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Welcome to the the Office of the President

College of Charleston Commencement Address

December 15, 2012

Chairman Padgett and members of the Board of Trustees, President Benson and Provost Hynd, faculty, graduates, family members and distinguished guests, in memory of the lives lost in the senseless tragedy yesterday in Newtown, Connecticut, I ask you to join me in a moment of silence.  It is a great honor and privilege to be invited to deliver this Commencement address, especially for someone who is a big fan of the College of Charleston.  My affection for the College is not based exclusively on my love of Cougar basketball.

The main reason that I love the College is that you attract so much attention from the local neighborhood associations and the City’s Livability Court, that MUSC students are almost an afterthought.  As you prepare to leave your college years behind, nobody is sadder than me to see you go.  And just remember, what happens in Charleston, stays in Charleston (unless, of course, you posted it on your Facebook page).

So, having confessed why I love the College, let me make another confession.  When I was first asked to speak today, it occurred to me that the wrong Greenberg had been invited.  That’s because my wife, Leah, has been a nearly full-time volunteer for the College.  She has served on the Boards of the Friends of the Library, the Halsey Institute, and the Jewish Studies Program.  Truly, she is the Greenberg who merits recognition here today. So, I stand here on her behalf and thank the College for allowing me to represent her.

On a day like today, when we are all in shock and grief from a senseless act of violence, it is hard to know where to begin this talk.  As we reach out in sympathy to the families in Connecticut who have suffered unimaginable losses, we are reminded of the people in our own lives who mean so much to us.  Let us hold them all dearly – parents, children, siblings, friends and teachers.

Speaking of teachers, I suspect that many of today’s graduates, probably most of you, have a favorite professor who really influenced you.  As you graduate, it is natural to assume that teachers will persist with you only as memories.  In the world beyond the campus, people are not so neatly classified into roles as students and faculty.  Nevertheless, even when you have gotten pretty far along in life, it is likely that someone around you has been further, done more, and can help to guide you.  I want to tell you about one such person who entered my life when I became the President of the Medical University. 

Now, you might think that by the time somebody becomes a University President, they have pretty much figured things out.  Even those of us who are slow learners have picked up a few lessons along the way.  Nevertheless, starting a college presidency can be a daunting experience.  In a strange way, it has a lot in common with arriving on campus as a college freshman.  There are many new challenges, new expectations, and a lot of new people to meet and get to know.    That is why having an upperclassman around to help you work through these issues can be incredibly valuable.

So, let me tell you a little bit about my senior mentor, and when I say senior, that is no joke.  On Christmas, just 10 days from now, my mentor will be turning 100 years old!  His name is Ted Stern.

I suspect that many of you may not know much about Ted Stern, except for the fact that the College has a student center named after him.  As you graduate from this wonderful institution, it seems to me to be important that you know a little bit more than that about the man.  Of course, with a century of material to cover, I am going to have to give you only the Cliff’s Notes version here.

A native of New York City, Ted Stern graduated from the Columbia Grammar School where he was a champion swimmer and orator. He went on to college at Johns Hopkins University, where he won the Alexander Barton Cup as the undergraduate who had contributed the most to the University.  At the Senior banquet, the awardee was seated next to the new President, Dr. Isaiah Bowman.  President Bowman took a liking to the young man and invited him to work as his assistant.  In the process, an important mentoring relationship was created for the young alumnus.

In 1940, prior to the United States’ entry into World War II, the young Ted Stern enlisted in the Naval Reserve.  He was called to active duty and quickly elevated to the rank of ensign.  When war was declared, Ensign Stern was assigned to the effort to develop of a series of naval bases in the Pacific.  He was decorated for his service with a Bronze Star.  After the war ended, he remained in the Navy, where he rose to the rank of Captain and the capstone of his distinguished career was serving as the commanding officer of the Supply Center in Charleston.

Captain Stern retired from the Navy in 1968 and Congressman Mendel Rivers convinced him to consider becoming President of the College of Charleston. It is probably fair to say that only a decorated war hero would have considered taking on this assignment at that particular moment in time.  You see, the College was a private institution then and it was struggling financially, had inadequate facilities, and of greatest concern, it was threatened with the loss of its accreditation.

Undaunted by the challenges at hand, Dr. Stern developed a plan to secure reaccreditation, by recruiting top notch academic and financial leaders, and replacing the outdated library.  Dr. Stern obtained legislative approval for the College to become a state institution.  He developed a master plan for the campus, and he led the pioneering effort to preserve many of the historical houses that give the campus its distinctive character and charm.  At the same time, he built modern classroom, science, and residential facilities.

He advocated for the development of offerings in education and business, and the first graduate degrees were introduced under his leadership. During his ten years in office, the student enrollment grew from 482 to about 5,000 and the faculty expanded from 27 to over 180.  One of his successors as President, Judge Alex Sanders, summed it up this way:

“I am fond of saying that the College of Charleston was founded by three men who signed the Declaration of Independence and three other men who were authors of America’s first Constitution.  This is literally true. But there is a larger truth.  The real founder of the modern College of Charleston is Ted Stern . . . as a practical matter, he is our Founding Father.”

As if this wasn’t enough, Ted Stern also played a critical role in other efforts that have come to define the City of Charleston today, such as the Spoleto festival.

My intent here is not to recite everything that Dr, Stern has done for the College and for the City of Charleston.  The true measure of a person’s life is not about constructing buildings, or creating new programs, or running an efficient organization.  At its very essence, the true measure of a life is in how one uses it to help other people.   You don’t need to be a college president to have a dramatic impact on other people.  In fact, official titles and responsibilities often get in the way of meaningful one-on-one interactions.

One of my favorite writers on this topic is Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles.  In his book, Lives of Moral Leadership, Coles identifies some high profile individuals who have contributed to his own moral development.  But he also points out that many folks who live outside of public visibility and attention also can serve as moral leaders. In his words:  “A range of individuals can bring us all up morally, can become part of a nation’s moral fiber -  a child, an adult, a person in politics, or one quietly trying to get through a seemingly quite ordinary life.  Suddenly and surprisingly we can become an example to others – or those others to us:  they hand us along, become a source of moral encouragement to us, arouse us and stir us, move us to do things when we might otherwise not be provoked.”

Today, of all days, in the wake of what has happened in Connecticut, we must reaffirm our responsibility to each other.  Each of us has a moral imperative to help repair the world, to work toward improving the human condition.  It is in that spirit, that I encourage each of today’s graduates to reflect upon those who have been role models for you.  No doubt, for most of you, parents or other loved ones have played such a role.  I hope that you will take the opportunity to thank them for caring about you, providing for you, sacrificing for you, and taking pride in you.   Beyond your immediate families, I suspect that there are teachers, coaches, ministers, and friends who have helped you along the way.

Perhaps the best way to thank these folks, individually and collectively, is to ‘pay it forward.’  While you may recognize this concept by the title and subject of a recent movie, its roots go back much further.  For example, in 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that:  “In the order of nature, we cannot render benefits from whom we receive them, or only seldom.  But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody.”

So, today is your day – take full measure of it, enjoy it, celebrate it.  But tomorrow, with your new degree in hand, remember that there are others without such a degree and you have a responsibility to reach out to them.  Whether that is to help along a younger sibling or a friend, or a complete stranger - somebody needs you.  Do for others what Ted Stern did for me – be an inspiration, be an example, hand them along.  That is the legacy of President Stern; that is the legacy of the College of Charleston and I pray that it will be your legacy.

Thank you very much.