Humility over hubris
UF President Kent Fuchs addressed graduates over the weekend during spring commencement ceremonies. His speech is below:
Graduates, I want to begin by telling you how immensely proud I am of each and every one of you.
I am proud of the many academic and personal achievements that have earned you a seat here today.
I am proud of the exceptional education your University of Florida diploma represents.
Family members, friends and faculty, I know you are proud of all that you have contributed to these graduates, and to the future they inherit.
Graduates, you, too, deserve to be proud of what you have learned at UF and to have pride in your knowledge.
That’s what commencements are all about: Celebrating all that you know.
But today I’m going to switch things up a bit.
I want to celebrate the importance of what you don’t know.
I trust that many of you share my frustration at the intellectual hubris we sometimes see, here at universities, in our culture, and in our politics.
I bet that you, too, have been frustrated by the inability to get past this hubris and to change someone else’s mind – or simply get them to see your point of view.
So as I send you off, I want to speak to the underrated value of
Humility over hubris …
Inquiry over insistence …
And listening over lecturing …
But wait a minute … it feels hypocritical to say this in my full presidential commencement regalia, which after all is designed to convey that I’m a very important person saying very erudite things.
Please excuse me while I remove my tam … that’s the official name for this hat here.
President Fuchs puts on Gator cap.
I’ve got one more thing. I’m going to get rid of my chain here. This is my presidential bling. Could you come up here?
President Fuchs hands chain to student.
Now, I need that back in about 10 minutes!
So now I’m ready!
Graduates, the knowledge and expertise you have honed here will serve you so well.
It will give you the answers to tough questions.
I know your answers will be right, and I know they will be just.
When the questions involve conflicting interests, I am confident your answers will, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “give the greatest good to the greatest number.”
But I want to stress that even though it will be important for you to have the answers, it will be equally important for you to understand when you do not have the answers.
It will be important for you to recognize, and even to embrace, the moments when you have more to learn – or when you understand that your answers may be wrong or incomplete.
We benefit from knowing what we do not know.
That is my simple message, one that arises from my own personal experience.
I have been fortunate in my 26 months as UF’s president to celebrate many amazing public milestones achieved for this university by our faculty, staff and students.
But some of my strongest memories are tied to private moments, when I have been reminded how little I know … how few my talents are … and how much I can learn from others.
Let me illustrate.
I’ll show you a brief video of beautiful dancing by our students in the School of Theatre and Dance …
Now let me show you my own not-so-beautiful dancing over the last two years at the University of Florida …
Instead of “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” Justin Timberlake would sing, “Please, stop the feeling!” if he saw my moves.
My attempts at dancing on camera have renewed my appreciation of real dancers’ genius and beauty.
I had a similar humbling but enlightening experience when I dropped in on a sign language class taught by UF faculty member Stephen Hardy last fall.
It was intimidating to try my hand at a new language, but it was also refreshing.
I loved learning and laughing with the students while working on my name sign, “Fuchs.”
President Fuchs performs name sign.
Sign language helps with a name like mine, that is spelled strangely, and is often pronounced in embarrassing ways!
We’re fortunate at UF to have an excellent Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences.
One of my most powerful experiences of learning from others occurred last summer, when I met with African-American faculty and staff following several national violent incidents, and heard their personal experiences of discrimination and racism.
It was far more important for me as a leader to listen at that moment, rather than to talk.
By the end of that two-hour conversation everyone was crying, including me, though of course those experiences are completely outside my own.
Listening is what is needed when you are on the side of the angels.
That was the side of beloved UF Professor and Historian Michael Gannon, who died earlier this month at age 89, after a rich life that included being ordained as a Roman Catholic priest … authoring seminal books about Spanish Florida and World War II …
and being one of the most revered teachers in the history of the University of Florida.
Professor Gannon taught over 16,000 students during his career here.
At a time of unrest on this campus in the 1960s during the Vietnam War, he was supportive of student protestors in their tangles with local police and the university administration.
Yet because he listened to all, he was trusted by all.
He was known to students as “the movement priest.”
He was known to the police as “our mediator.”
He was known to the administration as “a trusted go-between.”
And in that role, more than anyone else, Father Gannon was able to help UF and Gainesville mend divisions and achieve greater justice.
Someone who can only shout in angry righteousness – even when they are right – cannot have that same effect.
Dante wrote, “I love to doubt, as well as know.”
And indeed, the arc to Father Gannon’s star begins with questioning ourselves.
For when we know that we know very little, it’s easy to believe that others may add to our storehouse.
When we’re aware that we don’t have it all worked out, it’s easy to believe that they may have a point.
This leads to conversation, learning, understanding and actual progress.
From my experience, the simple act of conversation also tends to produce
some personal warmth and understanding, even when strong disagreements continue.
We saw a public example in the close personal friendship between liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late conservative Justice Anton Scalia.
May daring to converse produce more such friendships among our leaders – and among ourselves.
The French philosopher Montaigne wrote, “I prefer to be quiet rather than clever.”
This gets to me my final point, which is that striving for cerebral humility over hubris also opens us to insight, and even to revelation.
To me, Sting is a great songwriter, but like many great artists he doesn’t point to his incredible talent when explaining his creative process.
“A melody,” Sting wrote, “is always a gift from somewhere else.
You just have to learn to be grateful and pray that you will be blessed again some other time.”
Graduates, you are poised to compose your own melodies.
Whatever your plans, wherever your destination, you will soon begin the next stage of your life anew.
For many of you, as you start this next stage, you are going to feel like you know very little, perhaps the way you did your very first day at UF.
Since you are Gators, I have every faith that you will quickly get your bearings and realize you are prepared to overcome any challenge.
But as you rocket forward, remember to carry with you what it felt like to know very little.
For if you remain willing to embrace your intellectual humility, you will always continue to learn.
You will always stay open to other ideas and perspectives – ready to pursue the truths and the triumphs that are only achievable when human beings choose
Humility over hubris …
Inquiry over insistence …
And listening over lecturing.
Before I put back on my tam and retrieve my presidential bling, let me leave you with an old Irish blessing that expresses my personal affection for each one of you.
May the sun shine gently on your face.
May the rain fall soft upon your fields.
May the wind be at your back.
May the road rise to meet you.
And may the Lord hold you in the hollow of his hand.
Until we meet again.
It is great to be a Florida Gator!