Dean Gillian M. McCombs gives principal address
at SMU’s Opening Convocation 2013

Gillian M. McCombs, Dean and Director of Central University Libraries at SMU, gave the principal address at the University’s Opening Convocation on August 25, 2013. This is the text and a video of that speech.

Thank you, President Turner, for that very kind introduction.  Good evening students and family members! I am very mindful of and humbled by the honor to be standing here today at such a historic juncture in your lives. Participating in one of SMU’s most hallowed rites, you are poised in the act of turning over the leaf, peeking ahead to the next chapter.

As President Turner said, 2013 is the Year of the Library at SMU. In October, 1913, one hundred years ago, SMU’s first librarian, Miss Dorothy Amman, was hired, and the first book was accessioned – Marcus Aurelius and the Later Stoics, by F.W. Bussell. SMU was grateful to accept the personal libraries of a number of Methodist ministers with which to build the foundation of its library. When SMU’s doors opened in 1915 and the first students sat down in class, 7,000 books had been provided for their needs in a space on the second floor of Dallas Hall. Today, SMU’s nine libraries welcome you with more than 4M books, almost a million of them in electronic form, available to you 24/7. Things have very definitely expanded and changed as we embrace the digital world.

I am the 6th Director or Dean of SMU’s central university libraries, and President Turner is SMU’s 10th president. He and I have a running joke about the comparative longevity of librarians and presidents. Perhaps it has something to do with all the book trucks we push, the shelving we did in our youth or the books we still have to read. But certainly, I have a long way to go to rival the longevity of Miss Amman, who retired in 1949 after 36 years of service.

The celebration of 100 years of libraries at SMU has led me to muse over the concept of time – how fast it seems to go or how slow sometimes – how people have such different concepts of time and its value. Did you arrive at Dallas Hall just in time to get in line and march through the Rotunda, or were you there at least 15 minutes ahead of time because if you are not early you feel late?  Like fossil fuels, time is a non-renewable resource, (movies like Sliders notwithstanding), and it behooves us to use it well.

The ancient Greeks primarily used two words for time – chronos, referring to chronological or sequential time – and kairos – a less determinant timeframe during which something of note happens.  The latter is particularly used in the New Testament with kairos meaning the “appointed time in the purpose of God.”1 The importance of time, how it is defined and measured, is one of the core assumptions that create cultures the world over. The Amondawa tribe in the Amazon has no word for time, or month, or year. Time does not exist for them as a separate concept. As I mentioned earlier – whether or not you were early, just making it in time or even giving this event a pass probably reflects your view of time as either monochronic, divided into appointments and other compartments, doing one thing at a time – or polychronic – where time is measured more by what is accomplished and within which several things can be done simultaneously. If the concept of measuring time appeals to you, I suggest that you refer to a new book just published by SMU’s Professor Alexis McCrossen - Marking modern times: a history of clocks, watches, and other timekeepers in American life.

Meanwhile, today’s event clearly fits both those definitions - an event of particular note – Convocation - happening at a specific yet sequential time. This is a momentous first step into what will be, for many of you, a 4 year journey. The Greek poet Heraclitus said that you never step into the same river twice. The Irish poet Derek Mahon, in his poem Heraclitus on Rivers2, took that thought and expanded on it – and I quote

“Nobody steps into the same river twice.
The same river is never the same
Because that is the nature of water.
Similarly your changing metabolism
Means that you are no longer you.
The cells die, and the precise
Configuration of heavenly bodies
When she told you she loved you
Will not come again in this lifetime.”

Treasure every moment because it will not come back, no matter how much the movie Groundhog Day tries to persuade you that you can rewind until you get it right. You won’t get it right every time, but that is part of growing up – learning from your mistakes. You must expect to fall flat every now and again – it is good for you. Just by the nature of living in a familial structure, many of you will have been protected from what Hamlet described as the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” That is what family members do, particularly parents and grandparents. But tonight, or tomorrow, you must say goodbye and stand on your own two feet – in spite of the electronic networks - invisible umbilical cords - that still bind you together.

The University has many rites and rituals that draw a line in the sand, that create a demarcation – this is who you were and this is who you are now. As of tomorrow, you will have the right to attend classes at SMU, but with that comes the responsibility to fulfill the obligations therein.

It is very definitely your time tonight – but it is also your parents’ time. At this very moment your parents are reviewing several movies in their heads:-

  • Their own freshman memories, if they went to college
  • Their aspirations for you, their hopes and fears for this investment
  • The memory of first holding you in their arms when you were born, so tiny and fragile – and them so young and unprepared
  • Your first prom, your first date -  their mental and emotional scrapbooks of life with you
  • And quite probably the script for a new movie is also going through their heads – plans for what they are going to do with all that space and time they will now have, the slightly guilty feeling of relief that they won’t have to sleep with one ear open, waiting for the front door to close or the stairs to creak letting them know you are home safely.

It is also your grandparents’ time , as they shake their heads in amazement, wondering where the time has gone – thinking back to their own school days and how much has changed; to your parents getting married, and presenting them with you – grandchildren – who would have ever thought it – the generations continuing.

It is your sibling’s time – your younger brothers and sisters look up to you, will miss having you around, but they will get more of your parents’ attention, and probably more space, maybe a bigger bedroom, two helpings of dessert, and no line for the bathroom. It is your best friend’s time – you are probably in different colleges, wondering how each of you is doing. You may have spent all of your K-12 years with your best friend, or just your senior high school year – but be sure, your best friend is with you tonight. It is also your new roommate’s time – a time of uncertainty, fear, excitement, many of you will never have shared intimate living space with a stranger before. For others, just being with one or two other people will seem like luxury, but this is also their time as they learn to figure you out.

It is the faculty’s time – tonight and tomorrow morning they look out over a sea of fresh faces – the future – you are the future – you are why they are here. And they are anxiously wondering how they will stack up against your expectations, as well as being excited to share the secrets of their various disciplines with you, helping you grow, personally and intellectually.

But for sure, it is very definitely your time – use it well. Take risks, try new disciplines and new personas, for, as Rabbi Hillel said, “ if not now, when?” I will never forget showing up for the interview at my eventual college choice – the University of Warwick – a brand new University, one of the 7 universities built in the United Kingdom in the ‘60s, and dubbed ‘plate glass’ to differentiate them from the Victorian red-brick universities. I quickly realized that my formal outfit, so carefully chosen by my mother – Jackie ‘O’ pillbox hat, twinset and pearls – straight out of the TV show Mad Men – was going to have to be ditched. Hello mini skirt and black leather boots – goodbye pearls, hat and gloves! We had no traditions, we had to create our own. Everything was a first which was both exhilarating and scary at the same time. But explorations produce new answers to life’s challenges and allow you to discover the state of flow, or the “psychology of optimal experience”3 as Mihali Csikszentmihalyi calls it.

Take in a concert at Meadows, an exhibit at the Museum, a Gilbert lecture in Dedman College, wellness classes in Simmons, explore your spirituality at Perkins School of Theology. Today the expectation is that people will have several careers or job families in their lifetimes. The old rules do not hold! Students are crowdsourcing and using gamification to help national experts solve scientific problems online, such as mapping the structure of retroviral proteases (protiases).  A 16 year old Pakistani girl – Malala Yousafzai – survived her shooting by the Taliban and addressed the United Nations-Youth Assembly saying, and I quote, “Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.”4 You are privileged to be here today, and we are privileged to be able to spend the next few years with you on this journey.

Meanwhile, at the risk of seeming self-serving, here is some library-related advice to help you get through this year:

  • you need to get to know the libraries and the library staff because, it might surprise you to know, not everything has been digitized and is available on Google or YouTube
  • and you need to do this before you have that 10 page research paper due. It is much better to have your go-to librarian already on your speed dial or BFF list.
  • working in the library is the best student job on campus – one reason being that we have the best home baked treats on campus and the best holiday party! Plus we really like to have fun at our jobs – you might even get to hold a document or artifact that is 500 years old, such as a letter from Christopher Columbus. And you will be right there when all those new DVDs come in.
  • get to know the library space – find your own special nook. Trustee Fred Leach, who graduated in 1983, recently showed me the place he used to study in the former Science and Engineering Library. Everyone has their own criteria for their most comfortable or isolated study spot. Club Fondy – the informal name for students who congregate in Fondren Library at 3am every morning – has a life of its own. And I can guarantee that there will be times when you will want and need to escape your dorm room.
  • and talking of Fondren Library, you will be here while it undergoes renovation. We have big changes planned and we ask ahead of time for your patience. If you are interested in being part of the planning or joining the Student Advisory Council, send me an email. We want your input in our planning process.


So what is my theme? My message? That this is your time – treasure it, value it and make the most of it. SMU is a caring environment; we are your family away from home, in loco parentis. But is also everyone else’s time, so be kind and understanding – to each other, to your families, to your professors, to your classmates, and above all to yourselves.  

In the words of one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century - T.S. Eliot –

“Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”*

I am so happy to have been able to officially welcome you to the beginning of your first year at SMU - in 2013, the year of the library.  Thank you!

*T.S. Eliot, The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock


  1. Wikipedia (accessed 7/3/2013.)
  2. Derek Mahon, Collected Poems (The Gallery Press, 1999.)
  3. Mihali Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: the psychology of optimal experience (Harper & Row, 1990.)
  4. Dallas Morning News, July 13, 2013.