Tulane President Fitts 2016 Convocation Speech

Hello, class of 2020! Welcome to Tulane.

What an extraordinary group you are. 

You have had the incredible foresight to be part of a class with perfect vision—the class of 2020.

And we are so delighted and fortunate that you chose Tulane as the place to achieve that vision.

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

Now, I know you’ve spent most of 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.  I promise not to judge.

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 is where your lifelong membership begins in a global network and a new, unparalleled 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!!

Two 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.

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, because 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 commit your time and skills to helping our neighbors rebuild their homes and communities after last week’s devastating floods.

Whatever it is that you choose to do, I impel you: 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 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 adult.

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  45 states and 20 countries to a place like no other.

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 on the Tulane campus, we 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 further 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 tech-savvy generation, “swipe right.” 

Some of you look like you know what I’m talking about.

My younger staff members 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. 

Don’t, as they say, “swipe left” if they appear different from yourself.

Some of you will be concerned that there are few people 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 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. 

You may have heard—we are in the middle of the political season.  

Passions will run high.

I challenge you all 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.

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

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 two years ago, I have explored our campus and city and found special places that, to me, 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.

Send me your best photos through my website 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 2020, 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.

Now let’s say it again—and this time with POWER!

Get ready – Roll Wave on 3 –  

1… 2… 3…                 ROLL WAVE!