I was among those university officials, faculty, staff, and friends who participated in the groundbreaking ceremony for a new College of Health/College of Business building on the Gulf Park campus, on a bright and sunny May 23rd morning. Following are my podium remarks (minus a smidgen of ad libbing):
Good morning. I have two thoughts that I‘d like to share with you about this wonderful new building project.
The first has to do with the connection – and important connection – of learning and place. The great, archetypal Renaissance learner Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his Notebooks (J.P. Richter 1988 translation) that…“Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.”
My own recollections of the desire for learning, and the retention of learning, from my earliest schooling through multiple university experiences, are deeply and inextricably bound up with memories of specific places, and very often of specific buildings, learning spaces that I experienced as my own, sturdy supportive structures that buoyed me up, helped carry me along during rough times, and fed the flame of desire for continued learning. In this digital age of “distributed, asynchronous learning,” we have become fond of saying that one can learn just about anything, anywhere, and anytime. And certainly there is a wonderful, liberating truth to this notion. But it is at least equally true that physical space, campuses and buildings that are welcoming and properly designed to purpose, powerfully influences learning and the motivation for learning, enhancing the academic experience in ways that are both general and specific, subtle and profound. For many, if not most students, they are a key to academic success. The structure that we break ground on today will be a marvelous enhancement of our supportive learning environment – for our students first and foremost, but for all of us – faculty, staff, and administrators – as well.
My second thought, a related one, is about the vital importance of continuity and commitment to mission through time and across generations.
We read this in Joshua 24:13, “I have given you a land for which you did not labor, cities to dwell in which you did not build, and vineyards and olive yards to eat from that you did not plant.” Faculty, staff, and administrators in the College of Health do what we do, can only do what we do, because of those who have come before us, who built the buildings and planted the vineyards that sustain us today.
It is wonderful thing, then, that we have this opportunity, the groundbreaking for this new building, to forge another link in the chain of sustenance across time, to reaffirm our commitment to shelter and nourish not only the current generation of learners and knowledge creators, citizens and culture-bearers, but the next generation, and the generation after that.
At our recent commencement here on the coast, just over a week ago, President Bennett extended an impromptu offer, at once simple and extraordinary, to members of the audience. (Pres. Bennett, you will forgive the free paraphrase, I hope.) He said something like this – “As I shook hands with each of our new graduates just now, it occurred to me that there may be many of you here today who have wanted to pursue a college degree, but for one or another reason either did not start, or started and got interrupted, and have never been able to complete, and now it seems that either too much time has passed, or it will take too much time to finish. Well, I’m telling you today (said Dr. Bennett) that Southern Miss is here for you, to affirm your dreams and to encourage and support you in pursuit of those dreams. Yes, it can take time, but we are here for you, not just today, but tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, and the day after that. Southern Miss has been in the business of education for 106 years, and we’re not going away.”
That sentiment really gets to the heart of what we’re about today, I think, in breaking this ground. The College of Health advances, indeed, and not only with our colleagues and neighbors in College of Business (whom we love dearly, or course!), but with the whole of Southern Miss, all of us together advancing our mission of service to the people and communities of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, with a purpose and commitment as solid, strong, and enduring as any brick and mortar – today, tomorrow, and every day after.