9/01/2015 Daniel R. Porterfield

President Daniel R. Porterfield's Convocation 2015 Address

Leveraging Talent and Diversity

Daniel R. Porterfield, Ph.D.
President, Franklin & Marshall College
2015 Convocation Ceremony

Lancaster, Pennsylvania
September 1, 2015

AS PREPARED FOR DELIVERY                                                                    

I would like to begin by thanking the hundreds of people who have made the last five days so successful—our Facilities and Food Services staffs, our College House leaders, HA’s, international peer mentors, faculty and professional staff, amateur movers, and especially the ten OPD’s who spent the summer anticipating the every need of our incoming students.

From move-in day to faculty dinners, from College House induction ceremonies to student-led discussions on safety, this has been a warm and well-planned welcome.

New students, can you please show your gratitude to all in the F&M family who have reached out to you in friendship?

Today, as searchers and scholars, we welcome some 617 first-year students and transfer students into an iconic college forged 228 years ago in the glowing embers of a new democracy.

And, indeed, we all have a great deal for which to give thanks.

In a world where billions of people live in conditions that constrain free speech, this year each of us will enjoy countless opportunities to think, speak, and assemble with no limitations.

And, in a world where billions of people face some form of segregation, this year each of us will enjoy countless opportunities to befriend and learn from gifted individuals from so many diverse cultures and backgrounds.

We’re all very fortunate. If you believe in such things, we are having right now, together for the first time, a rendezvous with destiny.

I’m going to repeat an image I offered in welcoming the international students last week—repeating myself only because last night a group of you told me they wanted to hear it again.

This is a personal first—at home, my own children, especially the one starting college this week at Georgetown, always tell me to stop saying the same things over and over.

The rendezvous that today represents began back in 1996 and 1997. Lightning bolts began to strike the earth. Jenny Lv was born in China. Jenny, could you stand? Olyvia Armstrong was born in New York City. Olyvia, could you please stand? Betty Sin was born in Burma. Can you please stand? There was Brian Park in Alabama. There was Ellen Rose McMurray Verry in New Zealand, Jimmy De La Cruz in Miami, Tanzima Ummi in New York, Samuel Liebert from San Antonio, Hayat Rahmeto from Nebraska, Powell Simons and Gabe Pimsler from Minnesota, and Isabel Monge and Luke Groff from right here in Lancaster.

And on and on. I realize that some of you may not have been born in those precise locations, but you get the point. Lightning bolts brought 617 Mighty Thors into being all across the world.

These new forces of nature had especially aware eyes. When they reached and crawled and then took those first steps, there was creative havoc—pillows and juice boxes flying everywhere.

They took their toys apart in order to put them back together.

They chased pigeons around the park to figure out what made them fly.

And soon enough each of you began taking the purposeful steps as learners and peer leaders to set yourselves apart.

You made good choices to invest yourselves in learning and to turn away from counterproductive behavior. Your families entrusted you with freedom. Wise teachers shared profound lessons.

Good decision after good decision led you step by step to one singular center of talent in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, home of the whoopie pie …

… as if each of you had divining rods in the mind directing you across oceans and borders to the wellspring of learning that is Franklin & Marshall College.

And now you are together, improbably, miraculously, drawn from the world, with so much to give one another.

In a few minutes, you will hear the faculty address from Associate Professor of Anthropology Mary Ann Levine, who received in 2015 our prestigious Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching.

Over the summer, Professor Levine told me that she was inspired by all of the world’s history and culture that the new students will carry here. She wanted to welcome you to college-level learning by speaking about the power and value of F&M’s many forms of diversity.

I thought this was a brilliant idea because “diversity” is a term and a value often used and well worth thinking about. Sometimes the word is used in shorthand to refer simply to the collection of non-majority students in terms of race, ethnicity, nationality, or sexual or gender identity.

That isn’t really how we think about it. Everyone is part of the College’s diversity.

Likewise, diversity takes many forms—from ethnicity to nationality, from income to political opinion, from life experience to learning styles, from gender identities to sexual orientations, from intellectual interests to employment duties at the College, from physical abilities to tastes and personality.

Diversity is a collectively held and shared attribute. It is a reservoir from which we all draw. It is a battery pack from which we all can recharge. It is a set of questions that we all engage—because all of us, at every stage of development, are living a dynamic of sameness and difference as we engage with others and make our way.

And again and again, throughout life, when we size up someone else, when we think we know what they’re about and where they’re from and what we do or don’t have in common, we find out that our own perceptions are limited or superficial or just wrong. Again and again, as we engage one another, we have to unlearn previously held assumptions and expand our worldview.

Those who can do that well will lead this country and this world. And we are building our student body with a national and global talent strategy to give you—and all who work here—opportunity for this kind of growth, which is crucial to being an aware and empowering difference-maker in our multi-cultural interdependent country and world.

So, in classic F&M style, after a professor suggested the theme for the Convocation, we sought out student voices on the topic. And we asked three students to reflect upon a time when they were part of a work group here at F&M whose diversity helped the group achieve a BHAG.

No doubt you’re wondering—BHAG? That word wasn’t on the SAT.

It’s an acronym, coined by the management scholar Jim Collins—a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal—and each one of you is hardwired to pursue them too.

That’s one of the things you all have in common. Those lightening bolts that struck the earth 18 and 19 years ago heralded the arrival of a collection of babies destined to set their own BHAGs and driven to use learning to achieve them.

So now, I’d like to invite our Provost and Dean of the Faculty, Dr. Joel Martin, to introduce Professor Levine.

[faculty and student remarks]

My thanks to Professor Levine, and to Dustin, Anh, and Bendjhi for those reflections—and for the many ways each of you takes responsibility for creating the environment of respect and inclusiveness that then allows others to feel the sense of trust and belonging that is often a precondition for taking the risk of growth.

I like the way you have showed that big goals tend to require the mind-share and multiple talents of high-impact groups. Many studies show that the more types of talent and perspective and experience on which we construct into our teams—the more diversity—the better.

This directly relates to the drive that brings you here. Collectively, your application essays were a study in humanitarian striving. Some of you wrote about reversing climate change. Others discussed preventing infectious disease or violence or institutional racism. One of you wants to demonstrate how art can undo discrimination and unify cultures. Another hopes to show how literature can create empathy for survivors of shattering pain.

All of that work will require you to be able to construct work groups that contain multitudes while developing work styles that allow you to draw upon one another’s gifts and perspectives and expertise.

I’ve seen this work beautifully many times in my career as an educator.

For example, one time a multicultural group of students came to see me and Dean of the College Margaret Hazlett, whose BHAG was to build at F&M a stronger recognition of, and support for, students whose gender identities do fall into the binary paradigm of either male or female. This is an emerging global conversation, and it was enlightening for Dean Hazlett and me to be brought into.

Engaging these new insights and perspectives extended my ability, and Dean Hazlett’s, to be a thoughtful and aware educator—and it led to our creation over the past year of more gender neutral private restrooms on campus and a modification of some of the forms that we ask students to fill out.

Another time, a group of U.S. and international students teamed up on the BHAG of helping new Nepalese immigrant women support their families and adjust to American life. They met with the women and listened to their needs—and came to see that they needed and wanted a chance to make a little more money while expressing their love of culture.

So, our students developed a program to help the women to make and sell crafts on campus. Their methods of dialogue drew upon lessons learned in classes here at F&M—and they recruited a first-year student from Nepal to serve as the translator for the women, making it easier for them to coordinate campus visits and build a sustainable relationship with the College.

I could share many similar stories … and I began to do that in a discussion a few weeks ago with F&M Professor of Psychology Michael Penn, who is a leading scholar on the qualities of mind and spirit and hope that unite people of vastly different cultures.

Dr. Penn agrees of course with the premise of this Convocation, but like all of the members of our faculty, he asked me for the limits to this point. He asked me if I could tell a story that made the counter-argument—that is, when the diversity of a group actually frustrated its ability to achieve a BHAG.

The answer to that is yes. It occurred when I was a child, but was one of the greatest lessons of my life.

I was born in 1961 and in the early years of my life, my mom, dad, sister, and I lived in a predominately African American neighborhood in Baltimore. Those were good years in a good community. However, in 1968, Senator Kennedy and Dr. King were assassinated, and my father’s mother died as well. All of that had an impact on our family. And, as a result, my mom, my sister, and I moved into the house where my grandmother had lived. It was in a white working class community. The BHAG of those families was to work at McCormick Spices, Black & Decker, or Bethlehem Steel while raising their kids well and living in a classic Baltimore row-house community in homes those families had bought themselves.

When we moved in, we were clearly different. Our household was headed by a single mother in her 30s who was going to college at night. And we had friends from other parts of town who reflected the racial diversity of the city. Sometimes, after African American friends would visit my mom, people in the neighborhood would say things about her or us, or write things on our sidewalk, or sometimes kids would say they wanted to fight. It was hard to make sense of it, but I was a pretty adaptable kid, and I was fortunate enough to see first hand what fear of the other can lead to.

When I was 11, a doctor from Kenya with his wife and two little girls moved onto our block a few houses away from us. Some people threw eggs and tomatoes at the front of their house. Some wrote epithets on the windshield of their car in soap. Then, after a month, the family moved out and a second African American family moved onto the block—and then a third, and then a fourth. And in six months time, half the families on the block, including a lot of kids I played with, had moved away to other parts of Baltimore County, never to be seen again. It was an example of how fear and ignorance could blind people, and lead them to adjust their own big, personal, family goals of living in a house they had purchased with their own labor to move somewhere new just because they didn’t want to deal with people who they thought were different.

The irony is that our block became better because our neighborhood was integrated—and it remains integrated today.

The lesson I took from it was that I would never willingly allow myself to be blind to the resources and perspectives and lives of others. I would put myself in situations again and again where I could learn from others, where I could thrive and expand because I was more aware—and that I would try to share that commitment with my students and contribute to communities where each student could be himself or herself and could thrive and expand in relationship with others.

As the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes has written, “No culture thrives in isolation. Cultures thrive in dialogue, in contact, in breakthrough.”

That’s what we want for you here, and what this world needs desperately for you to help lead—“cultures in dialogue, in contact, in breakthrough.”

Thank you for listening, and welcome to college.


  • convo inside marqee "We are building our student body with a national and global talent strategy," F&M President Daniel R. Porterfield told the Class of 2019. Image Credit: Eric Forberger
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