Opening Convocation 2017

It is a joy to welcome you here this afternoon as we celebrate the opening of our 169th Session.  Esteemed faculty and staff, Emeriti Faculty and staff retirees, honored guests, Trustees, parents and family members, and of course the talented class of 2021.

Please join me in thanking our Piper, Dr. Bruce Erskine, and the Greg Luscombe Brass Ensemble. I am also grateful to Professor Terry Hill, senior member of the faculty and bearer of the Rhodes Mace.

And I am especially pleased to have the first gentleman of Rhodes College with us this afternoon—Dr. Larry Hass.

Like our new students, Larry and I are newcomers, too. So I have been thinking this summer about what it means to join the Rhodes community, and what it means to cross the threshold from outsider to insider, as each of you are doing today.

In my tradition we mark our thresholds with a special prayer that we write down and place in a box called a “mezuzah” that we place on our doorframes and gateways.  It is there so that when we cross the threshold, we take a moment to remember our intention.  Now, we don’t have one of these boxes on the gatehouse at the campus entrance, but I do take a moment each morning as I cross through to remind myself of what it means to be part of this community.

What joins us together is not a shared history or a common ancestor (in fact, on the contrary, we celebrate the differences in our backgrounds and perspectives). Rather our kinship is grounded in a shared set of values that we willingly adopt and vigorously pursue. 

To be a member of the Rhodes community (A Rhodite?  A Rhodesian? A Rhodent?), means taking on some serious, and in fact often, counter-cultural commitments.  First, as our great Seal asserts, we take on commitments to “Truth, Loyalty, and Service.” And then, also, to a robust sense of honor and personal integrity as embodied by our honor code.

Our mission at Rhodes is “to graduate students with a life-long passion for learning, a compassion for others, and the ability to​ translate academic study and personal concern into effective leadership and action in their communities and the world. 

So these are the things you and I take on as we come through our gates and into this community:

The open search for truth.

A sense of personal honor and integrity.

Compassion for others.

A commitment to using our education to serve the world

As you and I pause at this threshold, we should acknowledge this is a pretty radical way to live. And it is the fabric of the community we build together here.  Perhaps we won’t always live up to our ideals.  But we will work towards them together. They are what bind us to each other and to Rhodes College.

So the blessing and power of our gates is that they remind us that what we do here often cuts against the cultural grain where self-interest, power plays, and hostility are often the rule. Because of this, our community at Rhodes is both fragile and special. It asks something of each one of us that goes beyond the norms of our modern world. Our gates serve as a symbol of this shared commitment.

The danger of those same gates is that instead of a threshold they become a wall—closing us off from new ideas or new people—closing us off from new experiences.  

But the tradition of Rhodes is to be highly mindful of that danger. For example, our curriculum makes it almost impossible for that to happen. Our faculty are going to make sure you are pushed to engage new ideas and to take full advantage of the learning laboratory the city of Memphis provides to us. 

So, you are in for a pretty wild ride this year.  There will be highs and lows—I am not sure it is possible to claim a first-rate education without some tears, worries, and perhaps even failures along the way.  But you will never be alone.  We are in this together.  That is what it means to be a community. 

We are glad to have you here.  I wish you every blessing in this new beginning.