware that he was African American.
About half way through my meeting with him, and my request that the bank support an important initiative on behalf of inner-city schools, I interrupted myself with a side comment. I asked him whether he found it at all ironic that a white guy was pitching a black bank president on behalf of reparations. He gave me one of the handsomest smiles I’ve ever seen, and said: "the irony is not lost on me." A few days later, our Coalition received a $20,000 check from Fleet Bank to support local education programs for African Americans.
Also, in my scholarship, I have written a great deal about civil rights for African Americans, focusing on the period 1865–83, from the end of the Civil War to the end of the first civil rights movement. During those years, radicals in Congress repeatedly tried to extend civil rights to recently freed slaves, only to be repeatedly undone by the United States Supreme Court.
For example, in 1873, the Supreme Court eviscerated the "privileges and immunities" clause of the recently ratified Fourteenth Amendment.
In 1876, in the aftermath of a horrible event in Colfax, Louisiana where over 100 African Americans were murdered in their church, the Supreme Court overturned the murderers' indictments and determined that the Bill of Rights only applied against the federal government and could not be applied against state governments.
In 1883, the Supreme Court held that while Congress could prevent governmental acts of discrimination, Congress lacked the constitutional authority to prohibit private acts of racial discrimination.
During those years, 1865–83, the Supreme Court effectively negotiated the surrender of Reconstruction and postponed civil rights for over a century.
So, as my scholarship indicates, my interest in diversity and inclusion is not a passing fancy. Indeed, there are few issues about which I care more.
One of the reasons I was interested in working at Transylvania was because of the strategic commitment the university made to diversity, years before I arrived. The faculty at Transylvania genuinely embraces diversity; they believe, as I do, that diversity empowers. Our faculty and staff understand that diversity empowers all of us.
Our world is increasingly diverse, yet too many people still fail to embrace that diversity. Consider this: in just one day's opinion page of the New York Times, last Thursday (October 11), there were articles addressing the probable elimination of affirmative action at the hands of the Supreme Court; the all-too tentative reception of gays in southern states; the shooting of a fourteen-year-old Pakistani girl (shot in the face) for supporting female education; the struggle to lift 46 million Americans from poverty; and the relationship between Jews and the Catholic Church. At the heart of all these stories was the screaming need to embrace diversity.
What will it take; when will we learn? It is up to institutions like the Urban League and Transylvania University to provide continued leadership, to demonstrate that diversity does indeed empower.
Diversity fosters open minds, it breaks down stereotypes, and it builds better communities.
Since taking the reins at Transylvania, I have appointed a director of diversity and inclusion, Eduardo Nino-Moreno, who spent most of his long and successful career at the United Nations. Eduardo reports directly to me, so that there is no confusion on campus as to the magnitude of our commitment to this issue.
Our diversity office has a very clear mission: to help attract greater diversity to our campus, among students, faculty, and staff. Then, as we achieve that diversity (this year we admitted a record first year class, who count more students of color among them—13 percent—than ever before), it is increasingly important that we make those new members of our community feel included, both at the college and in Lexington.
By insisting on diversity and inclusion we are contributing to civility in all its forms: discourse, interaction, and engagement. Advancing civility, or civilization, is among the major objectives of higher education. It is certainly a primary priority at Transylvania.
If I may, I would like to leave you with two requests. First, it would be absolutely fabulous if every person in this room could spread the word that Transylvania truly cares about diversity in all its forms.
Second, we would like nothing more than if all of you here tonight would come visit us on our campus. We have events of many kinds at Transylvania—athletic, academic, and cultural events everyday—and we welcome you to come watch, listen, and learn alongside the rest of us. We are very proud to be in Lexington—a wonderful city that provides Transylvania its greatest competitive advantage—and we want to be a diverse cultural center for all our neighbors.
Thank you for your attention this evening.