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The Reason for the Season

Thursday, August 4, 2016

I had barely been living in Pittsburgh for four months when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup. (No need to thank me.) Funny thing is, when a team wins a title, they barely get a moment to savor their achievement before talk starts of trades and free agency, which players are staying and which are leaving. In pro sports, the offseason is when a lot of business gets done, and fans hate to be reminded that the game they love is a business. 

A similar cycle takes place in higher education, with similar cynicism. Higher education these days seems like big business, and so many people, including some of our students, take us to task for it.  Still, we, too, get that moment to savor our achievement – commencement. That’s when we raise the Stanley Cup, so to speak, and launch our students into professional careers and lives of purpose.

I attended so many commencement ceremonies this summer that I should have had a T-shirt made. It started with presiding over my first commencement ceremonies as president of Robert Morris University. The next day I was in Tennessee to see my son Cohen graduate from Sewanee: The University of the South.

Seeing commencement from the perspective of a president and a parent within the space of two days is a priceless reminder of what’s at stake for our families at RMU. As a parent you experience a wave of emotions. You’re proud but maybe a little sad that your little guy or girl is all grown up, and you’re more than a little nervous about what’s next for them. It’s a mix of angst and awe. 

A week after RMU and Sewanee I completed the commencement hat trick at Christopher Newport University in Virginia where I was the keynote speaker at the invitation of President Paul Trible, a graduate of my former institution, Hampden-Sydney College.  Although a public institution, CNU is not unlike Robert Morris, being a relatively young institution (even younger than RMU) with a similar-sized campus and student body. 

That was one of two commencement keynotes I delivered this summer: the second was at the graduate commencement ceremony at the renowned Chicago School of Professional Psychology. My mission as a commencement speaker: Be bright, be brief, and be gone. I had two recent examples to follow, including U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald, who spoke at RMU, and the renowned journalist and TV talk show host Charlie Rose, who spoke at Sewanee.  I hope that I helped make the day memorable for the graduates and their families.

Commencement season, though, is behind us, and when our new students arrive August 25, we’ll start that cycle all over again. Just like commencement, I’ve been through move-in day as a parent and as a president, and I can promise I’ll never lose sight of what it means for our families to entrust RMU with their children’s future. It’s a calling, a sacred trust, and it’s why we got into this so-called “business” in the first place: to give good people great opportunities.