Rebuilding Community

11-21-2016

Maya Angelou was the first commencement speaker after I was named president of Michigan State in 2005. In her words and writings, she was a voice of hope over despair and of personal ownership of the common good—of active engagement with the world as it is, not merely as we wish it to be.

Angelou wrote, “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” I think of that as I listen to members of the MSU community discuss the fallout of a particularly divisive, and for many, hurtful, political season.

The pressures that divide Americans today seem more deeply rooted than many of us might have suspected, yet we at MSU will hold fast to our unifying core values of quality, inclusiveness, and connectivity. We strive each day to be a welcoming community to all who would be called Spartans, while maintaining standards for the open expression and civility necessary for scholarly testing of preconceptions and validation of ideas.

That to me is the essence of being a Spartan—of striving to become the “citizen-scholar” envisioned by my predecessor John Hannah as the highest purpose of higher education. It’s easy to engage in a world where others look and think like ourselves. Far more challenging is the real world of complex problems and personal differences. But that is the world Michigan State has pledged to prepare its students to serve.

Remember that Michigan State emerged during an actual Civil War as a place resolved to serve the common good and broadly extend opportunity to all to pursue social mobility. We’ve not wavered in those pursuits for more than 160 years.

As Spartans committed to tackling the world’s most difficult problems, we can make a difference by turning our attention to ourselves, divided as this country seems by increasingly virtual and self-segregating communities. To heal hearts, we need to begin with open minds, whether in the classroom, on social media, or around the kitchen table.

This week Americans observe a national holiday of Thanksgiving proclaimed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. That was just a year after passage of the Morrill “land grant” Act that defined MSU’s mission, and a time when any prospects for civil reconciliation seemed remote. Lincoln simply asked Americans to pause, and to consider the many gifts bestowed by a benevolent creator. “It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People,” he wrote.

It is my hope that this week’s holiday pause offers all of us a similar opportunity to reflect and to consider the ties that connect us even if they feel frayed at the moment. As Spartans, our challenge is to reflect our shared values through genuine engagement with those around us.

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