OWU President Rock Jones’ Convocation Remarks

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Congratulations and welcome to the Ohio Wesleyan University Class of 2021 and to students who by transfer arrive as members of the Classes of 2019 and 2020. We are thrilled you have chosen OWU as your college home, and we look forward to all that you will accomplish in your years on this campus.

You join a community of learners from across this country and from around the world. Your backgrounds and life experiences are rich in diversity and accomplishment. Some of you will be the first in your families to complete college and are entirely new to OWU. One of you is the 29th person in your family to enroll at OWU, with a family legacy dating back to 1856.

Today, each of you takes your place where students have gathered for 175 years. Indeed, it was in Elliott Hall that classes first convened on this campus in the fall of 1842. Over these past 175 years, students have come to this campus with the dream of an education that would shape the rest of their lives.

The historic buildings and majestic trees that surround us bear witness to the enduring mission of this University and the great contribution alumni of OWU have made to our society. Today, you inherit their legacy as you join this community and embrace an education designed to cultivate moral leaders for a global society.

Our charter, written by our founders 175 years ago, speaks of the value of liberal education, affirms the importance of diversity by stating that Ohio Wesleyan serves all students regardless of religious affiliation, and declares that an OWU education is designed for the benefit of citizens in general.

Here at OWU, our education is grounded in the classical tradition. Here you will be challenged to think deeply, to explore a variety of disciplines that give you a breadth of perspective, to communicate persuasively through the powers of your pen and of your spoken voice, to develop empathetic understanding of those whose life experiences and world views vary drastically from your own, and to make sound judgments.

Your education will be enriched through participation in varsity athletics, student organizations, and the performing arts; through active engagement in a residential community; and through a host of other opportunities that await you as you stand on the threshold of some of the most formative years of your life.

Here at OWU, your education is shaped by The OWU Connection.

The OWU Connection challenges you to think big. The OWU Connection, along with our entire curriculum, is designed to prepare you to confront the biggest and most complex problems facing our society. The challenges your generation inherits – prejudice, poverty, religious intolerance, climate change, health care – will not be solved in silos of narrow, individual thinking. They require people who understand the connection between for example, social justice and a strong economy. We want you to think big.

The OWU Connection challenges you to go global. You will have amazing opportunities to experience other cultures through international travel and through experiences right here in central Ohio. We can’t introduce you to every culture. But we can help you gain the capacities for cross-cultural literacy and for leadership in a diverse world. We want you to go global.

The OWU Connection challenges you to get real. We want you to embrace practical experiences outside of the classroom that prepare you for life beyond college. Internships, apprenticeships, research, and field study are available in extraordinary ways. Nearby Columbus offers one of the most dynamic cities in 21st century America, with extraordinary opportunity awaiting you. Seek out opportunity and put yourself in the real world. We want you to get real.

Recent days have reminded us of deep divisions in our society. Many of these divisions are laced with fear and suspicion that translates all-too quickly to abject hatred. The stain of racism, religious intolerance, and prejudice based on gender identity are all-too present.

Here at OWU, we will not shy away from deep, and at times difficult, conversations about these and other topics of contemporary importance. At the heart of our conversations will be a commitment to the dignity of every human being and a commitment to create a campus that is safe, welcoming, and hospitable, especially to those who have been marginalized or who may be victims of inhumane words and actions because of their identity.

My summer reading included Timothy D. Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till. Emmett Till was a 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was spending the summer of 1955 with relatives in Mississippi when he was taken by a lynch mob and brutally killed.

While his was not the only such death in the region at that time, circumstances including the courageous insistence of his mother for an open-casket funeral caught the attention of national and international media and shone a bright light on the evil stain of racism, white supremacy, and the work of the Citizens Councils in the deep South.

Tyson, an eminent historian with joint appointments at Duke and UNC, argues that the murder of Emmett Till set the stage for the modern civil rights movement. In the closing chapter, Tyson reflects on the paradox of how far we have come and how little progress we have made.

He writes, “To see beyond the ghosts, all of us must develop the moral vision and political will to crush white supremacy – both the political program and the concealed assumptions. We have to come to grips with our own history – not only genocide, slavery, exploitation, and systems of oppression, but also the legacies of those who resisted and fought back and still fight back.” (p. 217)

I finished the book on the eve of the horrific events in Charlottesville just one week ago. I knew when I finished the book I would reference it today, though I had no idea of the tragic events that would put the exclamation point on Tyson’s reflection.

Never before has it been more important to be a student of history. Never before has it been more important to develop a moral vision. Never before has it been more important to speak loudly and clearly in naming the evils that surround us. And never before has it been more important that young people take the journey you begin today – the journey of an education that opens your mind, celebrates diversity, and prepares you to serve the world.

These are the founding values of Ohio Wesleyan University, and they will guide everything we do on this campus and, we hope, everything you will do in the world.

Tyson reminds us of these words of Milan Kundera: “the struggle of humanity against power is always the struggle of memory against forgetting” (p. 214) and of James Baldwin: “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Today, I challenge you to take full advantage of the four years ahead and to do so in a way that allows you to remember that which must not be forgotten, and to face that which must be changed. There is no better outcome of an OWU education.

A word for parents – this is a momentous day for you. You have spent nearly two decades preparing for this moment. And as it arrives, I know it comes with a range of feelings that evoke joy and pride accompanied by a touch of sadness and sense of loss.

Today, you entrust to this campus that which you cherish the most. We honor your trust, and we pledge to do our best, knowing that the results of the coming four years require the best efforts of all of us – faculty and staff, students, and the families who stand in support of all that happens. We look forward to the relationship we establish as you take your place in the OWU family.

I mentioned earlier our founders’ statement says that an Ohio Wesleyan education is designed for the benefit of citizens in general. An OWU education is not just about you. It is about the impact you will have on the world and the role you will play in shaping a more just and civil society, envisioning a better future through entrepreneurial activities that bring new ideas to life, and preserving the planet that gives and sustains all of life.

Dr. Ben Arneson taught at Ohio Wesleyan for 36 years before his retirement more than 60 years ago. His impact on this campus now spans nearly a century. Dr. Arneson understood the social impact of an OWU education. To that end, he challenged his students to sign a pledge in which they committed themselves to a life of service to the common good. The Arneson Pledge read as follows:

“With a view to serving the public interest and regardless of the nature of my future vocation I pledge that, upon leaving college, I will devote a portion of my time to active and definite participation in public affairs.”

I encourage you to embrace the Arneson Pledge as you begin your time at OWU.

Welcome to Ohio Wesleyan University. May the coming years be rich in opportunity, profound in growth, and lasting in influence as you prepare for moral leadership in our global society. We are proud today to welcome you as Bishops and to look forward to all that is ahead.