Convocation Address by Head of School Robert W. Hill III

Ed. note: Head of School Robert W. Hill III welcomed the audience to Convocation, officially opening the 176th school year, during a ceremony on the Quadrangle on September 16, 2016.

Head of School Robert W. Hill III at Convocation
Head of School Robert W. Hill III at Convocation

Good afternoon Williston and welcome to our 176th Convocation, our traditional ceremony that marks the official start and welcome to the academic year. Welcome to the Classes of 2022 to the great class of 2017.

And welcome also to Dr. Austin Sarat, whom I will say more about later, but who graciously came to our rescue when Dr. Beverly Tatum informed us yesterday of a death in her family preventing her from being here.

This morning, we recognized four outstanding teachers who were awarded Instructorships, honors which they will hold for a three-year period and which includes an annual stipend so that each can further her or his intellectual and co-curricular passions. Made possible by generous donations to the school’s permanent endowment, these Instructorships allow our teachers to be the best they can be in their craft and to model lives of learning. Here at Williston, we are surrounded by faculty who are all dedicated to areas of expertise and to passing on that love of subject to each of you. Please join me in recognizing your Williston’s outstanding faculty.

I was doing a little arithmetic the other day and the average Williston student has about 32 meetings per class, per term—so that’s around 96 meetings for each class over the entire year. If you have five classes, then that means that over the course of the whole year, you meet classes 480 times—some of you guys snapchat that many times in a single day. Outside of the Williston bubble, if you were working full time as an hourly employee, which is what most people in the real world do, then you would log 40 hour weeks for 50 weeks per year, or 2000 hours. Why the all the arithmetic? The point I’m trying to make is that you don’t really have that many hours in the classroom, and so you need to make the most of them. And for me, as I’ve said before, making the most of those hours boils down to learning critical thinking skills—to train your brain and to yearn to learn. And why do you need to hone your reasoning skills, you might wonder? That’s easy, so that you can assess, analyze, and synthesize facts and the world in a way that makes coherent sense. Put another way, living a good life depends on it.

Just before the school year began, a couple of incidents occurred that caught my attention, one you probably know about and the other maybe not so much. The first was NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for the national anthem before games as a sign of protest for the continued racial inequality that he and others face in America.

Reaction was swift, forceful, and polarized. Some voices condemned his actions as selfish and disrespectful; others called them courageous and principled. To be honest, I was unsure at first of what I thought; I found myself having an argument with myself. Colin Kaepernick forced me to think about my own biases and limitations—there’s so much I don’t know of his life, background, and journey. I found that I had to exercise what is called “intellectual humility” in order to be open to a different perspective from my own. After all, why is what Kaepernick did fundamentally different than actions taken in years past by a number of my favorite sports heroes—Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, and Hank Aaron—who all used the visibility that comes with their considerable fame to speak out against injustice.

The argument I had with myself over this latest NFL controversy led me down the road of “intellectual humility” in order to open the door to the empathy needed to walk in someone else’s shoes. We often talk about someone having the “courage of her/his conviction,” standing firm on that which they believe. Not as often do we extol the virtue of having the intellectual courage to change our minds.

The second incident that caught my attention was the letter written to all new students this fall at the University of Chicago concerning “safe spaces.” For those of you not familiar with that term, safe spaces are designated places where certain topics are off limits. As it turns out, students on college campuses across the country are doing what I believe they should be doing as undergraduates: contesting ideas and exercising their First amendment rights. So I have had a hard time understanding why there has been such an intra-generational clash. I mean I get it if old guys like me take one stance and the college kids take the other; but I’m talking about college kids shouting each other down or ardently claiming that one group’s voice has no place on such-and-such a campus.

Unfortunately, I believe that the adult world is partly to blame and has let the kids down; that is, if WE are supposed to be role models for respectful dialogue. All you need to do is turn on cable news to see how our political leaders talk about their opponents. Go to one network and you hear people yelling at you from the political left; go to another network and the screaming comes from the right. Why should it be any different for college kids?

Williston’s teachers want you to become independent thinkers capable of understanding complex arguments and defending your informed opinion. We want you to exercise your free speech rights: but part of living in community is understanding that just because you have a right to say something does not make it RIGHT to say something. The words that you choose matter—and they matter a lot. If you hold onto the ideal that is one of Williston’s pillars, of respecting others, respecting viewpoints that are different from your own because someone’s life experience is different, then Williston will be a place that celebrates the very best of living and learning together in a vigorous intellectual community. Our safe space will be everywhere.

I am thrilled to introduce to you to today’s speaker. Coming out of the Amherst College bullpen with two out and three on in the bottom of the ninth inning, Professor Austin Sarat is no stranger to Williston. We are so appreciative that he agreed to speak to us this afternoon on such short notice, but to be honest I am not surprised he said yes. In fact, when I learned the news that Dr. Tatum could not be here, three different people said to me—can you ask Austin Sarat? I confess to being a little timid when I called him yesterday afternoon—for those who know of professor Sarat—and he has former students among your teachers—he is universally acknowledged to be one of the busiest people you will know. Professor Sarat holds the William Nelson Cromwell professorship of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College where he is, without hyperbole, a legendary teacher. He spoke at Williston as a guest of our student-led political awareness committee two years ago on his then newly published book: Gruesome Spectacles, Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty. I will not give you a lengthy account of his prodigious work, but suffice it to say, Professor Sarat embodies the very idea of the tireless pursuit of life-long learning that we have been celebrating these opening days. Please join me in welcoming Professor Austin Sarat.


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