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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-."