Convocation Addresses

Jun 27, 2002, vol. 24, no. 5

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Members of the graduating class recently had the pleasure of hearing from three faculty members widely recognized for their teaching and research. History professor and Middle East expert, William Cleveland, business professor and ethicist, Mark Wexler and physics professor and member of the Royal Society of Canada Michael Wortis each spoke at one of the spring convocation ceremonies in early June. Here are excerpts from their speeches. The full text can be found on the web at convocation speeches.

Mark Wexler

"Character and ethics are more in demand today."

The business world will present ample suggestions that there are shortcuts, get rich-quick schemes and easy ways to success. Be wary.

These calls to quick fixes and schemes bring more promise than they can deliver. To persist as a winner, as you are today, you must work hard to build a reputation for integrity, a sense of competence and a professional attitude to your work. It is in this sense and only in this sense that you will start and end your business career as a winner.

My thinking is rooted in my most recent work on career ending moves, or CEMs. In a forthcoming publication, I have replicated and updated some of the conjectures of Rushforth Kidder in his entirely readable book, How Good People Make Tough Choices. Kidder notes that in the 1970s, in a study of executives who left their jobs from middle and large-size firms - 78 per cent gave a lack of competence as an explanation; 14 per cent gave redundancy or substitution by technology or outsourcing and 8 per cent gave ethics or character issues as the reason for losing their executive positions.

In 2001, I gathered 386 reports from individuals who had been fired or let go. The data from these executives, in a sample roughly equivalent to the group reported by Kidder, but fast forwarded 30 years, turns the original responses on their heads. In 2001, 58 per cent lost their jobs due to ethics or perceived character lapses; 30 per cent to redundancy or substitution by technology or outsourcing and 12 per cent to perceived incompetence.

Character and ethics are demanded on the job more today than they were in 1971.

Michael Wortis

"My theme is the positive value of being confused."

Most of you came here with the hope that you would know more at the end of your stay than you did at the beginning. While that may have turned out, if your education has been at all effective, you will also have a far better sense than you did previously of how very little we all know in the larger scheme of things.

My theme, then, is the positive value of being confused. I contend that it is a distinguishing mark of an educated person — both in science and in education — that she or he will spend significant periods in a state of confusion.

It is my thesis that confusion - not all confusion but what I call creative confusion - is an important and valuable state of mind, that it is a key stage in addressing any complex issue. And, all important issues are complex.

Now, a confusion and a muddle are NOT the same thing. What I mean is a state of mind in which one has confronted a set of facts or experiences - realities, if you will - which, while individually precise, do not yet fit together. It is the period when you are trying to get your head around something complex whose parts may appear disparate, incoherent, and even incompatible.

Now, I know even less about education than I do about science - although I should know a little after teaching for more than 30 years - but I am confident that there are many parallels. As we all know, education has relatively little to do with learning specific facts or specific techniques. It has much more to do with learning how to think.

Tolerating a degree of confusion along the way and having the patience to work through it towards clarity. These abilities are what you will need to keep improving this democratic society which we call Canada.

William Cleveland

"We are fortunate to live in our civil society."

As the so-called peace process between Palestinians and Israelis has deteriorated into the morass of mutual atrocity that dominates the media, I have tried to follow its effects on university life.

Israeli universities, while functioning normally, are becoming increasingly divided and the right of free speech, especially as it involves criticism of government policies in the occupied territories, can no longer be taken for granted. An uncivil stridency prevails that must surely have a negative effect on the learning environment.

Meanwhile, the five Palestinian universities in the occupied territories have suffered a much graver attack on their scholarly mission. For the past 18 months these universities have been closed about as often as they have been allowed to remain open. It is not my purpose to debate the rights and wrongs of the conflict that has had such a detrimental effect on higher education, but rather simply to point out that effect.

My main point here is to remind us of how fortunate we are for our civil society, even with all its flaws. A society that allows us to participate in this ceremony at all, and that further allows us to do so without the presence of scores of armed police patrolling the balcony or military helicopters flying overhead.

It is surely a civil society worth preserving through your participation and engagement as the enormous influence of your generation, collectively and individually, comes to bear on our national and local political and social issues.

The second issue I wish to address, you and your instructors, will, naturally, be from the perspective of an instructor. The presentation of awards for excellence in teaching and the accolades that accompany them are, I think, often too much of a one-sided process. It is assumed, doubtless correctly, that the teacher is well-prepared, motivational, and perhaps innovative in approach. But what is overlooked in all this is the two-way street that contributes to effective pedagogy. Good teaching is made possible by good students.

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