Retiring Provost Shares His Vision during Institution's Opening Convocation
January 18, 2008
Catawba College in "A Season of Choices and Change"
Catawba College's Opening Spring Convocation, held on Thursday, January 17 in Omwake-Dearborn Chapel, celebrated students' achievements in service and scholarship. Dr. Robert Knott, President, convened the College for the spring term, and several individuals and groups were recognized for their achievements this past year. Dr. Jesse McCartney, who is retiring in June as the provost of the College, delivered the convocation address.
In introducing McCartney, Knott described him as a "treasured member of this community who has stepped forward in times of need and success." Knott said of McCartney, "If you're fortunate enough to count Jess McCartney as a friend, you're fortunate enough."
McCartney used his convocation address to share his vision of the institution's future. In his remarks, made after 25 years of service at Catawba, McCartney urged those gathered to focus on the future, not he past, to embrace the College's full potential and to strive for excellence despite the changing of the administrative guard.
McCartney, a longtime friend and colleague of Catawba College President Dr. Robert E. Knott, joined the College in 1982, arriving from Ball State University. During his tenure at Catawba, he has served as a professor of English, chair of the English Department, executive assistant to the president, director of institutional research, vice president and academic dean, and provost. A native of Oklahoma, he is married to his wife of almost 50 years, Kay, and they are parents of two adult children.
McCartney's address, delivered with his usual dry humor and good grace, follows:
2008 Spring Opening Convocation Address
I want to thank Dr. Knott for offering me the opportunity to deliver this address today. In doing so, he commented that, with my impending retirement, this would be one of my last opportunities to speak to the campus community. Implicit in his statement was the assumption that I would have some words worth saying! That remains to be seen. Also implicit was the assumption that, having served the College for twenty-five years, I would have some reflections I would like to share on my life at Catawba! Believe me, I have reflected much on that topic in recent months; but today I want to focus on the future, not the past. So listen up!
We are in a season of choices and change.
When you returned to the campus this past fall, you found new residence halls had changed the landscape of the campus. When you returned a week or so ago, you found new dining facilities and a changed Leonard Lounge in the Cannon Student Center. If you haven't yet discovered the changes to the library, you are overdue; and you should find some time this afternoon to attend the library open house for the Extreme Makeover-Library Edition. You will find it a welcome change and a warm and inviting environment on this winter afternoon; and you might even check out a book while you are there.
Choices and change are watchwords in today's politics. In the state, two Catawba College graduates are seeking to become Governor of North Carolina with promises to change the state. Closer to home, Ryan Dayvault, a Catawba College student, and Lynne Scott Safrit, a 1980 Catawba graduate and trustee, are engaged in radically changing the landscape of nearby Kannapolis and the economy of this region with the creation of a new biotechnology research center. The nation is now increasingly focused on selecting a new President. All the candidates are advocates of change, though what each of them means by that is to me still somewhat unclear.
The College is likewise engaged in a search for a new President and a new Provost. The choosing of new leadership will inevitably result in change for the College. Facing such a change in personnel, we often respond with fear; and fear often engenders bad behavior. It doesn't matter whether we are talking about a change in leadership at the College or a change coming with graduation as a senior, or change of some sort in our personal lives, such as, for example, retirement.
We are all made anxious when facing the unknown. And today, the Catawba College community faces the unknown.
As I said, change and choices sometimes evoke fear, and fear often evokes bad behavior. In particular, fear often accentuates our self-centeredness. How is this change going to affect me? And how can I protect my perquisites and privileges, my territory, my accustomed and comfortable role, against the unknown? And we can easily develop a defensive bunker mentality that casts aside our concern for others and for the College. Some of you have spoken to me privately in recent days about this fear factor and the bad behavior exhibited by some of your peers in this season of choices and change.
Thus I was pleased to see that Dr. Clapp had selected the hymn "God of Grace and God of Glory" for today's convocation. Its refrain — "Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour, for the living of these days" is one of my favorite refrains in hymnody. It is, of course, simply a more solemn version of the cowardly lion's plea for courage and the scarecrow's desperate song, "If I Only Had a Brain." So these are pretty universal needs.
In my experience, courage and wisdom are always in short supply. But they are needed all the more in the face of change and critical choices such as those faced by the College now.
Now in addition to the text of this refrain which we sang collectively earlier, you have another text in your program to which I want to allude briefly — that is the text of the Alma Mater hymn. And I insist it is a hymn that should be sung in a tempo appropriate for a stately anthem. As you know from our singing it at earlier gatherings this year, Professor Oakley has interpreted it as a fight song! Now I will admit that most often when it has been sung in my twenty-five years here, it has been sung at the pace of a funeral dirge; but somewhere between the funeral dirge and the fight song is the tempo of a stately hymn; and we will give Professor Oakley an opportunity in a few moments to see whether he can play it in such a tempo.
But allow me to come back to the text of the Alma Mater after telling a brief story.
In my office, I receive more communication from parents between fall and spring semester than at any other time of the year. This year was no exception. Often frustrated with their son or daughter's poor academic performance, parents start calling and emailing as soon as grades are available.
Sometimes parents blame their offspring, the students, for the poor performance. Sometimes they blame the roommate. Sometimes they blame themselves. Sometimes they blame individual faculty members. Sometimes they blame the College in general. And sometimes, they are right in locating the blame; and sometimes, they are not.
This term I received a particularly articulate and thoughtful communication from a parent about an incident that had occurred in one of our classes. The issue of the complaint aside, it was this father's phrasing that struck me. In specifying his complaint, he said these are behaviors that "are certainly not in keeping with the Catawba culture. I hope that you agree." And I did.
But it was his use of the phrase "the Catawba culture" that captured my attention. In some way, this father had enumerated for himself a system of positive values that he identified as "the Catawba culture." I liked that. These values included celebrating students' achievements, as we have done today, rather than putting them down. They included respecting one's peers and their judgments rather than demeaning or criticizing them. They included respect for what I personally regard as a sacred space-- the classroom or, any place where important teaching and learning go on.
I would like to think that these values do indeed represent the "Catawba culture." If you will notice, in the language of the Alma Mater, we are all "bearers" of this culture and the "precepts and spirit" that abide within it.
Think for a moment about this concept of the "Catawba culture," the values or precepts and spirit that characterize our community.
What are those values?
How do you embody them?
What is that spirit?
How do you manifest it?
How will you choose new leadership for the College that will sustain those values, that spirit? How will you help the new President and the new Provost understand and internalize these cultural values?
And how will we collectively deliver them or bear them to our successors—future students, staff, faculty, administrators, trustees?
In this season of change and choices, I think all of those questions are very important. But let's go back to the first question: What are those values?
Let me suggest a few that I hope will characterize the future of the College, and I will start with some mentioned by the parent who emailed me:;
- We will individually and collectively seek and celebrate achievements — academic, artistic, athletic. We will value excellence in all things.
In my experience here, the College — students, faculty, administrators, staff, trustees — have too often been satisfied with being merely good and have sometimes been afraid of being great.
We have chosen models of excellence that have been provincial, based on nearby institutions, and we have been fearful of aspiring to regional or national prominence. Oh, we have been proud of our football teams when they compete for the national championships and of our theatre students when they are invited to perform in regional or national competitions such as the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. But have our students won national or international scholarships or fellowships such as the Truman, Goldwater, and Rhodes scholarships? Have our faculty secured national or international recognition — and when they have, have we properly celebrated such achievements? Or are we jealous of those who do excel? Do we scoff at or despair at achieving such levels of excellence here at Catawba College? If, as we sing in the Alma Mater, we truly want a future for the College which is "rich and glorious," we must think bigger. We must have the courage to seek the highest standards of excellence. ;
- We will respect one another — our differences as well as our commonalities. And we will each play out our roles within this community in such a way as to merit respect. In our language and our interactions with one another, we will be mutually supportive.
We will value the work of one another and not lend support to a caste system that sometimes values one segment of the community over another. Whatever our roles — trustees, students, staff, coaches, maintenance workers, faculty — we will remember that the College couldn't function without people in all these roles. We are all citizens of this community and we are all bearers of its culture. ;
- We will value "life and right," in the phrasing of the Alma Mater. Being a symbol of life means that we will protect the natural environment, campus property, and one another against destructiveness and harm.
Being a symbol of right means we will value rectitude — an old-fashioned word for rightness or ethical behavior. ;
- Finally, we will periodically find ways to reflect on these values — the list of qualities that together make up the Catawba culture; then, upon reflection, each of you must decide how you will bear or embody those qualities in your work daily here on campus as well as in the world outside the College.
Am I being idealistic? Certainly I am being idealistic! I make no apologies for that. I think being idealistic should be a part of the Catawba culture, too. In fact, I believe no institution is worthy of our love and loyalty unless it is based on clear ideals. So let us put cynicism and fear aside. May God grant us the courage and the wisdom to pursue and attain these ideals!
This is the future I desire for the College — and what I will be looking and listening for as I sit on my deck in retirement just across Grant's Creek.
Over the twenty-five years that I have been here, I have heard periodic discussions, even debate, about, not the tempo, but the text of the Alma Mater. Some have on occasion suggested that it be altered or discarded in favor of some other text. I would be the first to concede that the text contains some archaic and stilted language. I would concede that it is not great poetry and that the language may be somewhat trite. But if indeed this is my valedictory address, and if I am obliged to sum up my feelings about this place — its past and its future, I think the Alma Mater hymn pretty well sums them up.
So you think about the words as Professor Oakley seeks an appropriate tempo; and let us stand and sing it together.
Despite the inclement weather, of the day, some members of the soon-to-be graduating class of 2008 donned caps and gowns to robe and process for the event.
New inductees into Alpha Chi, the academic honor society, were congratulated. These were juniors and seniors who demonstrated outstanding academic achievements and character and participated in a late September 2007 induction ceremony. They included seniors Samuel Louis Brooks of Seaford, Va.; Hillary Elizabeth Hampton of Salisbury; Ashleigh Susanna Herndon of Conway, S.C.; Daniel Scott Hines of Yorktown, Va.; Julia Caroline McKinzie of Lakeway, Texas; and Paul Christopher Norris of Salisbury. Juniors included Allan R. Autry of Fayetteville; Kenzie Madeline Elyse Brogden of Wilmington; Justin Tyler Lewis of Knoxville, Tenn.; K. Michael Pierce Matthias of Georgetown, Del.; Paul Christian Saylor of Isle of Palms, S.C.; and Ryan Adam Taccarino of Marmora, N.J.
Students selected by Catawba College's Lilly Center for Vocation and Values at Catawba College for their interest in and promise for Christian ministry were recognized. "Year of Inquiry" participants are students from any class who have demonstrated a commitment to service and to exploring the way or ways in which they can best respond to God's call and claim upon their lives. The 2007-2008 participants in the "Year of Inquiry" program are Christopher Beal of Goldston; Andrew Hege of Thomasville; Kendra Joyner of Rock Springs, Wyoming; Allison Marshall of Pleasant Garden; Lara Poplo of Newark, Del.; Alesha Spring Roseman of Salisbury; Lucas Thore of Mooresville; Kristopher Watson of Voorhees, N.J.; and Molly Williams of Galax, Va.
Lilly Fellows for 2007-2008 are upper-class students who have significant academic achievement and are majoring in religion and philosophy. They include Leslie Denton of Salisbury; Megan V. Fulsom of Mt. Pleasant, S.C.; Molly Harris of Mocksville; Cecilia Runge of Milford, N.J.; and Nathan Wrights of