Convocation Addresses

Jun 12, 2003, vol. 27, no. 4



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John Alleyne, John Dixon, Michael Harcourt, Jack Kowarsky and George Pedersen were presented with honorary degrees at the June convocation.

SFU economics professor Larry Boland was guest speaker at the June 5 ceremony. Here are excerpts from their addresses. The complete text can be found on the web at
convocation addresses.

John Alleyne
Larry Boland
John Dixon
Mike Harcourt
Jack Kowarsky
George Pedersen

John Alleyne
As I stand here in this strange hat and flowing gown, in front of what looks very much like an audience, I'm asking myself how I managed to end up here? This was never in any plan I'd outlined for myself.

I am, like many Canadians, part of a minority and the child of immigrants. I believed that I had to work harder to overcome what I saw as obstacles if I wanted to be the success they dreamed of.

Fortunately I had a music teacher in elementary school who saw something special in me and encouraged me to study classical ballet at the National Ballet school in Toronto. After graduating in 1978, I accepted my first job with Stuttgard ballet where my plan was to become a world-renowned dancer. I believed that through the beauty of dancing, I could transform people's lives through art.

I realized later that my strength was in working with other artists and that through choreography and finding a distinct voice, I could showcase and encourage those artists by using their performing skills to communicate my ideas.

The other thing that became clear to me was that to make art - and I mean all forms of art - one has to have a vision and a very strong focus. Art had to become the very centre of my life. Obviously this was not a safe career choice.

The world we live in today puts a dollar value on pretty much everything. In fact, as a culture we often feel uneasy and skeptical about anything that doesn't represent money in the bank. But art isn't just about the bottom line. It's about feeding our spiritual and emotional needs. full text

Larry Boland
I can honestly say that almost my entire education has been obtained here at SFU's faculty of arts - moreover, most of my education I owe entirely to the students in my classes.

After receiving the invitation to speak here, the first thing I did was ask the students in my fourth-year seminar what they thought I should say. The first to respond said I should be honest. Obviously, this would not be difficult to do since one of the things that characterizes education at SFU is that it is an honest endeavor.

Another student suggested that I invite you, the graduating students, to sit back and look at what you have done - not so much in the sense of surveying the mountain of tiny bits of detailed information that you have obtained, but in the contemplative sense of a big-picture perspective.

Of course, this student's suggestion made me think that I should consider my education at SFU. But before I did this, I consulted with some of my former students who graduated many years ago. To quote one of them: “If there is one thing that a university grad should develop at the completion of (his or her) program, it is that they have learned how to learn.”

So, if my former students are correct, your education - rather than just finishing with your graduation today as you may have hoped - is now just beginning. And I would like to take this opportunity to suggest how you can make this a more fruitful enterprise.

The first thing you should accept is the old Socratic notion that almost all significant learning begins either with criticism or with the discovery of one's errors. The more open you are to criticism, the more you will be able to learn. Fortunately for you, whether you were aware or not, criticism and critical learning were instrumental in almost all of your courses in the faculty of arts.
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John Dixon
I‘m going to retell a story that apparently embarrassed even the original teller - Socrates - who was not, by all accounts, a person easily put out of countenance.

It is recounted in Plato's Republic, and is, I believe, the greatest of all convocation addresses in our tradition, rivalled only by Shakespeare's great poetic stream of advice to the young Laertes.

Socrates' convocation address is not offered up as an encapsulation of common sense, but as a myth - one of those false stories that give dramatic point to a great truth. Socrates' intention is that this whopper will be told to young people whose education has been completed, and who are about to launch themselves into their life work.

It is a yarn about a double birth. Socrates said that young adults should be told that their childhood and youth were really but a partial or dream existence, and when they thought they were being schooled, they were really being formed deep within the earth. Their educational preparation concluded, they were finally called forth to the surface - prepared, graduated, awakened - as “brothers and sisters of the self-same earth.”

The word educate comes from the Latin for leading out, and Socrates' notion of education was that our community leads us out of mere creatureliness into the self-possession of our truly human nature. Calling us together - convoking us - for our shared civil life.

Now, of course, like all myths, this is obviously false. But again, like all great myths, it is revelatory of an indispensable, hidden truth. We really do have a double birth, because we have a double nature.

We are born first as creatures, and second, with all the delays and fearful stumbles that attend the anxious nights of parents down through the ages. We are born again as persons, as human creatures who have been put in possession of the powers of our culture. Humanity comes, not first, but second nature: a social gift.
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Mike Harcourt
SFU practices what I intend to preach about today - being engaged actively in community and important issues.

Given this splendid SFU tradition I'm sure you new grads will be engaged in more than just your careers, relationships and families. You will make a difference in your community, maybe even seek elected office.

To test out a pet issue of mine I'm going to mention a word. When you hear that word I want you to be aware of the thoughts and feelings you have - freeze them in your mind, O.K.? The word is politician. Now how many of you had a negative response? How many a positive response? Given that feeling why would one want to be a politician. This is very unfortunate, because if your best citizens don't want to run for public office, then who will?

My experience is that the overwhelming number of people who run for public office do so for one reason - to make a difference, to change and improve their city, province, country. I believe we have a big task ahead of us to restore the stature of elected office.

Of course, there are many other ways to be an active citizen: voting, volunteering, or joining an NGO like the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society among many other positive actions. The key is to be engaged with issues that are important to you and your values.

I conclude by saying how blessed I've been being engaged in our community.
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Jack Kowarsky
For the six years I have served on the board of governors of this esteemed institution I have had the pleasure and privilege of seeing men and women cross this stage in recognition of their many and varied accomplishments, it is indeed a privilege to now join their ranks.

I have participated in convocations many times over the years and I will tell you that each time it has struck me that there is a sort of magical element hovering over this ceremony - a quality, an energy that is the source of every important achievement in this world. It is the fuel that drives individuals to accomplish their highest aims and objectives.

What I am referring to is ambition. I am talking about a person having an aim, direction, drive and the willingness to achieve his or her goal.

The American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed, and I quote, that “without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it.”

In your hands today, you have the diplomas and the degrees that you have worked for. You have the evidence that proves you have been ambitious. You sought to achieve a particular end. You aspired to advance your intellect and you did it.

This university - which over the years I have watched grow in enrolment and prestige - has supplied you with outstanding, internationally recognized credentials that will advance you in your chosen careers.
Your diploma is a tool in your hands, and with that tool you are free to fashion the lifestyle you favour.

You must now refocus the ambition that got you this far. As a university graduate, you have a responsibility - in fact, a duty - to serve the society that has granted you a quality education.
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George Pedersen

As I look back on over 50 years in the field of education, two periods in my career stand out for me. The first was the nine-year period I worked in the elementary schools of North Vancouver and the second was the term I spent as president of this university. Both were immensely satisfying and so it will not surprise you when I say that the honour given me today by Simon Fraser University touches me more deeply than you might imagine.

Being a speaker at a university convocation is a bit like being the body at an Irish wake. They need you in order to throw the party, but they don't expect you to say very much, so I'll try to conform.

Congratulations to all of you for completing your educational odyssey in education and the sciences.

Before you start the voyage, take time now to figure out where you want to end up and what you want to be like when you get there. Then work back from your vision, and resist any barriers to it. Don't avoid taking risks - indeed, leap at them. Plan now what you want people to say you have contributed 50 years hence. Pick your field - in your cases, teaching, administration, or one of the many branches of science represented here today - and make up your mind to be a member of the team that decides its future legacies.

I will be quite partisan by suggesting that you give serious consideration to your possible future as a university professor. This is not the time to detail the Canadian situation - suffice to say we now have about 37,000 professors in this country and by the year 2011 we will need 40,000 new professors to fill the positions caused by retirements and increased enrollments. Many of you could be part of the solution.
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