Opening Convocation

President Nayef H. Samhat
September 5, 2013

Giving one’s first convocation address is a daunting task and there are many, many themes that I might put forward.

Last week I suggested to my new colleagues a vision of Wofford as a place that mirrors the complexity of the world in which we live along all dimensions. I charged our community with the responsibility to provide the skills and knowledge for students to recognize and embrace the opportunities and challenges of the coming generation. I asserted that our community must embrace the diversity of the world around us – whether we speak of faith, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, geography, socio-economic status – society is an ever more complex quilt, and we do a disservice to the students who come here to learn if we do not provide them the opportunity to learn from the diverse experiences of others. I said we must continue to foster connections between what students learn in the classroom and the application of knowledge in complex and challenging circumstances, transitioning them to productive lives and demonstrating the value of what we, as a community, do for our students. And we must raise in them a deep consciousness of our globality – our place in a complex network of economic, political, social and cultural cross-currents, where, for example, service and learning on the Northside project or somewhere in South Asia, is recognized as not only an enhancement to our community, but as part of a larger logic of humanity, shared with others at multiple points, places, and experiences around the globe.

That is the vision and responsibility I described to my new colleagues, but to you, the students, I have different storyline.

On the first day of class, I happened to run into a recent graduate, Ron Norman, whom I met during the search process and saw once more when the presidential announcement was made to the community.

We walked over to the Acorn café and chatted with Ms. Rita and then sat down. I asked him about his experience at Wofford. Ron began to describe his overseas experience as a junior when he travelled to and studied in South Africa. He was on an SIT program and had a home stay. It was during this home stay, he said, that he confronted the daily struggle of a family to survive.

The reality of the daily struggle to survive – and by survive, I mean to live on the margins of life – confronted him directly.

His story was timely, actually, because I had just read in a New York Times opinion essay – and for all of you students, here is some advice: get in the habit of not only reading the news from a variety of sources, but get into the habit of reading the editorial and opinion pages, too, from an equally wide range of sources.

The essay, “Subcontractor Servitude,” was written by Jennifer Gordon, a law professor at Fordham University. I was taken by the story she described. I will quote from her at length here for a few moments: As Professor Gordon writes, “Labor-recruitment firms brought the workers from Jamaica to the Florida Panhandle. Cleaning contractors hired them and then leased them out to scrub toilets and sweep sand from floors for vacation property companies.”

She continued: “They had borrowed to pay recruitment fees of $2,000 to $2,500, counting on promises of full-time work and good housing. But in Florida, the cleaning company packed as many as 15 people into unfurnished two-bedroom apartments, for which it collected as much as $5,000 a month.

“These guest workers offered something hiring a local worker does not: subservience. They are tied by law to the employer who sponsored their visas, which means that if they are found too ‘difficult’ for any reason — including asking that their rights be respected — the employer can effectively deport them and blacklist them from receiving future work visas.”

In Ron’s case of the South African family and in the case of these Jamaican guest workers, one can be struck easily by two common features of their existence, and by no means are these features unique to these cases: vulnerability and invisibility.

Let’s think about vulnerability for a moment. To be vulnerable is to be exposed, or potentially subject or susceptible to harm whether that is emotional or physical in nature. Of course, it comes in a myriad of forms, but for a social scientist like myself, one who studies and thinks about global order, my focus on vulnerability is directed to those who find themselves on the margins of life.

This can be captured in a few brief, though overwhelming, statistics. For example, more than 1.2 billion people lack access to clean drinking water and sanitation; over 1.3 billion people live on less than $1.25 per day – the threshold of extreme poverty; and another 1.7 billion people live on less than $2.50 per day. That is about 40 percent of the world’s population.

There are other ways to describe vulnerability – those who lack access to adequate services whether health care, education, or simple transportation, those exposed to environmental degradation, lack shelter or suddenly find themselves unemployed without prospect of a job. And no doubt the circumstances of vulnerability as poverty vary significantly across countries and communities.

But in a real sense, poverty is poverty. And whether it is embedded by ethnic, racial and religious discrimination wherever it is found, by structural features of a given society, or, as some argue, by an entrenched culture – those who find themselves subject to this state of affairs are, in every sense of the word, vulnerable: daily life is a struggle to survive.

Yet, despite the staggering numbers, the experiences and struggles of the vulnerable are not typically in our field of vision. They are, in other words, invisible.

Whether the South African home or the Jamaican guest workers, the trials and tribulations of nearly half the world’s population are oddly out of our sight.

There are times surely when we are confronted by the reality of vulnerability – I have had the fortune of traveling in South Asia and the Middle East, where poverty and vulnerability can be intense and pervasive, and I have been through urban and rural areas of our own country where the same conditions prevail. I have to admit that often times the pervasive experience of poverty in places I have been made me highly immune to what I was seeing – it acquired a kind of routine quality as I traveled, and in that way it acquired a kind of invisibility. 

For many of us, the stark reality of vulnerability appears on the streets of our cities as the number of homeless grows. And here, the response is an increasingly common one by communities – banning, arresting or transporting homeless people to places out of sight.

But if we are here … we are not there: where the family struggles to survive on the margins, where Jamaican workers seeking opportunities find themselves in a legal jeopardy that risked their permanent exclusion from the United States, or even across Church Street on the Northside.

My point is that more often than not the experiences of the most vulnerable are the most invisible from our daily lives, and we generally prefer it that way. It is worth asking, why?

Well, it is unpleasant. We feel guilty. Perhaps helpless. Or a lack of empathy diverts us from the realities of others.

Actually, I am not sure why, to be honest. But I am struck by an argument offered by Evgeny Morozov, in his essay, “The Perils of Perfection.” Naturally I read it in an op-ed in the New York Times.

It is not about why we avoid these experiences of the vulnerable. Instead, it is an argument about the solutions we seek and our increasing faith in technology. Our celebrations of technology hold the promise of extraordinary possibilities. As Morozov argues, “Sunny, smooth, clean: with Silicon Valley at the helm, our life will become one long California highway.” We will have available a world of apps to outsource our decisions; apps to spot inconsistencies in our behavior and notify us – to correct us; we snap images and take videos so we never have to worry about forgetting; we are on the verge of creating a consistency in our lives and our experiences – a kind of perfection of lived lives.

Of particular note, however, is Morozov's recounting of futurist Ayesha Khanna's description of contact lenses that allow us to edit the homelessness from our line of vision. As he asserts: “In a way, this does solve the problem of homelessness — unless, of course, you happen to be a homeless person. In that case, Silicon Valley would hand you a pair of overpriced glasses that would make the streets feel like home.”

Technological solutions, he suggests, can increasingly define how we consider a particular problem. Recalling the argument of Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, Morozov writes that such solutions bring an ease to our existence, a constancy that often times erases the need for the reflective balancing of alternatives, the requirement of decision-making, and search for ethical principles on which to ground outcomes.

He offers a critique of the “solutionism” of Silicon Valley, its hubris in conforming all problems into solvable techno-problems, fostering what he calls a “digital humanitarianism” that “aims to generate good will on the outside and boost morale on the inside.” After all, he writes, “saving the world might be a price worth paying for destroying everyone’s privacy.”

More problematic, of course, is that the problems we face are not all solvable by social media, techno-surveys of friends and families, networks of advice givers … in fact, many if not most of our challenges require concerted effort, concentration, hard work, human ingenuity unmediated by technologies. We cannot make invisible what is visible and remain the ethical creatures we believe ourselves to be. We cannot pull from the edge of existence the multitudes simply by clicking a button or making viral a video to – and I quote Morozov – “shame Ugandan warlords into submission.”

No, the challenges are greater and more complex than that, and the opportunities before you as profound as any moment in history. I want you to think about this for a moment. I want you to come to understand the world in which you live: It is one defined by diversity and the blending of peoples of varying races, faiths, ethnicities and sexual orientations. It is defined by the intensity and density of cultural, economic, and social networks spanning the globe. The pace of interactions, knowledge and flows are unknown in human history, and therefore creating the conditions of change that challenge the presumptions and settled circumstances of eras gone by. Whether in Charlotte, Paris, Beijing or Spartanburg, the world you live today is vastly different from the world of mere decades ago, and it will be even more so mere decades from now.

And while we will continue to rely on our technologies for conveniences, we must step away from the illusion that those very technologies are solutions. You need to avoid being lulled into to a false sense of understanding your world through flat screens, text messages, twitter, and Facebook and apps.

As Ron and I finished our coffee, I asked him what was the most important lesson of his time in South Africa. His response was elegant: “After cleaning and cooking with poorly filtered water, I appreciate simple things.”

Simple things.

Would he have come to this conclusion by his daily routines? Perhaps. But it was the confrontation with a once invisible world of intense vulnerability that offered him an enduring lesson.

So, just as I described to my colleagues a vision and responsibility for our institution’s future, I am issuing to you students a charge, your responsibility at Wofford and beyond:

First, you must pursue excellence in all that you do – in the classroom and out, on the stages and studios of performance and the fields and courts of play – you must never settle for less. You will not always succeed or be the best, but you will have no regrets. 

Second, you must engage your world – challenge your senses, your emotions, your physical and intellectual limits. You must “do” and experience, find ways to help others, to enhance your community, to become aware. We are not all activists, to be sure, and the paths you take in your lives will be varied, but that should not prevent you from seeking ways to make a difference. You must remember that each moment of engagement is an opportunity to reveal what was once invisible.

This is essential because it is only by revealing layers of invisibility that you are able to discover something new about the world in which we live, gradually recognizing and coming to terms with the constellation of new challenges and opportunities to make a difference. Simply put: By your own self-transformation, you will have the capacity to re-imagine and contribute to our collective transformation. That is your responsibility.

In doing so, you will fulfill the vision of our first president, William Wightman, who pronounced as the cornerstone of Wofford College was set into place in 1851: “It is impossible to conceive of greater benefits— to the individual or to society— than those embraced in the gift of a liberal education, combining moral principle ... with the enlightened and cultivated understanding which is the product of thorough scholarship.”

You will come to realize the promise of our humanity, founded not in the instruments and ambitions of technology, but in that extraordinary and infinite source of human ingenuity, compassion and aspiration that resides in us all, and binds us to each other wherever we may be.

And you, too, will carry forward the legacy of our great college, shining, with untarnished honor: Intaminatis fulget honoribus

Thank you.