A Centennial Message: The SMU Motto

SMU President R. Gerald Turner gave the Convocation address on August 21, 2011, to the Class of 2015.

Convocation is always an exciting event for those of us who are part of the SMU community. It obviously initiates a new academic year, but with your procession through Dallas Hall, it also brings into our family another 1,400 first-year students and almost 300 undergraduate transfers. Although the professional schools and the graduate schools also welcome new members, they are greeted in programs unique to their academic areas of interest. Therefore, at this 97th Convocation, we welcome all new undergraduate students to campus and welcome back continuing students, and the faculty and staff of the University.

As you have probably learned, since April 17, 2011, we have been very much into the concept of Centennial. On that date, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of SMU and pointed with anticipation toward the Centennial of the opening of the University in the fall of 2015. You have probably been told at least one hundred times of the unique position you have in our history and in this Centennial Celebration. Although all classes who either enter the University between 2011 and 2015 or graduate during that interval are to be called Centennial Classes, there is only one group of students who have the opportunity to be the true Centennial Class and that is YOU: entering in the Fall of 2011, the Centennial of our Founding, and scheduled to graduate in 2015, the Centennial of our opening. Therefore, if you don’t graduate in 4 years (May 2015) or 4-1/2 years at the most (December 2015), you will blow the opportunity to be in this unique class of students. And besides that, your parents will NOT be happy.

SMU Beginnings

There is a twofold purpose in Convocation. First, we want to welcome new members of the community to our midst, as we have done. Second, we want to use this opportunity to introduce you to the history and values of the University as you begin what, we hope, will be a lifetime commitment and involvement with SMU. In this Centennial era, our particular focus will be on those things that have endured and have helped to define the University across these 100 years.

When beginning a new university, all of its symbols must be chosen. What will be the 1school colors? What animal, person, or force will be its 2mascot? (For example, from 1915 to 1917 our teams were called the Parsons. Miss Dorothy Amann, President Hyer’s secretary, suggested that the mascot be the “Mustangs.” In observing a workout of the football team, she said “They look like a bunch of Wild Mustangs.”) More seriously, what will be its 3academic programs? Is it to be a 4religious or secular institution? What is its 5mission statement? How is that mission captured in its 6motto? As one would expect, the founding board of trustees, the founding president (Robert S. Hyer), and the first members of the faculty had the wonderful opportunity to make these decisions.

During this Centennial era, Professor Darwin Payne is writing a comprehensive history of SMU, which should be available in 2013-14. In the meantime, there are several histories of the University covering the years up to their publication dates. The most recent is Professor Marsh Terry’s short book, From High on the Hilltop, which is still available in the SMU Bookstore and will give you the basics in an informative format. I would urge you to read it.

What you will find in Professor Terry’s book is that SMU was created in 1911 by the combined efforts of two major forces: what is now The United Methodist Church and the business community of Dallas. The Methodists wanted to create a university of national renown with strong theology and liberal arts programs, which would partner with Emory and Duke as distinguished institutions associated with the Methodist Church. The business community of Dallas, since there was no state university in the city, wanted an economic catalyst for growth in business and industry, which required strong programs in business, science, law and engineering.

SMU Motto

Given these two strong and compatible, but not identical, motivations, what would be the mission of the University and how would it be most distinctly captured in its motto? Those of you who have participated in Mustang Corral and those of you who have observed the official University seal know the answer to this question. In Latin, what is the motto of the University?... (Veritas Liberabit Vos) in English?... (The Truth Shall Make You Free). This, of course, is a quote from Jesus recorded in the Gospel of John, Chapter 8, Verse 32. It was selected by our first president, Robert Hyer, and approved by the Board of Trustees in our first year of operation: 1915-1916.

Interestingly enough, there are about 20 universities which have accepted this statement as their motto. Many are church related; quite a few are state universities; some notable such as Cal Tech. Those of you who have been on the UT Austin campus have probably seen, across the front of the main administration building, or the tower, these same words, although they are not the official motto of that state university.

This statement has been so often quoted over the centuries not only because of its source, but also because in just a few words it succinctly ties together two of the great concepts of human existence: Truth and Freedom. In fact, the statement takes the primary goal of educational pursuits (Truth) and makes it the antecedent of one of the major drives within the human heart: “Freedom.” Thomas Jefferson used the synonym “Liberty,” and called it an “unalienable right” from God in our Declaration of Independence.

Although these two forces that came together to found SMU would share some common interpretations of “The Truth Shall Make You Free,” the two forces perceived differences in emphasis on what aspects of “Truth” would be pursued and how they would be implemented within SMU. These emphases are still reflected in the defining characteristics of the University and in their influence on its graduates. And, they will have an influence on you.

Truth and Freedom - Church Perspective

Underlying this statement of “The Truth Shall Make You Free” is the recognition that the only lasting basis for life and progress is to know as accurately as possible the origins of our existence, our status in the universe, our own position and situation within it, and what rules, laws or forces influence our lives. The commitment of every university is to try to identify, or discover truth and communicate and implement it. However, in addition to truth about our physical world, concern for truth about the spiritual dimension of our existence was also meant by Jesus when He made the comment, and such a concern was certainly a focus of the founding communities of SMU. Jesus claimed that He was the true revelation of God, both in nature and purpose. To know what He was about was to know accurately what characterizes God. Accepting this assertion and the redemptive work of God through Jesus would free the believer to accept the love of God, replacing guilt and judgment.

The founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, encouraged the education of everyone. In response, the Methodist movement over the years created over 300 colleges and schools in the United States. Wesley knew that people needed to be able to read so that they would have the capacity to study their Bibles and learn of God. The belief that we are spiritual as well as physical beings, that our origins were from God, and that eventually creation would return to Him, was the “Truth” that the Church wanted to make available to students at this new university.

Truth and Freedom – Business Perspective

While members of the business community might very well share this theological/philosophical component of the freedom that comes from knowing “Spiritual Truth,” their primary interest in creating a university was more secularly based. They were more interested in the Truth that democracy would result when an educated populace was free to choose its government. Government that allowed people to decide its structure and its leaders (its social contract) was viewed as the basis for the political, social, and economic freedom that characterized our dynamic City and provided the social foundations of human success and individual fulfillment. In addition, free enterprise within capitalistic markets was the basis for most effectively energizing human creativity and providing the risk/rewards relationships they believed to have propelled the United States and other capitalistic democracies to world pre-eminence. This form of Truth is partially captured in Winston Churchill’s famous statement: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all others that have been tried.” Therefore, educational opportunities grounded in the foundations of political and economic freedom, the rule of law, the free flow of ideas and capital, and the technological developments to fuel growth and advancement were important to the business community of Dallas. And they remain so.

Therefore, around the core of liberal learning, and in addition to SMU’s original School of Theology and School of Liberal Arts there would be strong professional schools to educate future generations of students on the governmental, legal, and operational foundations of business, commerce, technology, science, and communication. These would energize and protect the freedoms that democracy and the free enterprise system provide. The basis of this truth could be “Natural Law” or encompassed within the language of “Social Contracts,” (two concepts you should study here) rather than being “endowed” by a Creator. But, regardless of the origin, the commitment to this form of truth was deep and helped to encourage people to create SMU and build its strong professional schools around its liberal arts core.

Therefore, President Hyer, the first Board of Trustees, and the first faculty recognized the “pursuit of truth” in its many facets as the ultimate value that the University could bestow on its students and/or university community. Discovering and responding to “Truth” would lead to intellectual, spiritual, political, and economic freedom. In the foundational days of the University, they encapsulated this belief in our motto: “The Truth Shall Make You Free.”


What are the implications of this piece of Centennial history to your pursuits that begin tomorrow? During your years here as a student, you will hear various approaches to truth across many areas of inquiry vigorously debated. Part of your education will be to learn to listen carefully, analyze, and to communicate effectively your own conclusions, which I can assure you will be modified during your time here, and throughout your life, as long as you are interested in continuing to grow. Not every idea is of equal merit, but respect for individuals who hold differing approaches to truth is always required of students, faculty, and staff, as we all share in this quest.

Just as our founders had different emphases in their quest for truth, so will you find the range of possible approaches toward seeking truth very alive at SMU. You’ll find Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, other religious traditions, agnostic, and atheistic faculty, staff, and students at SMU. Whereas many institutions that had religious beginnings have become totally secular, one of the things that attracted me to SMU and that I value even more today is that SMU can be as faith-based or as secular as you choose it to be. As I noted in my Inaugural address in 1995: “Universities like SMU grounded in a religious foundation and open to free inquiry can provide truly the fullest opportunity for pursuit of truth on earth.”

The quest and opportunity for spiritual growth is still possible here, and many find that as their life’s major direction. Four weeks ago, I attended the wedding of a former student body president and student trustee who came to SMU with certain secular goals in mind and left with a commitment to enter the ministry. He completed seminary and was ordained in the Episcopal Church last year.

Others of you will want your experience to be as secular as possible. That, too, is an option at SMU. Everyone has a belief system: mine contains a spiritual dimension; yours may not. You may delve deeply into secular humanism or some other approach that doesn’t include a spiritual quest. All of this is to say that SMU is a real university, and all major approaches to understanding the truth of our humanity and our universe are available to you. What exists at this University is what John Sommerville, Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions, asked the readers of his 2006 book, The Decline of the Secular University, to consider:

“I invite you to imagine universities that are incidentally secular in the sense that religion doesn’t rule, but not officially secularist in the sense that religion is ruled out: universities whose goal is not to impose a privileged viewpoint but to understand all viewpoints that are able to win a hearing.”

You will probably never have another opportunity to explore these issues as fully as you now have -- starting tomorrow morning.

So, your Centennial fact for today is that the motto of the University selected 100 years ago is “Veritas Liberabit Vos;” “The Truth Shall Make You Free.” We welcome you to this phase of your quest for that truth. We look forward to assisting in your pursuits. Welcome to the life of a university; Centennial Class: Welcome to SMU!

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