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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Un-Welcome Bridge

On a Thursday afternoon one week ago, I spent a very pleasant hour sipping fruit-infused water and devouring delectable desserts at a reception in the Thelma P. Bando Lounge of Harper-Tubman Hall.  While I would like to say that I always spend my Thursdays in such a civilized fashion, alas, this is not the case.  The occasion on this fine afternoon was a celebration in honor of Women’s History Month and in particular, some of the many women who helped shaped the history of Morgan and Maryland.

Between bites of simply scrumptious red velvet cupcake, I learned a great deal about the remarkable women whose lives touched or were touched by Fair Morgan.  I did not know, for instance, that the Welcome Bridge is named for a real person – in this case, Verda Welcome, a 1939 graduate of Morgan State College and the first Black woman in the United States to be elected to a state senate seat.

This new bit of knowledge added an interesting layer to my long-standing fascination with the Welcome Bridge.  I have always regarded the bridge as more than a mere concrete and steel passageway connecting the two halves of campus.  To me, it is the nexus between the University’s academic enterprise and the mysterious realm of the undergraduate – not unlike the Bifröst in Norse mythology.  It is a marvelous place where on any given day one can hear the symphony of the world’s tongues, bitter complaints about instructors, the trials, tribulations, and endless possibilities of friendship and romance, earnest negotiations with parents, the latest music, and a thousand other things – including some of the foulest language ever to be spat into the air. 

I am, to be sure, no stranger to colorful language.  I can hold my own with sailors; and I even own a wonderful little volume about the etiquette of swearing.  But there is just something shocking about hearing curse words flow with such ease from the mouths of people half my age.  I understand the value of using certain words for emphasis; but does every other word need to be of the four-letter variety?  If asterisks were to suddenly become visible, the air above the Welcome Bridge would be choked with them.

I suppose I could decry this situation as yet another sign of the decline and fall of modern civilization, or at the very least, Reason #821 to be disappointed in (or afraid of) the rising generation.  But doing so would not be useful.  As much as I desire civility in speech as well as in action, I am perhaps even more devoted to the exercise of free speech.  This is one of the many cherished ideals of the University.  Therefore, it is absolutely essential that we do not weaken or destroy it through casual neglect.  Our parents and teachers are correct: careless speech is a sign of an undisciplined mind.  And an undisciplined mind can be controlled by someone else.

You might think that I have made quite a leap from a few swear words to the dystopian world of 1984.  Perhaps I am crashing from the sugar rush of those cupcakes.  But why take the risk?  We have it within ourselves to express our thoughts and emotions in ways that do not demean, frighten, or offend our fellow humans.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we owe it to Verda Welcome to make the effort.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Honoris Causa

Monday, 10 March was a wonderfully unseasonably warm evening in Baltimore.  On the campus of Fair Morgan a crowd numbering in the hundreds filed steadily into the Calvin and Tina Tyler Ballroom of the University Student Center.  Were they coming to see a hip hop star passing through town?  A self-help guru hawking the latest fad in the pursuit of wealth and happiness?  Not this time.  The draw on this night was the Induction Ceremony for Morgan's First-year Honor Societies: Alpha Lambda Delta, Phi Eta Sigma, and Promethean Kappa Tau.  At 6:00 PM, the crowd rose and silence fell over the chamber as nearly two hundred first-year students who were about to be ushered into membership in these august organizations marched slowly into the room and took their seats.

Over the next two hours, the students received congratulations and inspirational messages from senior Morgan administrators, student leaders, and a keynote speaker who happened to be an alumna.  The speeches ended; and  the inductees lined up and solemnly walked across the stage to receive their certificates and membership pins.  Family members in the audience erupted in shouts of joy and pride, and illuminated the hall with the flashes of cell phone cameras.  Once quiet had been restored, the students rose and accepted the charge of membership in their societies.

As I sat on the stage watching the ceremony unfold, it struck me that this event shared many of the same elements as the University's commencement exercises: exuberant students, proud (and relived) parents, dignitaries trying mightily to impart wisdom to the rising generation, and a generous sprinkling of pomp and circumstance.  The greatest similarity is the students themselves.  Both the first-year students being honored on this night and those who in a few short months would be concluding their undergraduate careers were being invited (or soon would be) into new worlds.  For the first-year students, this new world is one that prizes academic excellence and the pursuit of knowledge in its myriad of forms.  For the graduates, this new world is one in which they would be required to use what they had learned at Morgan to forge productive and meaningful lives.  Challenges and opportunities abound in both worlds; but the abiding faith of all who sat in the ballroom on Monday night and who would be sitting in Hughes Stadium in the heat of May is that the honorees and graduates would not only be prepared for but also eager to face whatever may lie ahead.

My greatest fear for the first-year inductees is that they will lose the enthusiasm and work ethic that put them on the path to membership in the honor societies.  Those of us who have been entrusted with helping shape the minds and destinies of our students must do everything in our power to stoke the fires of their curiosity and guide them into lives worthy of the gifts they have been given.  But it is the students' responsibility to hone their skills and talents, push the boundaries of the possible, and resist the siren song of mediocrity.  For all of its pageantry and warm feelings, Monday's ceremony should merely be the beginning of a lifetime of struggle and achievement.  

A wise friend of mine often says that the dictionary is the only place where "success" comes before "work."  I think that he would agree that the same is true for "honor."

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Forget Waldo. Where's Morgan?

Last evening, as a guest of the Towson University Honors College, I attended a marvelous lecture by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and activist Sheryl WuDunn, who spoke on the topic "Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide."  The impressively large and diverse audience included a broad cross-section of the Towson student body and quite a few guests who, like me, were from the Greater Baltimore community.  The one group that was noticeably absent -- at least to me -- was the Morgan Honors student.  Unless I am mistaken, not a single member of the Morgan Honors community, with the exception of two University Honors Program (UHP) staff members, made the grueling four-and-a-half-mile trip from 1700 E. Cold Spring Lane to the Towson University Union.

Regrettably, the absence of UHP students at events like this -- even on our own campus -- is a rather frequent occurrence.  I have lost count of the number of times that I have organized and/or attended programs at which earnest presenters eager to engage students on some of the most interesting and important subjects of the day find themselves addressing nearly empty rooms.  The speaker soldiers on, and quite often enters into a meaningful exchange with the students who do manage to show up.  For a fleeting moment, the joy that I feel in watching a young mind stretch itself overcomes the embarrassment and frustration that churns my stomach.

My staff and I spend a great deal of time thinking about how the UHP can make its activities more attractive to students.  We have tried just about everything to encourage them to participate: food, book scholarships, door prizes, and even penalties.   To my surprise, nothing has really worked.  I would have bet anything that undergraduates would walk barefoot over hot coals for free food, money for books, and a T-shirt.  Oh, well.

Of course, I understand that today's students, particularly students in the University Honors Program, are busy people.  At any given moment, they are juggling classes, work, extracurricular activities, and family responsibilities.  Life, as they say, is a full-contact sport.  But surely it is not too much to ask Honors students, in whom the University is investing a considerable amount of treasure, to contribute something other than a good GPA to the intellectual life of our beloved Morgan.  (To be sure, I could make the same request of those students who are not in the UHP; but for the moment, I shall concern myself with the population entrusted to my care.)

Lest you think that I am unfairly picking on Morgan students, allow me to share with you what happened at the end of Ms. WuDunn's lecture last night.  At the precise moment she showed her last PowerPoint slide and put down her microphone, a great wave of Towson students rose and pushed for the exits.  They had done their duty for college and country, and now had to move on to the next thing on their To Do lists.  Much to the chagrin of my hosts, several minutes passed before the room was again quiet enough for the speaker to take questions from the remaining audience.  But at least the students had come to the table of ideas.  And just maybe they heard something that will transform how they think about themselves and the world in which they live.

I desperately want Morgan students to experience the same kind of metamorphosis.  But it cannot happen spontaneously or in a vacuum.  As the old adage goes, "Ninety percent of life is just showing up."  Call me insane, but that sounds better than an "A-."