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Fall Convocation

Fall Convocation Archives: Woo Speech

Meredith Jung-En Woo, Dean of College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences
Convocation Address – University of Virginia
October 16, 2009

I am honored to be with you, who have so distinguished yourselves in your studies, and with your families and friends, who take great pride in your accomplishments. Your class is of particular meaning to me. I am mindful that you are more or less twenty years old, born around 1989. I have a son born in 1989, that remarkable year in world politics, and so I have many reasons for having thought hard about the coming of age of people like yourselves, and the world that has shaped you. One might say that you are a privileged generation—the first class ever to have been born and reared in a world that was spared the agonies of what the historian Eric Hobsbawm has called the Age of Extremes, which he dates from World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution and that ended with the Fall of the Berlin Wall. For him, this period frames what was the essence of the 20th century—extremes of war, communism, fascism, racism, the Holocaust, and mass exterminations.

However terrible our recent problems–ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, 9/11, the brutalities of terrorism and the antediluvian Taliban wanting to rule Afghanistan and maybe the modern world as well—those events do not compare with the large scale brutalities of organized madness of the twentieth century. I remember holding my infant son, who seemed like a bundle of undifferentiated protoplasm, while watching students spill out into Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and in the autumn the Fall of Berlin Wall, as young people smashed it with sledgehammers. I was riveted to the television, in awe of the world that was crumbling before our very eyes and full of trepidations for the world to come.  My son was named Ian—Scottish for John, but in Chinese Korean script, it means “doubly peaceful,” reflecting the hopes that 1989, the year of your birth, spawned.

We are also aware of another significant 20th anniversary: the unusually long tenure of our president John Casteen at the time of his retirement next year—a great president who has an encyclopedic memory of the events of his tenure and a remarkable understanding of the recondite and complex nature of the University.  By virtue of his tenure as president coinciding with your lifetime so far, he is also a president spared the extremes of ideological prisms through which scholars peered at the world; like you, his presidency was born into a world happier, more prosperous and tolerant, more forgiving of differences.

Gertrude Stein, in her book on Picasso, once defined the artistic spirit as one that is effortlessly contemporary, one that intuits and acts upon the zeitgeist. Not surprisingly, throughout his presidency John Casteen has advocated and exemplified the best virtues of internationalization that the post-1989 era portended, and he tried his best to infuse them into the University of Virginia, a university that truly cares about history and learns from it.

I myself came to America as a foreign student, guided by no more vision and sense of assurance than a picture I’d seen in National Geographic: a photo of a house shuttered for the winter in snowbound, forested Maine, which suggested a heart-breaking, desolate beauty, that was reminiscent of my ancestral home surrounded by mountains on the east coast of Korea. Clutching my National Geographic, I arrived at Kennedy airport in the middle of the night, took a cab to Port Authority Terminal and boarded a Greyhound bus for Maine. That was thirty three years ago; now I find myself at Mr. Jefferson’s University, as dean no less. In Facing West, one of my favorite poems in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, he writes:

For, starting westward from Hindustan, from the vales of Kashmere
From Asia—from the north—from the God, the sage, and the hero
From the south—from the flowery peninsulas, and the spice islands
Long having wander’d since—round the earth having wander’d
Now I face home again—very pleas’d and joyous.

The notion that the University of Virginia has become home for this dean who started so far away may strike you as quixotic, until you remember that Thomas Jefferson was the most cosmopolitan and worldly president we have ever had, and the first faculty members he recruited to teach local youth were mostly foreigners—a thought that was anathema to many Virginians of the time. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was also cosmopolitan, also patrician, like his cousin Teddy, but they had nothing on Mr. Jefferson. Not just because he was Ambassador to France; or because he knew seven languages; or because he so widely traveled, replicating the visual splendor of Italy on the Lawn.  But because he instinctively understood and insisted that what was uniquely American could be also uniquely and ingeniously worldly, that America could be coterminous with the world, without the conquering ambitions so often associated with such wishes.

To realize his complex vision of America both pastoral and worldly, innocent and learned, he wanted to create a university different from nearly all American colleges—the Harvards, Yales, and the Princetons, founded during the colonial period, and over three dozen more colleges that sprouted up in the early days of the federal union, which were mostly established by religious denominations as you know. He wanted something fitted to the distinctive American experience. Thus, the University was conceived as a profoundly American, and, cosmopolitan place: civilized, learned, open-minded, un-parochial.  If in the first days of the University, the actions of some local hoodlums broke his heart, that still does not diminish the fact that his cosmopolitanism is truly your birthright.

I mentioned earlier that you are a class unscathed by the Age of Extremes, and in this you are the perfect class to embody the dreams of Mr. Jefferson—he fought in an anti-colonial revolution that was, compared to many others, not so bloody; he died before the bloodiest American conflict, the Civil War. He was a classic idealist in the American grain, and in the best sense of idealism tempered by historical experience.

You are also one of the most diverse classes to arrive at the university. Look at yourselves: you are diverse, measured by the usual metrics—by ethnicity, race, and nationality—much of it owing to that universe unto itself known as Northern Virginia. In Northern Virginia it is said that there are over one hundred languages and dialects spoken—and it is teeming with Arab-Americans, Afghan-Americans, Korean-Americans, Indian-Americans, Salvadorans, Peruvians, Colombians, and the Bolivians—the largest such community in the US resides in Arlington. There is also a sizable African population—Nigerians, Kenyans, Ethiopians. They are enriching our community, and we are responding.

In the College of Arts and Sciences alone, we teach 26 languages from Spanish to Yiddish, Urdu, Sanskrit, Bengali, Swahili and also sign language. With students from 148 countries, you are a veritable United Nations, distinguished not by how you look, but who you have become: excellent in what you do. The Commonwealth of Virginia is not just diverse, but excellent because the heritage of the original settlers (whom we think we see over at Williamsburg) commingles with the dynamism of the immigrants who bring their own outlooks and skills. Here in this great state, tradition and innovation go hand in hand, a great bellwether for the future of the nation.

You are diverse by another measure of diversity: excellence. Let me advance this proposition: diversity is excellence, and we shall measure our excellence by the way we cherish and work with differences.

I had a colleague at the University of Michigan, Scott Page, a game theorist who wrote a very fine book called The Difference. It is full of equations that show groups that display a range of perspectives outperform groups of like-minded experts. Diversity yields superior outcomes, and difference beats out homogeneity, whether you’re talking about citizens in a democracy or scientists in the laboratory. The best collective whole that exceeds the sum of its parts is one that relies on human diversity—not what we look like from outside, but what we look like from within, our distinct tools and abilities.

The world faces enormously complex problems that require truly creative solutions. To solve those problems, we need people with diverse skills—people with different ways of conceptualizing, imagining, and doing things; people with different life experiences and different memories of what worked and what didn’t; people with different referents. People who think alike, with the same referents, experiences, and skill sets cannot get quite as far in solving complex problems. That’s why Silicon Valley, with the variegated multitude of humanity from every background, revolutionized the world and continues to go forward from strength to strength; why Manhattan, a magnet for humanity from everywhere, is so dynamic, constantly reinventing capitalism as it resuscitates and rejuvenates it.

Diversity has its pitfalls, too, as we know; but when well led and disciplined, it leads to a curious kind of homogeneity. Let’s think about baseball, since we are in the high season of American baseball, with the “World Series” around the corner. It used to be a joke—a “world series” in America—but now it isn’t, because the players come from everywhere.  The other day I was watching a replay of the Olympic gold medal baseball game between Cuba and Korea, when the Koreans made a double play with the bases loaded.  After a while, I rubbed my eyes to realize I was having some difficulty telling who was Cuban and who was Korean, they all looked the same because they moved the same; the way they stretch before they hit; the way they chew gum; the way they play their positions; the body language of the shortstop and second baseman as they execute a double play; the way they give each other high fives; the way they pat each other on the butt; the way they glare at the umpire, protesting in whatever language but the same the world over. They are all just players—they have the same body language, same plays, and same rules.

Baseball cannot exist without rules—the baseball rule of law: the pitcher stands sixty feet six inches away, the bases are 90 feet apart. Change either measure, and it is a different game. If Nolan Ryan had stood 50 feet away with his fireball, no one could have hit him. Take five feet away from the basepaths, and anyone can steal a base—but at 90 feet, only the fastest players can do so. It’s amazing how well these old, 19th-century rules have worked to make the game so challenging and so exciting.  It is said that there is no action in all of sports more difficult than hitting a major league pitch.

The rules require everyone to conform to them, as chess does, and out of that comes a beautiful human choreography on the baseball field. You do things, you excel, and at the moment of excellence and accomplishment, as you do, you begin to look alike in your excellence as distinguished people, and that is something wonderful. It isn’t an accident, because if you excel in math or physics or art or history, you cross home plate with an A regardless of who you are or what you look like. That’s why the Cubans and the Koreans in the Gold medal game merged seamlessly into one mold: baseball player. You will merge into physicist, scholar, lawyer, doctor—and maybe a player in the pros.

For diversity and difference to thrive and translate into excellence, there has to be hard work, discipline, conformity to rules and respect for community.

Perhaps we are entering into the twilight of diversity, in the sense that we have so rightly stressed diversity for decades now, and have achieved so much. Yet the great universities can now be melting pots, creating people with common pools of knowledge in different fields, who know and play by the rules, and distinguish themselves by merit—just as Jackie Robinson’s speed was perfect for racing 90 feet and sliding safely home. In this sense I would hope that you would all look the same and act the same, in your chosen fields—to excel as learned historians, or biologists, or engineers. Here is something that is indeed singular in your achievements: you are inquisitive, humane, and worldly—educated citizens in Jefferson’s best sense.

And since you are the first class to have lived outside the Age of Extremes, your citizenly duty is to make sure those extremes remain an unfortunate part of the past. Yours is an open age, to learn, experiment, find out what works for you. It is an optimistic age, in spite of our economic difficulties. It is a Jeffersonian age, because all things worldly are open to you. Do your best to try and meet his standards—very high ones, but in the end, Mr. Jefferson’s standards are also signs of a life well lived.