September 19, 2016

Chancellor Remarks at 2016 Convocation

To the freshman Class of 2020 and to all our transfer students:

Welcome to the beginning of one of the great adventures of your life!

We started with 98,000 applications – among the highest number of applications of all colleges and universities in the United States – and we worked very hard to find exactly the right people to join this remarkable institution.  

We learned your story, we marveled at your accomplishments, we were inspired by your ambitions, and in the end, over tens and tens of thousands of others, we decide – yes, you

You have the qualities, you have the talent, you have the drive, you have the character … you are who we were hoping to find, because we are absolutely certain you have what it takes to take full advantage of this opportunity.

We chose you, you chose us, here we are – our partnership has now officially begun.

Not only are you starting your college career at one of America’s best universities, you are starting it at a place that has the most feared, revered, and respected mascot in all of higher education, Peter the Anteater!  Zot zot zot!

We know that you are extremely accomplished. But in addition, we are especially excited that you are a remarkably diverse group of students. You represent our commitment, not just to excellence, but to inclusive excellence.

You have arrived to this campus from around the state, around the country, and around the world. 

You are from privileged parts of town and from tough parts of town. Some of you have had a relatively easy time of things, given the usual craziness of growing up; others have had to manage or overcome some very serious stuff. 

In some cases, members of your family have been going to college for as long as anyone can remember. For others – in fact, for more than 40% of you – you are the first in your family to attend college, just as I was.

(In fact, as I was jotting down these remarks a few days ago, it occurred to me that this is the 40th anniversary of my first week of classes as a first-generation college student in the University of California.  As will be true for all of you in 40 short years, I can remember it as if it was yesterday -- except of course that I don’t remember at all what my chancellor said to us; nobody remembers that stuff.)

But to get back to you: you bring to our community distinctive experiences and insights arising from differences of class background, race, ethnicity, region, nationality, religion, gender, sexual identity, veteran status, family dynamics, and the like.  

Because of this, you ensure that our pursuit of new knowledge – in all fields – is not blinded or skewed by an overly narrow vantage point. 

This also means that you have different views on what’s important – in politics, culture, or just simple human relations. You value different things, you get passionate about different things, you get mad about different things.  

If up until now you have not spent a lot of time with other sorts of people (whatever “other” means to you), then congratulations! A big part of your education at UCI will be a function of your exposure to the full range of human experience, and all of the different points of view that arise as a result of that diversity.

You are going to teach others a thing or two, and others are going to teach you a thing or two.

And it is not only you as students who have different points of view. Our faculty – women and men who have devoted their lives to understanding their fields of study, the best of the best – are participating in an ongoing conversation about how best to understand every imaginable topic: from the basic building blocks of matter to the best strategies for promoting health to the enhancement of democracy to the purpose of art … the list of topics is endless.

This fact of disagreement and debate is not a fatal flaw of higher education; rather, it is the fundamental method by which we get better and smarter. 

Why do I highlight our community’s diversity of background, experience, interest, and insight as you begin your college career?

Because in order for you to fully benefit from our diversity, it will be necessary for you to distance yourself from some of the more disturbing habits we see in society more generally, and especially some of the worst habits of the online world.

In both our real-world and our online-world it has become too easy for too many people to respond to our diversity and our differences with hair-trigger outrage, and even worse.

I don’t need to tell you how utterly ugly and depressing the world can look when people are too in love with their own narrow opinions and affiliations, when they lose sight of the humanity of others, when they take pleasure in mocking and harassing people who they consider not part of their club.

For those who believe they already know everything worth knowing and want to be part of a community that reinforces one’s preexisting faith, there are places designed to do that:  seminaries and madrassahs and ideological boot camps, places where would-be disciples come to celebrate accepted dogmas. Many universities in autocratic or totalitarian societies are like that.

But universities in free societies can never be such places. 

Great universities exist to foster a spirit of exploration, incubate new ways of thinking, break through the crust of conventional thinking, challenge sacred dogmas, and expand our world views. 

To be at a university is to have a genuine desire to learn from those who know more and from those who have different views and perspectives. 

Often times we will disagree, but at a university, when we disagree, we are resolved to deepen the conversation rather than suspend it, and to challenge each other with better arguments or more persuasive evidence. 

Needless to say, the question of whether light is a particle or a wave or something else is not resolved at a university by shouting down our opponents. 

This all means that, over the next few years, some of your cherished views – about the natural universe, social life, human values – may be challenged. And so be prepared for that. But also, don’t worry about it. Finding yourself challenged by faculty and fellow students comes with the territory of having made the decision to pursue higher education. 

All of us, together, have a responsibility to ensure that UCI is a place where diverse communities of people think together about vitally important and difficult questions, using the tools of rigorous inquiry and argumentation, in an atmosphere of positive engagement and mutual respect.

Most fundamentally, our responsibility at UCI is to empower you to engage in serious thought so that you can use your independent judgment to arrive at an informed and educated understanding of the world. 

That’s why you are here. 

That’s why we founded this university 52 years ago.

That’s why we built this beautiful campus.

That’s why we recruited faculty members who are leaders in their fields. 

And that’s why we invited the most talented and ambitious students to join us.

I invite you to take full advantage of this extraordinary opportunity to learn, this opportunity to think, and especially this opportunity to learn how to think

The years to come will be exciting, unforgettable in the best possible way. It’s going to be great – great, but not easy, not without its challenges. 

It will require effort and dedication. But you can do it, because you wouldn’t be sitting here if we didn’t know you were capable, and because you are not expected to do it on your own. 

We are here to support you on this journey: the faculty, your advisors, your classmates, everyone at UCI is here to promote the success of everyone else. If you need a helping hand – that’s fine, just reach out and someone will reach back, just as you will do when someone reaches out to you.

As we officially start this journey together let us commit to learning as much as we can from each other, and beyond that, let us commit to support each other, to show each other respect, as human beings engaged in a common enterprise to generate and transmit knowledge to humanity, as people proud and excited to be part of the Anteater community. 

In a world where too many people seek out that which divides us, let us remain united, and let us go that extra mile to deepen our understanding of each other, to build bridges, to talk rather than yell, to debate rather than fight, to love rather than hate, to protect rather than exploit.

Let us model for the world how a diverse community can live and work together, even when we do not always agree. 

The world needs us to do this.

I end these remarks by invoking the official motto of the University of California. 

You may know it. It’s a Latin phrase: Fiat lux. It means, “Let there be light.”

I think it is a wonderful motto for one of the world’s great institutions of higher education. I hope it will inspire you.

Pursue that which is illuminating. Shed light on fascinating and important questions. Be a vessel through which enlightenment eradicates the darkness – the darkness of ignorance, the darkness of intolerance. 

You are here to do great and important things. It’s time to get started.

Again, welcome to one of the great adventures of your life. A vast landscape of inquiry and discovery lies before you. We are all looking forward to walking this path with you.

Fiat Lux.