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Letting You In on a Secret

President Williams gave this speech to the class of 2015 and their families on Wednesday, August 31, in Haggin Auditorium. The speech was part of the official induction ceremony of the entering class.

Listen to the speech.

Welcome Class of 2015. 

Congratulations to all of you on becoming members of the most diverse and academically accomplished class ever admitted to Transylvania University. In fact, for several years running, our academic standard has risen steadily, such that our students are among the very best in the country.

Since 1780, Transylvania University has graduated leaders in all walks of life.

Richard Johnson and John Breckenridge, the ninth and fourteenth vice presidents of the United States, attended Transylvania. United States Senator Henry Clay, a man who many credit with having held the nation together during the antebellum era, taught here. Stephen Austin, founder of Texas, and Cassius Marcellus Clay, one of America’s most respected abolitionists, both attended Transylvania. So did Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, one of the most courageous and prescient people to ever serve the nation’s highest court.

Transylvania has been home to some of the finest medical and legal minds of the nation, and it was among the first colleges in America to admit women, which we did beginning in 1889, almost a century before some of the most famous colleges in the country. 

That’s our history, our legacy. So, now, you are the future, the newest class to contribute to the distinguished heritage of Transylvania University. 

There is much that lies in store for you here.

One thing that has truly impressed me about Transylvania is the commitment of our faculty, also among the best in the country. 

Trust me when I say that the Transylvania faculty understands the importance of inquiry, integrity, rigor, empathy, and craftsmanship; they will help you develop the intellectual, emotional, and moral resources needed to accomplish your dreams.

I promise you that, by the time you graduate, you will have developed transformative relationships with several members of our wonderful faculty.

Their objective is to transmit and challenge inherited knowledge in a manner that enables you to build upon what is already known and, with luck, correct the errors of the past.

If I may, I would like to let you in on a secret. But before I do, you have to promise to do two things with that secret while at Transylvania. Agreed?

Okay then, here is the secret: The Holy Grail exists and it can be found right here on our campus. 

I am not referring to the miraculous chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper, nor am I referencing the pre-Christian Celtic tradition of a life-restoring cauldron available only to those who proved worthy.

Rather, I am alluding to the Grail as defined by Monty Python, Don Quixote, and Indiana Jones. The Grail I am speaking of is the object of your passion, the animating influence in your life, the motivating force that will define your future.

Of course, this Grail exists primarily in your mind. It is yours to define. There is, after all, no ONE answer to life’s riddle.

The important thing to know about Transylvania is that here, the riddles are what matter.

We want you to question everything.

As one of my predecessors, President Alva Woods, said back in 1828, the best schools are not merely for acquiring knowledge, "but for increasing mental power and obtaining mental discipline."

We want you to learn how, as President Woods put it, "to detect the sophistries of the artful demagogue…to think before you act…and to resist the misguided impulses of feeling."

Okay, now that you know the secret—that the grail exists—here is your part of the bargain: those two things you must do while at Transylvania University.

First, find your passion.

I am not talking about passing fancies, popular fads, or pursuits of the ephemerally satisfying sort. I am not even talking about the road to material riches, or public approval.

What I am talking about is your mission, your calling, or your purpose. 

It won’t be easy to identify and you won’t find it through passive endeavors. Idle participation in class, flaccid fulfillment of general requirements, superficial building of resumes, reflexive engagement with extracurricular activities, or mindlessly surfing the web—these are not the way to find your passion.

What comes naturally to you? What excites or inspires you? What do you read about when nobody is watching? What are your private ambitions?

You will have to try on several costumes before you know which one fits best. And it will take work, lots of it.

While you may not want to hear it just now, the key to success (at college and beyond) is to value your time and work hard.

Most of the elements of my life that bring me the greatest pleasure—my scholarship, this job, my marriage, our two kids—have taken a lot of hard work, and I mean a lot.

That brings me to the second thing you have to do while at Transylvania, as part of our compact, which is to pursue your passion with persistence

We want you to have fun, of course, but don’t let that be what Transylvania is about. 

You will rarely if ever meet an adult who says, "I wish I had partied more in college." But most adults will tell you that they wish they had applied themselves more fully during their college years.

You all have the ability to accomplish great things, of that I am certain. Yet I am equally certain that you will accomplish great things not because of raw talent—something you all have in abundance—but because of hard work and persistence.

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, the sociologist Malcolm Gladwell writes about the 10,000+ Rule.  He insists that no one shines at anything without first performing 10,000 hours of practice, literally 10,000 hours

The Beatles spent over 10,000 hours on stage in Hamburg, Germany BEFORE they performed in London. Bill Gates spent over 10,000 hours on a primitive computer BEFORE he went to college. There are very few tennis champions who have not spent over 10,000 hours practicing their serve BEFORE winning any tournaments.

The trick is, if you find your passion, persistence won’t seem like work.

It was either Mark Twain or Confucius (the two are credited with half of the world’s pearls of wisdom), but one of them claimed that if you find your passion, you will never work a day in your life.

As the British historian Arnold Toynbee once remarked, “the supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play.”

To you the Class of 2015, I say find your passion and pursue its riddles with the dogged determination of Indiana Jones. With that, the answers and successes will come.

Banish your fears, experiment tirelessly, and, most importantly, ask lots of questions. Be particularly committed to those questions whose answers you assume are obvious or known.

To find your passion you should question everything; be persistent and you will accomplish anything. That is what happens at Transylvania University.

To the parents and families here, thank you for trusting us with your loved ones.

To the Class of 2015, again, welcome and good luck.

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