What being a Scholar is all about.

This morning I met with a number of our alumni in Philly. (Thank you to Ryan Newman and Goldman Sachs!) I shared with them our vision of what being a Schreyer Scholar means. It is not just about academic excellence it is also about the character of the individual and the community. So, without further ado, let me share my talk with you.

The podcast/audio version is now available here.

16 November 2006
Philadelphia, PA

Honors education at most universities is focused upon providing smaller classes and research opportunities for the best and brightest students. This is an important part of ensuring that our students have every opportunity to excel and the Schreyer Honors College offers this to our students. This past year we had over 300 honors courses, more than any other university, and our scholars have participated in research in every aspect of the university, including at the medical school in Hershey and in labs and libraries across the United States and the world. But I believe that honors education should include more than just the curriculum and that is why I was drawn to the Schreyer Honors College and Penn State.

The mission of the Schreyer Honors College is to promote:
• Achieving academic excellence with integrity
• Building a global perspective, and
• Creating opportunities for leadership and civic engagement

Our Vision is similar:
• To educate men and women who will have an important and ethical influence in the world, affecting academic, professional, civic, social, and business outcomes.
• To improve educational practice and to be recognized as a leading force in honors education nationwide.

These are not hollow words; they are the vision of Mr. Schreyer, Dr. Spanier, Dean Achterberg and many others who recognize that the future of our world is forged in our universities and that honors education should be about developing the character of our students.

Education, at every level, forms, informs, and transforms who we are and what we will become. This is especially true through the first two decades of life. In elementary school we are just beginning to see the world outside of our family and home, to realize that there are people of different colors, religions, and who have toys nicer than our own. In middle and senior high school we begin to realize that boys and girls are different, that there are real consequences for the things we do and say, and that someday we will have to decide who we are going to become and what we are going to do with our lives. And in college that decision arrives.

Students are immediately confronted with an overwhelming amount of choices, but all too often the culture of college places the emphasis on what they are going to do rather than on who they are going to become. In the community of the Schreyer Honors College we want our students to ask themselves the difficult questions about their own identity. Will I be a person who is committed to following my own interests and meeting my own needs or will I consider what will benefit others most? And how will I know what is in the best interests of my community and the world? Of course such questions are not nearly so easily asked and are even more difficult to answer. They certainly are not questions that we can answer for anyone but ourselves.

Yet as leaders of Penn State and the Schreyer Honors College we can help our students as they find the answers for themselves. Education is not the process of giving students answers; it is helping them to ask the right questions so that they can find the answers for themselves. Honors education then is about challenging our students and providing them with the opportunity to be the very best at whatever they do, but especially about being people of honor.

Any student, given a high enough GPA and class rank, can graduate with Highest Distinction at Penn State, win post-graduate fellowships, or land the high paying job. These are all great “honors” and to be celebrated but one need not be honorable to win them. Our Scholars are truly people of honor. When our Schreyer Scholars are asking the questions I just posed we want and expect them to seek the answers within a framework, a worldview that includes not just themselves, but the world around them. They are to examine each issue that they face with a consideration of the ethical implications, the moral ramifications involved and regard the welfare of others first. This is where honor lies, in determining what is right and doing it. The challenge, of course, is knowing what is right. Our role is to provide the community and the context within which our students can seek that answer and provide them with the tools and guidance to help them in their quest.

This is why we are beginning a new program of integrating questions of ethical concerns into the entire Schreyer Honors College experience. We are not going to offer or require a single course or event, (I took one calculus course, but other than teaching me that math is not my strong suite I remember nothing; it takes more than a course to build moral character) but instead we will create a culture within which great leaders will grow and flourish. Each year all our incoming Schreyer Scholars will participate in a three-day orientation, before any other students arrive on campus, that will involve community building events, lectures, and break-out sessions with faculty, alumni, and distinguished guests all examining the ethical implications of their fields. For example, some of those who have already expressed a desire to join us include a Distinguished Alumna who is a PA judge, a Scholar alumnus who is CEO of a major media company, and several others who are lawyers. This program will help to build a strong community of Scholars while helping them to begin to look at the world through the broad lens of moral concerns.

Throughout every year we will also have various programs and events that will incorporate this same approach. For example, our Luchinsky Lecturer this year will be Peter Klein, a Scholar alumnus and producer for 60 Minutes who will discuss how the media is covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and will also consider the ethical challenges faced by journalists. We also hope to endow a prominent lecture series and a Visiting Professorship. In all of these cases our goal is not to establish a new “center for ethics” but instead to continue in our pursuit of knowledge in all areas and disciplines, but always with an eye to possible ethical implications. The goal is to foster and nurture the best in our Scholars so that they will not just have an incredible placement rate in graduate programs or with top firms, but as they excel in their chosen fields and become leaders they will lead with grace and wisdom, always considering that which will work towards the greater good.

Many of you are familiar with Rhodes Scholars. This is a scholarship for post-graduate studies at the University of Oxford. It is distinguished not only by its exclusivity, only 32 recipients from the United States each year, but also because of the character of their scholars. According to Mr. Rhodes’ trust they are to excel in scholarship, leadership, “moral force of character,” and concern for the world’s neediest. Cecil Rhodes was concerned to produce the future leaders of this world and indeed, many have gone on to take up great leadership positions including President of the United States.

Mr. Schreyer’s vision is no less all-encompassing. In the years to come, Schreyer Scholars will become the standard of undergraduate excellence in intellect, character, moral fortitude, and leadership. Any high school student in the Pennsylvania and the United States who wants to become a leader in any field or industry will look to the Schreyer Honors College and Penn State.