Convocation 2017 Speech

August 26, 2017


Hello, class of 2021!

Welcome to Tulane.

What an extraordinary group you are.

It’s hard to believe, but it’s finally the beginning of the school year.

As I thought about what I wanted to say to you all today, I looked back on some of the pivotal moments of the summer.

Game of Thrones came back for its 7th season.
The return of Kesha.
“Rompers for men.”
And – best of all – Beyonce had twins.

While those were all memorable in their own way, when you reflect on this summer, years from now – you’ll always remember it as the summer you started your Tulane career.

I want to begin today by asking you to humor me with a poll.

Now, I know you’ve spent the last few days humoring many people – well-meaning parents and relatives, impatient siblings complaining about the heat, and an infinite array of campus administrators.

I promise you that we all mean well, and I also promise that this won’t take long.

Raise your hand if you’re from Louisiana.

Raise your hand if you’re coming from an entirely different part of the country.

Raise your hand if, in the last 24 hours, you’ve watched one or both of your parents cry.

Now raise your hand if you’re a little bit worried your parents might not actually go home.

And finally, raise your hand if you’re wondering whether you really should have delayed this whole college thing and taken that trip across Europe.

Well, I am here today to tell you that those feelings and experiences are normal, and you’ve made the right choice. Not just by coming to college, but by coming to Tulane.

Whether you hail from Metairie or Milan, California or Kalamazoo, Boston or Belize – right here, right now your lifelong membership begins in a global network and a new family – the Tulane family.

It is an intellectually daring and innovative family that will challenge you to justify your ideas and beliefs.

And it’s a supportive and resilient family that celebrates its distinctive traditions – all while building a better world.

You are now a Tulanian for life.

Welcome home.

And so let’s hear it now, for the first of hundreds of times –
I want to hear you Roll Wave on 3!

1, 2, 3 – Roll Wave!!

Three years ago, I was in your shoes.

I was a first year president.
Like many of you, I packed my bags and moved far from home –
from Philadelphia, the place of my birth, a city where I spent most of my life – to come to this university.

I made this decision for a single reason: Tulane is magical.

It is a place that will profoundly transform who you are today and how you live the rest of your life.

It will challenge you to engage like no other institution in the United States.

Intellectually, socially, professionally – even gastronomically.

Just remember that a gym membership is included with your tuition. So take advantage!

Tulane and New Orleans are incubators for change and innovation.

Isn’t that what education and personal growth are all about?

In that spirit I want to present you with some challenges today, and here is the first one:

Step outside your comfort zone.

Do something that scares you.

Get out of your element.

If you’re an aspiring scientist, take that Spanish literature course.

If you’re an English major, take the time to understand economics.

Pursue a joint major – Tulane students follow that path as much as any school in the country.

And don’t be intellectually passive: seek out that faculty member after class and ask questions.

Start a dialogue.

See if you can help them work on their research.

And back to the local cuisine I mentioned earlier – even if you’re a picky eater, I want you to order the alligator po’boy.  I promise it tastes just like chicken!

Tulane specializes in such opportunities.

We were the first university in the country to require its undergraduates to pursue public service.

While Tulane has some of the most distinguished faculty in the country, you will also learn immensely from the people you will serve in the community.

They will teach you to learn by doing.

They will show you what it truly means to persevere in the face of adversity.

Maybe you’ll volunteer at an urban farm alongside children and their parents learning how to grow and eat healthy food.

Or perhaps you’ll teach debate to middle school students.

Whatever it is that you choose to do: get outside your comfort zone.

And that leads me to my second challenge: get to know people very different from yourself.

Take a look at the people around you here.

We are all a mix of backgrounds, of influences, of experiences.

I want you to take the time to find out about each other.
Let me tell you my story:

My mother was a Quaker – raised in a secluded suburb of Philadelphia.

My father and his family, on the other hand, grew up on a farm in rural Tennessee.

Together, my parents raised me in a predominantly African American neighborhood in the heart of Philadelphia.

My wife is from a New York City neighborhood of mostly Eastern European immigrants.

Our family spans the breadth of religions – Jewish, Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Quaker, and last but not least, agnostic.

Our family politics also range across the political spectrum.

Sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it?

Thanksgiving dinner is definitely never boring.

But you know what?

By knowing, debating, and connecting with this sweeping range of personalities, I grew up to be a more thoughtful and well-rounded individual.

Look around you.

The average Tulane student is 900 miles from home – farther from home than any other student body in the country.

You come from all over the world. 

As a university, we want our campus population to reflect the diverse community in which we live.

And it’s one of my highest priorities as president to keep improving on that.

No matter who you are or where you are from, when you step foot tulane's campus, I want you to be surrounded by a broad range of ideas, philosophies – even dialects.

This is the gift of college.

As a society, it may seem that we are drifting farther apart – that the already wide gaps dividing us as people have become these giant, impassable craters.

But here you are!

On a college campus in a unique city – living and learning in close quarters – with a broad spectrum of individuals from every conceivable background.

So say hello.

Introduce yourself.

Or, in the language of your generation, “swipe right.”

All of you look like you know what I’m talking about – my student interns had to explain it to me.

While you’re in line at Bruff, say hello to the person behind you – no matter what you think you know about them from a quick glance.

Ask them their name, where they’re from, their favorite class.

Some of you will be concerned that there aren’t many people here just like you – from your neighborhood, religion, economic background, or race – and that you may not find your place.

I want all of you to use this opportunity to put yourself in the shoes of someone different:

Someone who grew up with different levels of privilege than you –

Someone who had to think about their own race or ethnicity every day, or who never had to think about it at all –

Someone who grew up in a different kind of neighborhood –

Or with a different religion –

Or in a military family, or without much of any family. 

Do that and you will grow – personally, socially, and intellectually.

I assure you – you’ll find we have much more in common than you think.

And that brings me to my third challenge:

I need your help to preserve our community.  

Right now – as we know – political passions are running high.

I challenge each of you to learn how to engage in passionate debate while treating others with dignity and respect.

The ability to debate one another with intelligence, eloquence, and civility – is one of the most important skills we could teach you going forward – in the workplace and in your own relationships.

This is a skill best learned face to face.

To be able to look a colleague in the eye with whom you disagree, listen to what they have to say, state your case, and respectfully disagree.

Here at Tulane, we thrive on the expression of different perspectives and viewpoints.

As Aristotle said, “it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

The point of college is to hear opinions that you disagree with, to be challenged, to strengthen the quality of your own reasoning.

What I love most about Tulane is how well we protect our community, through generations of students like you.

We are a family – we argue and squabble and tease, but with love.

So here is our one golden rule:

In the Tulane family, we never make someone feel that they don’t belong here.

We chose every single one of you extraordinary people to be a member of our family, and we are so excited and proud that you chose us back.

Here is my last challenge to you, and it involves using those devices that seem to be permanently attached to your hands.

I am issuing a photo challenge.

Tulane is magical.

Since my arrival three years ago, I have explored our campus and city and found dozens of special places that express the unique magic of our surroundings.

You are in a glorious and culturally important city, on a beautiful campus.

Spend the next couple weeks exploring.

Take pictures of places or events that intrigue and inspire you.

Tag me in your best photos through my instagram – @fittstagram – by the 10th of September.

I’ll share the submissions online and choose five of my favorites.

The winners will join me for brunch at one of our best New Orleans restaurants – Commander’s Palace.

Class of 2021, I recognize and honor your many talents.

I see your vision and potential for greatness.

And let there be no doubt – you made the right move.

Tulane is a place that will change you for the better.

It will enable you to succeed in life and to make a difference in the world.

So, welcome – not just to college, but to our family – the Tulane family.

Oh! There’s actually one last thing.

My student interns gave me a challenge.  They wanted me to make something called a Snapchat.

I may be the oldest person alive to have one, but I have one all the same. You can add me @tufitts.

And, right now – I want to make my very first story.

When I say roll, I want you to say wave. Do you think you can do that with me?

Let’s try it – Roll! [wave!] Roll! [wave!] – meet the class of 2021!

So everyone – welcome to Tulane. Welcome home.