Opening Convocation speech for 2017 given by SMU President R. Gerald Turner

World Changers Shaped Here.

Following is a transcript of SMU President R. Gerald Turner's speech as prepared for Opening Convocation on Aug. 20, 2017, in McFarlin Auditorium.

So far, in your short time at SMU, you have passed several milestones: AARO, Move-In Day, Corral, and now Convocation. Of course, the last and most important one will occur tomorrow when you truly begin your path toward a college degree. For our first-year students, the four years will go very quickly. So make the most of the time. By the way, your parents expect you to graduate in that four-year timeframe! If you already have other plans to expand it, I can’t advise you whether to start breaking this possibility to them now, or surprise them near the end of the four years. You’ll have to be on your own with that discussion. Those of you who are transfers will have varying periods of time here, but your years here, too, will go much faster than you might wish they had. For all of you, it is a great time in your life, and we are delighted that you will be living it at SMU.

I also look forward to greeting you in one of the dining commons. At least once a month, I will join SMU’s Vice President for Student Affairs, Dr. K.C. Mmeje, and walk around the dining area and eat lunch at a table with students. We get to know some of the students, and as best I can tell, it also helps the spiritual development of some students, since I occasionally hear, as I am approaching, a hushed voice say, “Oh God, I hope he doesn’t sit by us!” But, if I do, you will survive!

We have recently completed celebrating the Centennial of our founding in 2011 and our opening in 2015. As you joyfully begin your college career in 2017, the first-year class of 1917 gathered four months after the United States officially entered World War I and a draft for military service was implemented. As you would expect, many students were either drafted or enlisted. Unfortunately, there were 11 SMU students who left campus and never returned, perishing in service to our country. There is a memorial to them (donated by the senior class of 1924) that you may have not yet noticed, at the southeast corner of Hillcrest Avenue and University Boulevard just west of Perkins Administration Building, which is directly north of our current location in McFarlin Auditorium. You will often see small American flags placed around it by a neighbor who has taken an interest in making sure that the sacrifice of those students is properly honored.

When SMU opened in 1915 the population of Dallas was approximately 125,000. Now, the Dallas Metroplex region is over seven million. The University was founded by the mutual support of what is now The United Methodist Church and the business and civic leaders of Dallas. Most of the students at that time were from Texas, really the surrounding area of Dallas. Today, the total student body is shaped to consist of approximately 50% of students from out of state and 50% from Texas. I should add that the 50% of us who are native Texans hope that some of you from out of state will soon lose your very noticeable accents.

During your time on campus, you will be able to avail yourself of incredible learning opportunities that can change your life. Dallas employers and those outside Texas expect SMU students, based upon your predecessors, to be well-educated, to know how to interact with other people, and to have had internships and other kinds of out-of-classroom learning opportunities that are unique to living in a dynamic city like Dallas.

These expectations are consistent with our branding statement, “World Changers Shaped Here,” which I know you have seen on practically all of our printed materials. Every theme and word in that statement was carefully debated and chosen from a list of alternatives. Ultimately, the most discussed was the word “Shaped.” Although the faculty overseeing the academic curriculum you will follow will provide the major part of the “shaping” that occurs, it also results from: your own personality, the friends you make, your experiences from residing in a Commons, the practical knowledge gained from your internships within the City of Dallas, and the intellectual stimulation and impact of the many renowned scholars and world leaders that you will be able to hear and with whom you can interact with during your time on campus. As a result, much “Shaping” is a by-product of the living-learning environment we create together at SMU.

As a part of this shaping process, during your time here, there are several very fundamental skills that we hope you will develop or augment that are important beyond those within your academic major. Like most fundamental skills, they may go unappreciated and often stay under the radar, but yet they will dramatically affect your success and your ability to be a world changer either on a small stage or on a very large one.

  1. Communication Skills. One of the great, but unrecognized, glass ceilings that some people place on themselves is their limitation in communication skills. The most common complaint that I hear from employers about college graduates is that they do not have adequate writing or composition skills. If you can write, speak, and compute well and accurately, you have such an advantage over those who do not. I can tell you that during my career, I have had to turn down applicants for high-level administrative positions because of their limited communication skills, particularly in writing. If you don’t write or compose well, if you can’t write a logical argument, it will haunt you throughout your career.

    One of the great blessings of my college experience was that I had several professors who took the time to ink up my papers. As you can imagine, I was frustrated with it at the time, but their efforts have blessed my life. If you need to improve, and faculty will let you know, so don’t ignore it. Seek help at the Altshuler Learning Enhancement Center. Learn from the red ink! Red ink is your long-term friend, as long as you see less and less of it over the semester.

    So, take your Discernment and Discourse classes seriously, and take classes in history, philosophy, political science, English, religious studies, and other areas where you have to express your ideas verbally and in writing.

  2. Ethical Skills. The second foundational area of knowledge that I would urge you to enhance while you are here is your ability to recognize ethical conflicts and to be able to discuss and act on the “should,” the “ought,” or the “right” of life. The lack of a moral compass undermines the quality of life for many people and certainly lowers the trust factor that people feel for them. You want to be able to trust your friends and future spouse. In turn, they, your family, your faculty, and your future employer will want to be able to trust you. Any person who eventually reports to you will want to trust you as a person of integrity. Part of the “shaping” anticipated in our branding of “World Changers Shaped Here” is that our students will strengthen their skills to be compassionate, ethical people of integrity.

    The news is replete with successful people who have taken a great fall due to their not recognizing ethical issues, or simply ignoring them. When students leave a particular college with a suspension or dismissal for cheating on a test or plagiarizing a report, they operate under a cloud and find a much reduced list of options for completing their degree. We have an ethical component in our University Curriculum, and I urge you to delve deeply into the questions that are raised. These are some of humanity’s most interesting and challenging issues. Questions regarding the “why’s” of life are often more interesting than the “what’s.”

  3. Cultural Intelligence Skills. All of us have been both shocked and appalled by the recent events at the University of Virginia and in the city of Charlottesville that resulted in violence and the loss of life. The invasion of alt-right groups expressing hatred, racist and anti-Semitic sentiments was outrageous. Such hatred and violence are diametrically opposed to the values of our University and any university that promotes openness, respect for others, and the discussion and debate of ideas in an atmosphere of civility. Should such a curse arrive at the door of our campus, we will have to deal with it, but the most effective long-term approach to confronting such a hateful and destructive movement is to strengthen our sense of community; to get to know more clearly those around us who make up our world. It is much easier to objectify and dehumanize those different from us if we are totally unfamiliar with them as fellow human beings. This lack of cultural intelligence limits our growth individually and will certainly hinder our success in a world based not on any identity markers, but upon ability, preparedness, talent, and skills.

    Therefore, the third skill that we hope you will develop involves cultural intelligence. A defining characteristic of graduates of SMU should be their ability to interact successfully with people of all backgrounds. SMU graduates are already known for their social skills; therefore, if we can expand those skills to include the ability to work respectfully and authentically with people of all races; nationalities; political ideologies; socio-economic backgrounds; and religions, you, as an SMU graduate, will leave with a crucial value added skill that will distinguish both your professional and personal life long after leave the Hilltop.

    We are calling that critical value added cultural intelligence, which is defined as having the skills to function and manage effectively in culturally diverse settings. It means gaining the information that will help you create and collaborate with people: whether they are from Dubai or Detroit or Des Moines. The Class of 2021 is composed of 26% of students of color among First Years, and 41% among our 290 transfers, and our campus has students representing 90 different countries. When you consider this alongside the geographical distinctions between our students who are from the kudzu covered hills of Atlanta; sprawling beaches of La Jolla or the Eastern Shore of Maryland, all of these cultural differences offer us a fertile field for gaining and increasing our cultural intelligence.

    Our goal is simple: since all Mustangs are valued, we must be able to learn, live, and work with one another respectfully, with civility, while making every effort to bridge the gaps of understanding between us so that we can be about the business of business, or one of the professions, or simply changing the world.

    This fall we are launching CIQ@SMU, under the leadership of Dr. Maria Dixon Hall. CIQ@SMU is the informational and programmatic core that will make Cultural Intelligence a practical part of living and learning on the Hilltop, whether in the classroom, in the sorority or fraternity house, residential hall, or on athletic field. It will become a differentiating standard of what it means to truly be a member of the Mustang family.

  4. Skills in Maintaining Civility and Freedom of Speech. Because all Mustangs are valued, we should be able to discuss, debate, agree, and disagree with each other within the context of civil discourse. In a world that can often be contentious and where there are polar opposite views on practically every economic and political issue, the University has always been a site where differences of opinion could be presented and debated. Not all opinions are of equal validity, but after civil discourse and debate, the values of ideas usually rise or fall to their appropriate level over time.

    Freedom of speech has always been recognized as an absolute cornerstone of a democratic society. Because of this fundamental role, any restrictions have always followed intensive review by the Supreme Court in the United States or its equivalent in other democracies. The ability to articulate and defend one’s ideas while recognizing and respecting other points of view is an important component of shaping world leaders here. During these intense times of differences of opinion in our country, our University community has been able to discuss and debate these differences in the kind of unique environment that a university is charged to provide. A great example this was the resolution regarding large political/social displays on campus. I urge the Class of 2021 to join your predecessors in preserving these opportunities for yourself and classes that will follow you.

  5. Relational Skills. More than any time in our country’s history, you need to establish carefully the guidelines for romantic and sexual relationships that reflect your own religious and moral values informed by the evolving legal standards of sexual relationships. This evolution is somewhat the fallout of the sexual revolution occurring during the 1960’s and 1970’s. (Yes, students, the generation of your Granddad and Nana were the hip dudes and chicks of that era.) The last few years have seen a continuing list of state and federal laws trying to address campus and judicial issues surrounding sexual misconduct and assault. At a time in which some people would like to reduce sexual experience to just another skill-based activity, it has become increasingly clear that for many, the emotional and physical cost of such a cavalier approach is high and that sexual assault and sexual exploitation occur much more often than has heretofore been acknowledged.

In 1915 when SMU opened the women’s and men’s dorms, picture the dorms then as separated not only by distance but also by electrically-charged barbed wire, with a deep moat surrounding the Women’s Dorm, teeming with alligators. But the pendulum of social mores has swung back forcefully from this extreme to what is often the other extreme. A frivolous attitude regarding 1) consent for sexual relations; 2) an unwillingness to recognize the legal impossibility of an intoxicated person (at a .08 level or greater) giving consent; plus 3) disinterest in the rights and health of others, can get you into situations with outcomes that will follow you for many years to come, as you complete college somewhere other than at SMU. Become skillful at taking personal responsibility for your own actions, and develop friends who will accept mutual responsibility for themselves and you, and for the safety of others. These approaches are critical for healthy relationships in densely populated areas like college campuses.

Therefore, be wise. Expand your world view. Accept that all Mustangs are valued so that you will treat each other with the respect each of you is due.


As we approach the start of the semester tomorrow, I have absolutely no concern about whether or not you will get a state-of-the-art education in whatever major you follow at SMU. You will. It is obviously the responsibility of the faculty and administration to make sure that is true, but I know you will find that it is. While you are both doing well and enjoying your time here, I urge you again to make sure that you also avail yourself of the opportunities to strengthen any weakness or misunderstanding you have in these five fundamental skills of: 1) communication, 2) ethical decision making, 3) cultural intelligence, 4) maintenance of civility and freedom of speech, and 5) responsible relationships. After you leave SMU, you won’t have as much time to work on these skills as you do now. If SMU graduates continue to exhibit these fundamental skills as well as strong academic preparation in specific areas of expertise, SMU will have another great century. World Changers will continue to be shaped here.

It is a great time to be at SMU and in Dallas. We look forward to beginning officially your quest with you tomorrow morning. So, set your alarm to ring loudly so that you will be ready on your first day of class to Pony Up!!

Welcome to the SMU community.