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Chronicle Messages

How Can a College Remain True to Itself?
Fall 2001
PDF Version

The ultimate philosophical challenge is to "know thyself." That is what Socrates insisted to the Athenians and ultimately got him into a great deal of trouble. Knowing oneself takes a great deal of effort and sometimes appears to invite conflict with one's family and fellow citizens.

Confronting one's identity in the contemporary world is no easier now than it was 2,500 years ago. Knowing oneself is difficult in large part because societies, like families, are based upon shared interests and cooperation. In any community there are myriad encouragements to go along with the will of the group.

Identity, on the other hand, distinguishes us from others and sometimes even smacks of rebellion. In families, such challenges often occur during children's teenage years. Teenage rebellion naturally comes at a period in which young people are testing their own limits and trying to discover who they are in contrast to those around them. In ancient Athens, Socrates was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death for corrupting the youth - or teenagers - of Athens. Socrates never corrupted anyone beyond challenging young and old alike to question common assumptions as well as to confront the central conundrum of "who am I?"

Colleges, like any group of people, can grow, inevitably mature, settle down, and lose the impulse to ask unsettling questions about identity and purpose. An extreme of this process is becoming mired in the status quo, the very opposite of the spirit of education. That is why colleges must confront the Socratic as well as the teenage challenge and constantly ask the possibly unsettling questions of "who are we and what are we attempting to accomplish?" And it is at this point that the question of identity becomes paradoxically complex: remaining true to oneself is not the same as continuing to do things exactly as they have been done in the past.

For instance, our children can never simply duplicate us. They are not clones nor mere replications. The youth of Athens would never have been able to recreate in lock-step fashion the world of their elders. Indeed, no society is ever well served by attempts of one generation to recreate an earlier one in the way Colonial Williamsburg recreates 18th-century life. The complicated truth for institutions and societies alike is that being true to one's identity inevitably means growth and change.

At Berry College that means, on the most obvious level, that our curriculum, educational programs, rules and regulations are quite different now than in 1902 or 1942. I assume that one of the reasons we had four presidents during the dozen years after Martha Berry's death is that we had not yet accepted the paradox that remaining true to one's identity is a dynamic process. Our educational mission cannot depend upon repeating daily or weekly schedules of 60 years ago. Nor does this mission depend upon the types of jobs our students do, nor even upon the required or voluntary nature of some of our programs. Work, like chapel attendance, was required for much of our history. Now, the work opportunity program and church attendance are optional, although both enjoy an 80 percent voluntary participation rate. The challenge is to remain true to one's mission and purpose while responding to change and flux in the world.

The Berry mission is to provide young people an education of the head, the heart and the hands. Our institutional motto is "not to be ministered unto, but to minister." This education consists of intellectual growth, moral development and opportunities for spiritual growth, and lessons gained from worthwhile work done well. The ultimate purpose of all of these activities is serving others. What we actually do day by day will change over the years. What we are attempting to accomplish in the long run, however, is unchanging and will endure. Berry has a strong identity, and I cannot think of another college that integrates and balances head, heart, hands and service in the ways we do.

Occasionally, a student who disapproves of something that is taking place on campus will argue that "Berry is attempting to become the Harvard of the South. We should remain who we are and what we always have been!" The truth is that no one here wants to copy Harvard or any other college or university.

We do compare ourselves to others, however. Berry, like most other colleges and universities, maintains a list of peer and aspirant institutions (those of similar as well as wider reputation) in order to compare tuition charges, graduation rates, alumni participation in annual giving and other data. Such comparisons help us see how we stack up to the competition. Our list of comparative schools includes Centre, Davidson, Eckerd, Furman, Guilford, Millsaps, Rhodes, Sewanee, Wofford and 11 others.

Six months ago, a team of Berry educational leaders and a college trustee spent several days on visits to Davidson, Furman and Stetson to meet with our counterparts and to compare notes on higher education. On the trip home, all we could talk about was how to carry out our own institutional mission with greater skill and success than before. We were enlightened and instructed by the good examples we encountered, but not for a moment did we want to duplicate the programs and missions of these other fine colleges and universities. When our trustees met recently for a two-day planning retreat, their discussion was aimed at doing better what we uniquely do. And the truth is that any college attempting to copy another is heading for disappointment if not disaster.

"Know thyself" is an injunction that embraces change. It is a philosophical challenge that immerses us in the tidal flow of the sea of life. Knowing oneself is a source of stability and continuity even as it demands risk taking and adaptation to new circumstances. Sitting tight is not the way to protect one's mission. I often cite the Biblical parable of the talents because of the principle of investment and growth that the story contains. The poor steward hunkered down and let time pass him by. The good stewards took risks and made their talents grow. Their example, along with the Socratic injunction, should guide us as we head into the future.

Dr. Scott Colley
Berry College President

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