Welcome to the the Office of the President
Follow Your Moral Compass Commencement Address, Simpson College
May 18, 2002
President LaGree, members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished guests, graduates, family and friends; it is a great honor for me to be with you today. After all, there are few events in life quite as memorable as graduation from college. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for speeches delivered at commencement. After having listened to many such addresses, I have come to the conclusion that the truly great speeches have one thing in common – they are short. So I promise you that if nothing else, this talk will be brief.
First of all, you are probably wondering: "Why is this stranger from South Carolina speaking at our graduation?" I am not certain of the real answer to that question, but I will confess that President LaGree and I have been friends for a long time. We first met in 1991 when he arrived at Emory University as the new dean of the Candler School of Theology. During his predecessor’s administration, it had become clear that divine inspiration alone could not deliver a balanced budget. What the school needed was a miracle worker and it found him in a most unlikely place – Topeka, Kansas. Not that Kansas is short on miracle workers - it’s just that they don’t get sent to Georgia very often.
My colleagues and I at Emory quickly learned what no doubt you have come to recognize – President LaGree is a truly remarkable human being. It is your good fortune to have him, and his wonderful wife Patty, here.
Of course, Simpson has many other virtues. I have learned this through the fund raising material that President LaGree sends to me on a regular basis. If the reality even approximates the written description, then Simpson is a school that is deeply concerned about your development as a person. Not all colleges can make that claim, or even pretend to do so.
On far too many campuses today, the educational focus is much more about preparing students to make a living than about preparing them to make a life. While there is an undeniable need to convey technical information, it should not come at the cost of developing judgment, and reason and compassion. In the words of Herbert Spencer: "Education has for its object the formation of character. To curb restive propensities, to awaken dormant sentiments, to strengthen the perceptions, and to cultivate the tastes." Although Spencer wrote this creed more than a century ago, it is just as true today.
The world outside of Simpson is in critical need of your sentiments, perceptions and tastes. In the face of corporate downsizing and rising unemployment, you may not feel so needed right now. It would be a mistake, however, to measure your value to the world in yardsticks such as job offers. While the marketplace provides an efficient means for pricing many commodities, it is far from a perfect indicator of human worth. We have only to look at the earnings of teachers, or artists, or police, or fire fighters to recognize that the marketplace undervalues knowledge, creativity, and courage.
I suspect that this graduating class is filled to overflowing with those attributes. In addition, hopefully Simpson has provided you with another important quality – a strong moral compass. More than anything else, the world is desperately in need of your integrity and character.
If you doubt that assertion for a minute, just consider some of the stories dominating the national news. On the business front, no story has gotten more attention recently than the collapse of Enron. Whether or not the company’s executives broke any laws, it is clear that they elevated deceptive accounting practices to a high art form. They awarded themselves huge bonuses, while they laid off thousands of workers and jeopardized the retirement savings of their employees, not to mention billions of dollars lost by investors.
The Enron financial subterfuge was aided and abetted by their accountants at Arthur Andersen. In addition to assisting with creative accounting, the Andersen accountants also destroyed documents, and consequently stand accused of obstructing justice.
The scale of the deception at Enron and Andersen may be without precedent, but unscrupulous behavior in business is hardly a new phenomenon. Preaching from the pulpit in the late nineteenth century, Henry Ward Beecher warned that: "The commerce of the world is conducted by the strong, and usually it operates against the weak."
When Beecher spoke these words, the Standard Oil Company was less than two decades old. Its founder, John D. Rockefeller, in all likelihood was one of the commercial strongmen to whom Beecher alluded. All these years later, despite dramatic changes in the oil industry, we still find a dangerous amount of power concentrated in the hands of a few individuals.
If our faith is shaken by the ethics of the business world, where can we turn for moral sustenance? For many of us, the answer is found within our religious and spiritual lives. How disturbing, therefore, to learn about the unfolding sex scandal in the Roman Catholic Church! The full extent of this problem is not yet known and it may well be limited to a few wayward priests. Nevertheless, it is clear that some officials of the Church knew about abusers for years but did nothing about it. The fact that many of the victims were children makes the cover up even more horrifying.
The current scandal brings to mind the words of historian Barbara Tuchman. In her book A Distant Mirror, Tuchman wrote about abuses that took place within the church in the fourteenth century. She concluded that: "The clergy on the whole were probably no more lecherous or greedy or untrustworthy than other men, but because they were supposed to be better or nearer to God than other men, their failings attracted more attention."
On the surface, the deception at Enron appears to have little in common with the pedophilia of some Catholic priests. I would argue, however, that there are important parallels. At the heart of both situations was an abuse of power by a handful of people. By their actions, the perpetrators violated the trust associated with their respective positions. A conspiracy of silence allowed these abuses to fester without any apparent attempt to address the underlying problem. Finally, the deception grew to such proportions that it could be concealed no longer, bringing discredit to the perpetrators and to their protectors.
"So," you ask, "what do such sad tales have to do with the class graduating today?" Hopefully, there is not a corporate crook or a parochial pedophile among you! Before you conclude that your cap and gown somehow protect you from this type of behavior, however, let me remind you that the abusers were hardly undereducated. A college degree did not immunize them against greed or deceit or exploitation. As if speaking directly to this point, Teddy Roosevelt warned us almost a century ago that: "To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society."
This brings us full circle to my earlier remarks about the importance of an education that is directed at developing the whole person. Simpson has attempted to provide you with exactly that type of education. If successful, you leave today not only with a diploma, but also with what I described earlier as a ‘strong moral compass’. In the long run, the latter will be far more valuable to you as you navigate through the choices and dilemmas of everyday life.
Still, there seems to be such a distance between our personal lives on the one hand, and national scandals, such as those at Enron and the Catholic Church, on the other hand. Most of us do not exert the kind of power that was abused in these two tragedies. For the few who do assume positions of authority, clearly there are important lessons to be learned. But what are the lessons for the rest of us – the vast majority of us here today?
In my own view, some of the most insightful work on this topic comes from the great psychiatrist, Robert Coles. In his book Lives of Moral Leadership, Coles writes about heroes – those who serve as moral leaders for others. As one might expect, he draws examples from the lives of a number of great public figures. These standard bearers serve to guide and inspire through the force of their personality, their beliefs, their words, and their actions.
As Coles points out, however, moral leadership is not confined to those in positions of authority. In his words: " A range of individuals can bring us 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 quite 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, stir us, move us to do things when we might not otherwise be provoked, and they have the will to act in pursuit of purposes we have come to regard as important."
On this graduation day, as you leave Simpson, may you remember the power of moral leadership that is within you. You have the ability to shape and influence not only your own lives, but also the lives of others. As you touch these lives, and there will be many of them, do so with honor, integrity, compassion, and humility. These are the virtues that you have learned at Simpson and they are the points of the moral compass that will guide you through the rest of your lives.