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Aug. 17, 2006
Contact: Jackie Hosey, University Relations, (785) 864-8858.

At convocation, KU chancellor encourages students to take on big issues

Chancellor Hemenway's student convocation address
MP3 Audio File 14:23 - 8.3MB

LAWRENCE — The following is the text of University of Kansas Chancellor Robert Hemenway’s speech given last night at convocation.

Welcome to KU.

The opening of a semester, the greeting of a freshmen class, has always been a special time for universities. It is the annual, formal rebirth of the institution you have chosen to attend.

These robes and mortarboards are the symbols of learning, representing an academic tradition going back to the founding of the university of Bologna in 1088. I like to imagine Italian students 10 centuries ago, on the night before Bologna opened its doors, gathered around the pizza oven, anxious about what tomorrow might bring, arguing over who gets the pepperoni.

KU’s first freshman class came together on Sept. 11, 1866, to do the same.

Of course, pizza came to Kansas much later, after itinerant sausage makers, named DiGiorno, crossed the Mississippi to deliver pepperoni by Pony Express. So maybe those first KU students in 1866 gathered around the whole wheat bread oven, but I am pretty sure they had much the same anxiety you do.

What is this green fungus in the shower? Is my roommate just pulling my leg when she says she is a Zoroastrian? My biology text is so heavy I can hardly carry it, let alone read it.

The chancellor’s role tonight is to say relax. Go with the flow. Be calm. Although I have to admit, I’ve been looking at some of your “Facebook” photographs. It looks like some of you are pretty relaxed already.

Hawk Week, the events leading up to this convocation, is this chancellor’s favorite time of the year. The marching band is practicing. The football team is undefeated. Every student has an unblemished record. Not a single class has been skipped. And no one has received a parking ticket yet.

Hawk Week is a relaxed, magical time. You make friends. You learn your way around. We teach some university traditions, like how to sing the Alma Mater. We serve up a lot of free food, and we teach you the difference between a Wescoe beach and a California beach.

Last night was a great scene in front of Strong Hall, as KU’s Information Fair invited you to join KU’s multitude of student activities.

We try to welcome you and share with you why we believe that you made an excellent choice to attend the University of Kansas. This is now your university. You possess it by your presence here tonight. You should know that you acquired something of great value. When the guidebooks tell where you can get an Ivy League education at a public school price, KU is always cited, as it was again this summer in the Fiske Guide to Colleges. Your university, says the Fiske guide, “has a huge number of high ranking academic programs. With solid academics, outstanding extra curricular programs, winning athletics and a stellar social life, the University of Kansas is one of higher education’s best buys.”

In short, your university has a national reputation.

Your special education department, for example, is ranked No. 1 in the country by U.S. News & World Report, the same magazine that ranked your public administration program No. 1 as well. Your pharmacy program is fourth in the country in NIH grants. Your Spanish department is ninth among graduate programs. Your clinical psychology program is 19th, your paleontology program is fifth. You total it all up; your university has over 20 departments ranked in the top 25 in America in their discipline.

KU faculty are proud of such achievements, and you should be proud of them, too. You should also be proud of your decision to become a part of such a great university. And you should be proud of your own ambition. A KU degree is not for everyone. Not everyone measures up. We believe you will.

So tonight, the night before classes begin, we want to formally acknowledge your entry into the Jayhawk flock.

Do Jayhawks really flock? I don't know. It is a mythical, not a real bird. I don’t even know if Jayhawks fly. But let’s have a little fun and play with the metaphor.

How far can we carry this bird idea? Well, let’s talk about the Jayhawk family.

Your parents have gently pushed you out of their nest, maybe even reassigned your room to your little brother. You have settled into your KU nest and made it comfortable by stuffing into it more furniture, appliances and electronic equipment than any room was ever meant to hold. If you avoid overloading the Daisy Hill transformers before October, it will be a miracle.

How different is this KU nest going to be?

Let me be honest with you right from the start. We would like KU to be as warm and as nurturing an environment as that family environment of the past 18 years. But we know it will be different. The university can’t be as close to you as your family, especially when your mother has a cell phone.

But we want you to know KU cares. We are here to help. Reach out. To your R.A. To your adviser. To your professor. To your roommate. Scheduling problem? Check out the Freshman-Sophomore Advising Center in Strong Hall. That’s what they do. Help people. Don’t hang back. Ask questions. Get assistance. Don’t wait. Don’t let uncertainty or a desire to be cool, or your professor’s menacing glare, cause you to fail to get the help you need. That menancing professor’s glare is probably only a squint. He’s probably nearsighted. If all else fails, and the bureaucracy seems impenetrable, come to the Chancellor’s Office, Room 230 Strong Hall. We’ll find some way to help you. That is what Jayhawks do.

You are headed for a destination — a walk down the hill in four years. We want to see you get there.

How can you ensure that will happen? Good grades. You would not have been admitted to KU unless you had the ability to be academically successful here. You can receive A’s, B’s, and C’s or you can also receive grades less than these.

But whatever your grades, the key question will not be what grade you report to your parents. The key question will be what have you learned? Only you will know the truth of that. Only you will know if the grade you received is truly earned, or whether it vastly over-rates your knowledge. Grades are easy. Learning is hard.

What the university expects is intellectual honesty. If you can’t make the experiment work, don’t fake the numbers. If you haven’t read the assignment, don’t try to create the illusion that you have. You are part of an intellectual market place, where ideas are important and truth and honesty and morality assume real consequence.

Be honest with yourself. Be honest about alcohol. You are not funnier when you’re drunk. Anybody who claims you are funnier are not your friends.

Be honest about relationships. Women have a right to men’s respect; they are not sex objects. Men have a right to be trusted, unless they prove they don’t deserve that trust.

Be honest about your beliefs. Don’t hide your convictions. Stand up for your religious faith. You will never know what you believe until your faith is tested.

What will serve you best over the next four years is a commitment to high standards. Don’t accept mediocrity and call it excellence. Achieve excellence and then figure out how to do even better. That is the Jayhawk way.

If this seems like we expect a lot from you as Jayhawk students, you are right. We didn’t build a great university here on self-deception or phony bragging. What you learn here is important. Your university cares about what you learn here because we desperately want you to make a better world. It’s that simple. We profoundly believe that students and faculty annually recreating the university for 1,000 years in Italy, or even for 141 years in Kansas, can improve people’s lives. Because of the telecommunications revolution, we know more about the world than we ever have before. Let’s create a world of more hope, and less pain — that was an honorable goal in 1088, in 1866, and it is an honorable goal for you, the freshmen class of 2006.

That is what I would leave with you tonight. You have begun your life as a Jayhawk in the best of all possible worlds. We live in an affluent, well-organized society in the richest and most powerful nation on earth. How will you be able to make things better?

Well, you might start by thinking of how you can contribute to the eight millennium development goals created by the United Nations and endorsed by most of the world’s leaders.

In September of 2000, 150 heads of state and world leaders attended a Millennium Assembly of the United Nations and promised to end poverty and hunger once and for all.

What makes this goal so exciting is that global poverty rates are falling. You don’t have to accept the idea that the poor will always be with you. Between 1990-2001 in Asia, reductions in poverty were dramatic. The number of people living on less than $1 per day dropped by a quarter of a billion people. Hunger was reduced by at least 25 percent during the last decade. This doesn’t mean we’ve solved poverty or hunger. More than a quarter of children under 5 in the developing countries are still malnourished.

But it means you can start thinking large thoughts.

You can think about the second millennium goal, which is to achieve universal primary education. The U.S. is close to achieving this goal, but eight out of 10 children in Sub-Saharan Africa don’t attend school.

You also might think about gender and how the effort to empower women contributes to a better world. In too many countries girls are left behind. Don’t let that happen in our country or our university.

Another worthy goal would be to reduce child mortality. Every year, about 11 million children die before their fifth birthday. The United Nations reports that sometimes the cause is as simple as a lack of antibiotics, oral rehydration salts or mosquito netting to ward off malaria.

You get the picture. Dream a large dream. Set goals that remake the world. Act so that in four years you can say, because I went to KU, I understand what it takes to create a truly new free world, free from hunger, free from poverty, free from violence and free from a lack of hope.

Yes, those are big goals for sure. No better time to start thinking about them than the night before classes start. We’ll see you in class, Jayhawks.

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The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU's Lawrence campus.

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