Gideon started with about 30,000 people and ended up with about 300. That’s roughly the same proportions and final count as the admissions process for the new student class this year, so I thought that this Bible passage seemed particularly appropriate. Now our admissions process is slightly different than Gideon’s. I don’t believe that there is a section where we ask if you’re afraid to come to Maryville and I’m almost certain that we don’t include analysis of how you drink water. Even though the details of the process are different, like Gideon we manage to select an appropriate cohort to carry out our mission.
While our selection method is not the same, there are similarities between Gideon’s army and the experience at Maryville College. His army brought light and music, and we certainly do the same. The juxtaposition of seemingly disparate elements – can’t you imagine the looks on their faces when told to arm themselves with a lamp and a trumpet? - is one example of the liberal arts approach to problem solving. While our problems might not involve an invading army, they are daunting and important all the same. We learn to generate light and music to defeat our own Midianites, whether they be law school applications, job interviews, or even tomorrow’s difficult reading assignment. And the approach that we learn to solving problems while at Maryville College transfers well into the rest of our lives, as I’ve heard many alumni attest already.
Sometimes the light is all too literal, as in the midnight oil that is burned as you work to finish that paper or prepare for that test. And at other times the light is metaphorical, as in the literature that we read. Most important of all is the light we bring to others as we help them in difficulties and celebrate success.
In a world of I-gadgets and earbuds, music is never far off. While we don’t usually march to battle, I encourage you to show up a little early for athletic events where there is always some rousing pregame music. And you’ll know you’re at a special occasion when the sound of the bagpipe is heard, like today. Bagpipes have a long martial tradition, too, including a mention in the Bible, although not part of the story of Gideon. We are not restricted to the martial theme, though. Another tradition at Maryville College is closing special events with the Lutkin Benediction, and today is no exception. If it’s your first time hearing it, you will soon discover why it is so beloved by our entire community.
An important lesson from the story of Gideon is the value of working together. The surprise was reinforced because the entire group coordinated their efforts. During your time at Maryville College, you will sometimes be the leader and sometimes a member of the group. In either case, you will discover and benefit from this close coordination that develops.
I say that you will be a leader. How do I know? Because it’s our mission. “Maryville College prepares students for lives of citizenship and leadership.” Some of you come here with an impressive history of leadership and I encourage you to build on that foundation. Some of you come here still looking for the right opportunities and I encourage you to find them. Leaders come from all directions, even occasionally unexpected ones. The story of Gideon also illustrates this principle. Just prior to the Bible passage that we read today, Gideon says in response to the call to leadership, “Oh my Lord, wherewith shall I save Israel? behold, my family is poor in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father's house.” (Judges 6:15)
The idea of unlikely leaders is not confined to Gideon. Another youngest child who achieved leadership was David, whose career trajectory from shepherd to king is inspiring for those of us not born holding high office. Moving to the New Testament, Paul writes to the Corinthians “I came not with excellency of speech or wisdom … I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling.” (I Corinthians 2:1, 3) Not exactly a heroic picture, but one that I find reassuring when setting forth on difficult tasks while aware of my own inadequacy.
At Maryville College we have a much-celebrated example of unlikely leadership. Kin Takahashi was a student who moved here from Japan as a 17 year old in 1888. Because he adopted Christianity, his family cut him off from all resources. He stood 5’2” and weighed 123 pounds, so naturally he was the first captain of our football team. But that’s not all. He began raising money in 1894, and earned enough to organize a group of college students to make more than 300,000 bricks to lay the foundation for a building after his graduation in 1895. After graduating, he gave another year of service and raised enough money to erect the walls of the building, the first YMCA built on a college campus in the United States. Every day when you walk past Bartlett Hall, think about Kin Takahashi as an example of what you can do. And remember that the bricks are testimony not only to his leadership, but to the willingness of his fellow students to join his effort and to the contributions by multiple friends of Maryville College.
One important feature of effective leadership is recognizing when you should not be the leader. After Gideon’s successes, there were those who wanted to make him king, and he refused, knowing that success in one situation at one time did not make him the right person to lead in every situation all the time. (Judges 8:23)
The story of Gideon resonates with me because it tells of doing things differently. That approach resonates with my experience at Maryville College. Since 1946, for example, we do things differently by requiring every student to complete a senior study. That sounds difficult but in fact is an important reason for the future success our alumni enjoy.
If it’s so successful, why don’t other colleges do it? There are several reasons. First, it sounds challenging and difficult. Many students are intimidated by the idea of delving deeply into a subject and being carefully reviewed by an expert professor. Maryville College students and faculty embrace the opportunity to grow. We don’t quite say “return home if you’re fearful” but we do emphasize that such an intense and in-depth experience is not necessarily for everyone. Second, it’s expensive. I’m an economics professor, so let me introduce an economic concept. Productivity is a measure of how many outputs one gets from a given set of inputs, and increased productivity is the key to lowering costs of outputs. By choosing to emphasize not only small classes but individual interaction between students and faculty, we are choosing to emphasize a particular quality of experience rather than necessarily embracing the lowest cost path to provide a diploma. I am not opposed to finding ways to increase productivity, but we will not do so at the expense of maintaining our distinctive experience that best prepares students for uncertain times.
During my first year as president I got to know many of the groups on campus and enjoyed learning about the positive contributions they make. Unfortunately, I also became aware of groups that are less positive. At Maryville College, we currently are different from many other institutions in that there are secret societies. Those of you who are new may not yet have learned about them, while those of you that have been here are probably aware of them and might even belong to one. I challenge today’s students to do something different by choosing not to join the secret societies. First, they are illegal, largely because of concerns about hazing or other dangerous behavior that, because the groups operate outside normal procedures, cannot be regulated. Second, they are divisive, creating artificial differences among students rather than looking to create community.
Maryville College students have built this campus and made it their own. The Covenant Stone ceremony and campus recycling are just two examples of students working together to foster positive change in support of our mission. Secret societies, by their very nature, cannot help the community in such a way.
About now, I expect that members of secret societies would argue that the groups are just selective student organizations that provide community service as well as a social outlet. I am strongly in favor of selective student organizations that provide community service as well as a social outlet. For example, today’s convocation features such a group in our choir. Other familiar cases are the Bonner scholars and our athletic teams. If the group that you’re looking for doesn’t exist, then I encourage you to start a new one. Student clubs can have a significant impact in only a short time. For example, our Gay Straight Alliance, which formally organized only a couple of years ago, was recognized with the Nancy Smith Wright ’60 Unity Award last spring.
I speak these words at a time of worldwide economic uncertainty. One lesson a liberal arts education teaches is to revisit previous eras that have faced similar challenges and see what people were thinking. So here is an excerpt from the Maryville College “M” Book 1929-30, the student handbook published by the YMCA and YWCA. You can find this and other treasures in the digital archives at the library’s website.
There is a false assumption that one must confine his friendships exclusively to his own group, or gang and that he must have such a group. If one does this he is cut off from intimate contact with opposite viewpoints, which alone is able to correct his narrowmindedness. College, with its great diversity of types and opinions, offers a superb opportunity for the student to enlarge his appreciation of other people's ideas and ideals. So don't be a "Sigma Delta Type" or "Our Gang Type" or any "Type" — be human and an individual. Make friends among students of several races, classes, and groups.
As that passage illustrates, we at Maryville College have a proud tradition of being able to discuss the most sensitive topics in a respectful and caring way, certainly an important difference in today’s world. To give just one example, our campus minister engaged in a project last year in which she interviewed students who identified themselves as atheists or agnostics about their experience here. As a college with an ongoing commitment to faith and learning, a lively relationship to the Presbyterian Church (USA), and with a president who’s been known to quote Bible verses, this could be an awkward fit. She found quite the opposite in fact, summarizing her results as showing that students who were atheist or agnostic had developed a greater respect for Christians as the result of their experience here. Here’s what the handbook said in 1929, “If we suffer tension in our religious thinking in college days it means that we are growing and are thinking deeply. The danger is that we will stop thinking too soon, under the impression that we have arrived at the end. Don't make that great mistake — keep thinking. College should mean transition; it should not mean collapse.”
Today we enjoyed the traditional sight of our seniors processing to start their final year as students at Maryville College. At commencement, you will hear me charge the graduates to “be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” (Romans 12:2) Don’t wait until it’s time to graduate to start.
The final way that we do things differently that I wish to feature relates to communication. In Judges chapter 12, we read about the battle between the Gileadites and the Ephraimites. The Gileadites won, and some of the Ephraimites tried to save their lives by pretending to be Gileadites. Picking up the action in verse 6, The Gileadites would demand that the presumptive Ephraimite “Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right.” That’s the backdrop for the word shibboleth, and we have a few here.
We will sing the Alma Mater in a moment. In the chorus the word e-n-s-i-g-n appears. I was familiar with the pronunciation “en-sun” because of the military rank. It turns out that the usage here for a banner or emblem is often pronounced “en-sine” and so it is in the Alma Mater.
The other shibboleth is also related to the Alma Mater. An important decision that every person here faces is how to pronounce “M-a-r-y-v-i-l-l-e.” I am on record as typically being a 2 syllable person, although the natives tell me I’ll never pronounce it correctly. However, a Board member and alumnus pointed out to me that the word is 3 syllables in the Alma Mater, which he found to be pretty definitive. As this is a topic that stirs strong emotions – although not as strong as the Ephraimites and Gileadites I hope – I’ll leave the choice up to you.
This is an exciting year at Maryville College. We are engaged in strategic planning, charting a direction for us in the coming decade and beyond. The name of the strategic plan is “Renewing Our Strength: Maryville College’s Bicentennial and Beyond.” The title alludes to the wonderful verse from Isaiah (40:31), “they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” It also alludes to the fact that we are not inventing Maryville College in a vacuum, but rather building on historic strengths left to us as a legacy by dedicated people over almost 200 years. The challenge for us is to build a foundation for the next 200 years.
Much of our work can be summarized in two questions: “Who are we? Why do we matter?” As we address those questions, we will also have the chance to explore more deeply in some areas of special promise for Maryville College, namely Student Success, Curricular Innovation, Environmental Stewardship, and Partnerships. These are all areas where we can continue to find ways to do things differently so that our small but focused group can bring light and music to vanquish the problems that threaten the world.
May God bless us all throughout this academic year.
Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state‘s third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for its academic rigor and its focus on the liberal arts, Maryville is where students come to stretch their minds, stretch themselves and learn how to make a difference in the world. Total enrollment for the fall 2013 semester was 1,168.